"I realise that some of my criticisms may be mistaken; but to refuse to criticize judgements for fear of being mistaken is to abandon criticism altogether... If any of my criticisms are found to be correct, the cause is served; and if any are found to be incorrect the very process of finding out my mistakes must lead to the discovery of the right reasons, or better reasons than I have been able to give, and the cause is served just as well."

-Mr. HM Seervai, Preface to the 1st ed., Constitutional Law of India.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Super Seven: Some Responses to the National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill, 2010

There has already been a spate of responses to the proposed NCHER Bill (See, the earlier post for details). This is an attempt to analyse the Bill from the standpoint of promise and the potential of delivering the promise within the structure provided by the Bill.

The Promises
The Bill holds out certain promises in unmistakable terms. The Bill seeks to promote higher education and research, including university technical and professional education other than agricultural and medical education. It intends to provide for the determination, co-ordination and maintenance of standards for higher education and research in the earlier mentioned fields.

Supporting autonomy of higher educational institutions for innovation and free pursuit of knowledge; facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all; helping comprehensive growth of higher education and research through reforms; creation of an advisory mechanism of eminent peers in academia; are the other objectives of the Bill

The Justification for the Bill
The Bill is preceded by two documents that are the outcome of extensive deliberation, namely; the Report of the National Knowledge Commission, (page 42 to 57) which suggested an independent regulatory framework (Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education) and Yashpal Committee Report, which recommended a national commission of same name. Both have its own logic and justification for changing from the existing regulatory pattern of higher education.

The Bill seems to draw its legitimacy more from the Yashpal Report. I would argue that Bill in its present form cannot be compared to what Yashpal thought as the “why and how” of the commission which the report has suggested. Two underlying themes of the Yashpal report are Diversity and Autonomy, which precisely is what the Bill fails to deliver, though ostensibly promised.

The responses about the Bill in the public domain have pointed out the centralising tendency writ large in the Bill. The regulatory aspects of authorisation, accreditation and affiliation are with the Commission, which makes it no different from the existing UGC structure. The disturbing fact is that this extends to standardisation of curriculum as well. Section 24 (2) (b) and Section 54 (f) speaks about the power of the Commission to make regulation and to ‘develop from time to time, of a national curriculum framework with specific reference to new or emerging or inter-disciplinary fields of knowledge and to provide a vision and guide universities in recognizing and revising course curricula”.
This, I would argue, foster regimentation and standardisation than provide for diversity and autonomy. Read it along with the fact that it is the commission that is to authorise the commencement of a course.

An observation made by Yashpal report would be relevant here “if the syllabi were to be designed with a view to inducting the student into a community of participant citizens, a new kind of institutional culture and ethos can be created in our general and professional colleges. For this to happen, all syllabi should require the teachers and students to apply what they have learnt in their courses, on studying a local situation, issue or problem. There should be sufficient room for the use of local data and resources to make the knowledge covered in the syllabus come alive as experience.”

Another front of attack on the Bill is about the disservice it is doing to the already asymmetrical relationship of centre and state in the matter of education. The Bill does not offer any opportunity of state’s presence in its functions except that the co-opted members of the collegium are representatives of the states. On the other hand the Bill wipes away the existing Higher Education Councils of the State.

The most important discontent with the existing system is related to the governance structure which is subverted from within. The culprit, as suggested by Knowledge Commission and Yashpal Committee, is intrusions by the Government, to put it differently, the political process.

The Bill fails to cork this problem as well. The appointment of the Commission, seven in strength, is done by the President on the recommendation of a selection committee comprising of the PM, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Minister in charge of Higher Education in GoI, Minister in charge of Medical Education in GoI (one is left to wonder why this Minister, when medical education is anyway not within the purview of the Commission and why not Minister for Law and Justice, when legal education is within the scope of the Act). The Selection Committee is to make recommendation from a panel of names submitted by the collegium (see, Section 5). The issue with collegium as mentioned earlier is that the co-opted members are chosen by core fellows of collegium from a panel of five persons (persons of comparable eminence and integrity in academia in higher education) recommended by the Government of each State or Union Territory (see, Section 17). One should choose to be oblivious of the potential undercurrents of such appointments to believe that eligible persons and only eligible persons will find their place in collegium.

The Chicken and Egg Problem: The Commission is to notify a person as a co-opted member of the collegium once the core members elect them and it is the collegium that has to submit a panel of names to be appointed as members of the Commission. I am sure this is just a logistical glitch and will be solved.

The appointment of Vice Chancellors and Head of the Institutions: The next level of the interference from political bosses usually is in the appointment of Vice Chancellors and Head of the Institutions. The Bill addresses this problem by the creation of a national registry and mandating that at least for Institutions of National Importance, the appointment has to be done from a National Registry of names (see, Section 26(4)). The question then is as to the preparation of the national registry. The duty is with the collegium and they shall update it with selected names from those sent to them by the Commission, which essentially is forwarding of names sent to it by the Central Government, State Governments, Universities and higher educational institutions. This measure will not ensure that political influence is kept away. On the other hand it is a concoction for interference.

The Super Seven
It would be quiet intimidating for any member of the Commission to read Chapter IV of the Bill as it lists out the functions expected to be performed by them. The bulleting exhausts English alphabets and goes for combination.

To top it, the Commission is expected to perform as funder, regulator (in all its aspects) and exercise tribunal like powers. The seven need to cater to the needs of the entire nation that elevates them to the realm of super powered heroes.


Mazhuvancherry said...

The post has brought out the promises and concerns of the proposed bill in an impartial manner. Would like to know the reaction of the legal academia to the suggestion of the Bar Council that legal education should also be excluded from the ambit of the bill, just like medical and agricultural education.

Jasmine said...

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s". The education part is best left with institutions of higher education and professional council can well regulate the license to practice. Had a discussion about this aspect with a limited number of law school teachers and I believe this idea has majority subscription.

One of the fundamental reason is that unlike earlier, where every law graduate is either practicing or not (if not successful in practice become a law teacher), there are multiple avenues where a law graduate is required in which Bar Council do not have any stake.

What Bar Council need to test is the professional competency of the persons who is admitted to their ranks, for which they very well may conduct entry level screening that in turn will be an attempt to assure quality.

Having said this, I am not unaware of the recent effort of the BCI by appointing a new Executive Director for development of Legal Education. Any suggestion from such professional bodies to improve education and skill development will be useful in designing the course structure of relevant academic institutions. The institutions of higher education but should retain the autonomy about curriculum and its decisions should be well informed by the reports/suggestions/scholarship of everyone who has stake.