India’s government is stubbornly holding on to its “licence raj” in higher education. Every time a suggestion for reform emerges, bureaucrats are happy to shove it under a rug.
A case in point is the government’s rejection of the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), set up in 2005 as an advisory body to the Prime Minister. The commission recommended more private investment in higher education, along with an independent regulatory authority and a better fee structure at universities. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry last week expressed reservations on the government’s decision, noting the urgent need for reform, especially in bringing private funding at the university level.
The government just can’t reconcile two opposing ideas, so it ignores the inconvenient one. It wants to expand higher education by setting up 16 more Central universities and 370 more colleges. This needs money: Rs30,600 crore has been allocated for this, but the Planning Commission has identified a Rs2.22 trillion gap in funding. The answer here is to get the private sector to supplement, if not replace, the public sector.
Yet, this advice falls on deaf ears. A review committee led by physicist Yash Pal last month criticized the government’s slow approach towards reform, emphasizing the lack of autonomy for universities and the dearth of private investment. It even suggested getting rid of the University Grants Commission (UGC), the body that controls funding, a suggestion the NKC echoes. The government downgraded the importance of this committee, making its recommendations non-binding.
Such contradiction is at display elsewhere too. The UGC now plans to begin its own system of ranking universities. The impetus: Foreign rankings, such as those published by The Times of London or Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, rarely find Indian institutes at the top because, as UGC complains, they don’t take India’s “social conditions” into account. When they don’t like the message, bureaucrats just shoot the messenger.
One of the most important ingredients to a growing economy is education. If the next government is interested in maintaining growth, it should teach itself the importance of education reform.
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