New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government will set up a so-called meta university that will allow students flexibility in designing their curriculum and pursuing subjects and combinations of their choice in an effort to make higher education more liberal and accessible to the masses.

Innovative learning: Singh says such creative reconfigurations are expected to create new minds conducive to innovation. By Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

Members of the NIC said the meta university will offer degrees and is likely to start functioning in the next academic year. The proposed university will initially begin discussions with Delhi-based institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Delhi and Indira Gandhi National Open University to allow their registered students to take courses within these institutes.

“Much of the details are still being worked out," said R. Gopalakrishnan, additional secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and a member of the NIC. “But initially we are trying to get leading Delhi-based institutions on board. The HRD (human resource development) ministry is closely working with us on this."

Existing rules prohibit students registered at one university from attending classes or courses offered at another, unless there are exchange arrangements. The meta university concept is similar to the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, a recent “virtual" university championed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). This allows CSIR, a publicly funded industrial research consultancy, to offer courses, degrees and diplomas to graduates without requiring them to register with brick-and-mortar universities.

“The aim is to enable information technology (IT) connectivity," said Samir Brahmachari, director general of CSIR and an NIC member. “Of course, not every student will be physically able to take every course at the university of his choice. But no one would be deprived of the chance to access course material of his choice."

With a huge unskilled population and a shortage of talent, this isn’t the first time that the government is experimenting with such alternative methods. On 1 November, the Union cabinet approved a 1,200 crore National Knowledge Network to electronically connect India’s 572 universities, 25,000 colleges and at least 2,000 polytechnics.

In 2009, the government had approved connecting 18,000 colleges and 419 universities. So far, however, only 11,600 colleges have got Internet connectivity—a success rate of 47%, according to government data.

With the government unable to make much progress on several higher education reforms, this announcement appears to be another grand idea that lacks a coherent road map for implementation, some experts say. The Foreign Universities Bill, the Educational Tribunal Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices Bill, the National Council for Higher Education and Research Bill and the National Academic Depository Bill are among the many reform measures awaiting the approval of Parliament. Even the Right to Education legislation is yet to be notified by a dozen states, 19 months after it came into force.

“I don’t think we are doing reform. The ultimate reform will be giving more freedom to good institutes," said Yash Pal, an eminent academician and a former Jawaharlal Nehru University chancellor. He said several so-called higher education Bills such as the Foreign Universities Bill are “not required".

If the government wants to champion multidisciplinary education, it should not have turned the IT department of Banaras Hindu University into an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), said Yash Pal, who helped prepare the national school curriculum for the Union government.

Pritam Singh, a former director of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, said the meta university and usage of technology are great ideas, but the effort should not end up creating another distance education platform. “We need to promote physical connectivity as well," he said. “We don’t have a concept of scholars-in-residence, where eminent people come and stay on campus for interactions."

“Our university system has become too bureaucratic. We have specialized in talking about great ideas but don’t implement them. Had we implemented even 5% of what we have been talking for decades, the system would have been different," said Singh, who is currently the director general of the International Management Institute, a leading private business school in Delhi.

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