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Is coherent higher education policy a distant dream now?

By Dr Jitendra K Das
In Education
September 12, 2016
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The current IIM Bill under consideration by the government to be passed as an Act of Parliament has as its  hallmark the autonomy to IIMs for all aspects, such as, fee to charge, faculty selection, curriculum development, admissions, etc. except selection of Director and Governing Board members. It is reported that the government’s final view on this was that to meet the objectives of the IIMs this bill needs to be liberal in outlook and a must if the IIMs are to leapfrog to the next stage. After this bill is  passed, IIMs will be able to grant MBA  and  PhD degrees instead of PGDM and Fellow certificates, respectively.  This is a wonderful initiative by the government. In contrast, the nongovernment  institutions offering PGDM and Fellow certificates are regulated by AICTE which in its 2010 notification mandated that for these institutions the fees, curriculum, admissions, etc. will be decided/ approved by AICTE or a relevant government body. This notification was challenged collectively by these institutions then and is before the Honorable Supreme Court of India awaiting a final decision. Every year since then an extension of statusquo  prevailing prior to this 2010 notification of AICTE is granted by the Honorable Supreme Court of India for these non-government institutions to commence various  activities for the next academic year. It may be noted that some of the non-government institutions in India have been rated better than a few of the well known IIMs by some reputed B-school rankers. This is to be seen in the light of very different and contrasting regulatory framework governing the IIMs and the non-government institutions offering MBA/PhD equivalent programs, so far.

The first IIT in India was set up at Kharagpur in 1951 and there are now 16 IITs. The first IIM was set up at Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1961 (IIM Ahmedabad was incorporated a few days later) and there are 19 IIMs in place now. All these have been set up as institutes of national importance. All IITs and IIMs have been set up outside the university system with their own Board of Governors (BoG) consisting of representatives from the government, social and corporate sector headed by a non-executive Chairman from the industry and with all executive powers vested in the Director as head of the institution. This was thought so way back in 1951 for setting up the first IIT. And, similarly so in 1961 when the first IIM as an autonomous institution was set up outside the university system. Obviously, at these times the government must have had some specific considerations for setting up these institutions as autonomous organizations. It is easy to speculate that for these ‘new age’ institutions the government must have wanted to give them nimbleness in decision making as well as independence from over regulations to be able to perform as desired. These aspects must not have been considered achievable in the then university system. Looking back, considering the immense contribution the IITs and the IIMs have made to India, it is easy to see now that the decision to form these IITs and the IIMs as independent organizations was a landmark initiative of the government. But, one point that is quite apparent now is that the government then did know that within the university system in India institutions of the performance level expected of an IIT or an IIM could not have flourished. So, rather than to fix the university system to be able to foster world class institutions—a difficult task— it was decided to create these new institutions outside the university system. Thus, the inability of the university system in India to foster world class institutions remained ignored. It is, thus, unfortunate that no university has so far been ranked in the top 100 in any reputed international rankings. Exception being of IISc, Bangalore that is not a university per se but was established in 1909 and made into a ‘Deemed University’ in 1958 and was the first Indian institute to feature on Times Higher Education  World University Rankings for engineering and technology in the year 2015-16 at 99th position.

iim1Thus, with the formation of the first IIT in 1951 a parallel higher education system to grant degrees commenced in India. But not quite so yet! The IITs had the authority to grant degrees, but the IIMs could not as they were registered as societies, and as a result IIMs could give only Post-Graduate Diploma in Management (PGDM) that was much later given equivalence to an MBA degree by the Association of Indian Universities (AIU), surprisingly a non-constitutional body. Thus, began the way of higher education in India with three different governing models, the universities under UGC, IITs through the IIT Acts and the IIMs on their own as registered societies. This kind of multiple academic governance and the associated degree/PGDM granting systems do not exist anywhere in the developed world.

It may, however, be noted that soon after Independence, the University Education Commission was set up in 1948 to look into the Indian university education and suggest improvements to suit the then and future needs and aspirations of the country. It recommended that the University Grants Committee (formed in 1944) be reconstituted on the general model of the University Grants Commission of the United Kingdom with a full-time Chairman and other members to be appointed from amongst educationists of repute. The University Grants Commission Act was passed in 1956. On the other hand, AICTE was established in 1945 as an advisory body and in 1987 given statutory status by an Act of Parliament. AICTE is responsible for proper planning and coordinated development of the technical education and management education system in India. Medical Council of India (MCI) and Distance Education Council (DEC) (now under UGC) are not being covered here for brevity.

Over a period of time, both UGC and AICTE came to be known for their arduous way of regulating higher education akin to a ‘license raj’ or the ‘inspector raj’, if you will, that India is familiar with as the core of governance in India until the reforms in industry announced in 1991 kicked in. IITs and IIMs (and IISc) are not regulated by any of these two regulators and they have done well. The ground truth is that no university or an institution under the regulation of UGC or AICTE have been rated in top 100 universities in a reputed international ranking that can be taken as a benchmark for world class education. Of course, a few things under larger Indian system have been a hindrance to achieving world class status, such as, diversity in nationalities among students and faculty members, compensations levels of faculty and passing out students, etc. But, this can have, at worst, a miniscule impact. Much needs to be done to not only reform, but completely change the Indian higher education system.

It is essential to have a competitive environment in higher education that ensures both public and private funding. It must, however, be noted that higher education is an option to pursue for career growth by an individual, unlike elementary education that may be considered essential for a decent survival. The institutions must constantly keep developing and reinventing itself considering sweeping changes in ways technology is changing and the way technology is being deployed to harness resources available and people’s capabilities. Thus, the institutions must be very responsive and innovative in the ways they do things. The role of regulators becomes crucial and critical in achieving these ends. One objective way to involve the regulators to contribute positively could be for them to also ensure a certain percentage of universities/ institutions under their regulation to figure in the top, say, 200 of some named international rankers, such as, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, or the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Rankings, etc. This kind of performance expectation from the regulators may help them become more responsive to the changes sweeping the world; else, they may further get distanced away from the need of the time. Regulating education must not be an end in itself; rather, it must have a defined purpose and the performance expected of a regulator would achieve just that.

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To meet the huge demand for education facing India, private sector participation in higher education must not only be encouraged, but rather be incentivized. It is crucial to have better and greater coordination of activities and the government aswell as the private institutions must co-exist and mutually support to fill in the gaps in higher education. Also, government must consider making regulations based on need and be objective driven. This means all higher education institutions in India must have a common regulatory framework and be not divided on government versus privately funded institutions very much akin to a common corporate law that governs private and government corporations in India. All such institutions may, for sure, be not-for-profit. The government must encourage private investment in higher education and also recognize the necessity of the financial autonomy for the private institutions. Among many possibilities of incentivizing private funding, if only a tax rebate incentive is given to private funding for ‘not-for-profit’ education institutions, the government would be able to mobilize about three times the money it has forgone as tax revenue, into the education system.

A policy for privately funded university/institution with the kind of regulatory freedom similar to as enjoyed by the IITs and the IIMs has the potential to produce dozens, if not scores, of world class universities/institutions in about 10 years. A comparative data on public and private universities in the USA would be an eye-opener. Such a policy framework is not yet even in a discussion mode.

The writer is the Director of FORE School of Management, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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