This year in his budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the government plans to ensure an enabling regulatory environment to encourage ten public and ten private institutions emerge as world class institutions (WCIs) in India.
Now the UGC has come up with a public consultation document on the guidelines and regulations governing the eligibility criteria, selection procedure, monitoring, evaluation and other regulatory aspects of the proposed WCIs. This document points out that while nurturing WCIs in India requires a number of steps and involves the participation of all stakeholders, coming up with the necessary policy guidelines from the government is the first step in this direction. One of the reasons why IITs and IIMs could not become truly world-class institutions is often attributed to the government’s inability to let go of power within these institutions.
The new regulatory architecture should dilute the hold of the existing, archaic regulations and pave the way for complete autonomy for the selected institutions. However, to our dismay, the proposed policy document turns out to be a product of compromises and negotiations at various stages. It seems to be an outcome of a complex social interaction that reinforces the older regulations on the institutions.
Firstly, the authority of the UGC is not really challenged at all. Ironically, this UGC-issued document is expected to lay down guidelines to curb the power of the UGC itself.
From at one point discussing ways to do away with the UGC, the human resource development ministry seems to be unable to find an alternative to it at present and is relying on the UGC to formulate and implement policies for its flagship initiatives in higher education, which will be relevant for years to come. In fact, it has been proposed that a UGC-established empowered experts committee (EEC) will be involved in the selection, monitoring and assessment of the WCIs. Apparently, it is assumed that the sheer establishment of a new committee will ensure that it will not behave like the existing regulatory bodies. Further, the already empowered EEC is further ‘empowered’ to evolve other monitoring and review systems for the WCIs in the future as well. This double empowerment is dangerous and makes the possibility of according complete autonomy to these institutions in future uncertain.
What are the mechanisms to ensure that the EEC will not inherit the downside of the existing regulatory practices? For instance, inspections by the EEC may become similar to the inspection practices of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. How is the EEC more a facilitator than a regulator, more so when the UGC will provide all secretarial assistance to the programme, including the EEC honorarium?
Secondly, professional regulatory bodies like the Bar Council of India, the All India Council for Technical Education and the Medical Council of India would continue to regulate the concerned institutions and no changes have been proposed in the rules and regulations laid down by these regulatory bodies. There exist multiple regulatory bodies with overlapping mandates. The need for a clear co-ordination mechanism is completely ignored. Also, in this context, adherence to ‘minimum prevailing standards’ of these regulatory bodies, may reinforce the prevailing mediocrity in professional higher education.
Thirdly, there is a clear case of fractured autonomy provided in the document. It provides for an admission procedure, fixing appropriate fee structures pursuant to internal policies, the appointment of faculty, collaboration with foreign higher educational institutions and design and offer courses in existing programmes and new areas. WCIs should be allowed to take these decisions on their own without any regulation. Emphasis should be on performance in terms of long-term outcomes rather than prescribing the ways in which institutions will achieve them. Autonomy should be checked by accountability rather than reinforcing prevailing regulations.
In addition, the document seems to be captured by buzzwords that have turned out to be mere rhetoric than actually providing concrete roadmaps. The criteria set for prospective government WCIs under the heading ‘Expectations from a Government World Class Institution’ are ambiguous. While the ideas of ‘multi-disciplinary’, ‘need-blind admission’, ‘cutting-edge scientific research’, ‘latest research methodologies’ are all welcome features for a university, the definition and scope of these features are unclear. Further, the criterion of having ‘student amenities comparable with that of globally reputed institutions’ might lead to over investment in non-academic areas that can be socially inefficient. Mention has been made of prospective WCIs being accredited to ‘reputed international accreditation’. This criterion will lead to money flowing out of the country. While the importance of adhering to international standards is a welcome idea, mechanisms to avoid commercial exploitation in national universities by international profit-making commercial accreditation agencies should be explored.
The objective of promoting quality with equity is also misconstrued. The document mentions that the WCIs will have the freedom to determine domestic student fees, subject to the condition that no student who gains admission should be turned away for lack of finance. How will this be implemented? The admission criterion of universities will be set by the universities themselves, which may include a component of personal interviews, or other criteria, which may allow universities to sort students according to their socio-economic backgrounds. Universities can shun away students who are unable to pay and may become a financial burden on the university.
Finally, the eligibility criterion for the institutions to become WCIs is to figure in the top 25 ranking in their category under the National Institution Ranking Framework (NIRF) released on April 1, 2016. The government seems to have put a lot of emphasis on its one-year-old ranking system, which released its maiden ranking report this year. NIRF is a brave attempt by India’s policymakers and should be appreciated in that context. However, apart from drawing criticism for its approach and methodology, the ranking was also criticised for being biased against some universities.
While the concept of world-class institutions is ambiguous, uncertain, contested and rather context driven, it seems the government and the UGC aspire to create them through the ‘old wine in new bottle’ method.
Anamika Srivastava is an assistant professor and fellow at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat, India.