For the past two decades, as India reformed and liberalized, there was little done to unshackle the education sector. Existing institutions, particularly those affiliated to the government, were subjected to neglect as demand for education surged. The private sector stepped in, but mostly with the intent of commercially exploiting the opportunity. The tenure of the National Democratic Alliance and the first term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were the sector’s darkest period.
Kapil Sibal, the minister for human resource development, has literally burst upon this dismal scene signalling a slew of potential reforms. So far, only one (but a ground breaking one) has been enacted into law—the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). It is meant to ensure that all children between six and 14 years of age receive quality education. While RTE critics argue that India does not have the resources to support the agenda, Sibal is confident of lining up all that is required, including some innovative models. The Centre just allowed public-private partnerships to flourish—letting corporations, non-profit companies and societies to establish 2,500 schools across the country. Government-sponsored students from underprivileged backgrounds are slated to fill 1,000 of the 2,500 seats in each of these schools.
Listen to Yamini Aiyar, head of the accountability initiative of the Centre for Policy Research, talks to Ruhi Tewari about the successes and failures of UPA policy over the past year.
The most far-reaching reforms are being attempted in higher education. Sibal envisions that India’s abysmal 12% gross enrolment ratio may be taken to a respectable 30% by 2020. Some 1,500 universities will be required for the task, and for its own part, the Centre is planning to start 16 Central universities, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology and seven new Indian Institutes of Management while 14 innovation universities have been proposed. And to catalyse this rapid growth and encourage well-meaning private players, he is also attempting a bold regulatory regime.
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The proposed National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) will do away with the current University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education. Reports suggest that both legal and medical higher education will be brought under NCHER, removing them from the aegis of the Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India. Complementing NCHER, there will be a National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for higher educational institutions—the associated Bill was just tabled in Parliament.
Once enacted, it will mandate institutions of higher education to obtain accreditation from an approved agency, potentially ensuring a pan-India global standard. Presently, accreditation is voluntary. As a result, fewer than one-fifth of colleges and fewer than one-third of universities apply. In addition, the ministry of human resource development is also looking at creating an Education Finance Corporation, with a corpus of Rs20,000 crore, to provide aid to projects and loans to students.
Click here to view a slideshow outlining major UPA policies
Three other Bills have already been tabled in Parliament—the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical Educational Institutions, the Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill, and the Educational Tribunals Bill.
The first plans to regulate the provision of foreign degrees in India. The second seeks to discourage the practice of charging capitation fee, or publishing of misleading information through advertisements. The final one proposes the establishment of tribunals at Central and state levels to deal with disputes between institutions and accrediting authorities, issues of affiliation, cases of malpractice, faculty service matters and management of educational institutions.
While all reforms are well-intentioned, the three Bills have a punitive strain in them that goes against the grain of academic independence. They seem to be motivated by a desire to keep out the bad, rather than usher in the good. Critics also argue that NCHER could go the UGC way, if the right people are not in charge. Is there a danger that we are bringing in more control rather than liberalization?
On the other hand, we cannot afford another five years of inaction. Not since the creation of our country have such far-reaching changes been envisaged in the education sector. If it all works out, Sibal could go down in history as having single-handedly transformed Indian education. May the force be with him!
Pramath Raj Sinha is founder and managing director of 9.9 Mediaworx and founding dean of the Indian School of Business. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org