How to make it work better?

Like other sectors, education needs to be regulated but in a meaningful and facilitative manner like in the developed parts of the world. The regulatory system should act as a facilitator to educational institutions in their pursuits for quality education and at the same time acts as a strong barrier to the entry or existence of poor quality institutions. It is an established fact that the efficacy of a  regulatory mechanism largely depends on the principles of ensuring greater autonomy to the higher educational institutions, with ‘Tight but Light’ regulations, and promotes greater transparency & outcomes based accountability at all levels. The accountability of the regulator by an independent body would be equally essential in our unique setting.

The higher educational institutions (HEIs) in India are regulated by the multiple of regulators at multiple levels. However, NEP-2020 argues that the mechanistic and disempowering nature of the existing regulatory system has been rife with very basic problems like; heavy concentration of power within a few bodies; conflicts of interest among these bodies; and a resulting lack of accountability. There is no denying the fact that these bodies are also plagued with all sorts of malpractices like nepotism, favouritism, corruption and most importantly lacking vision, resolve and commitment to regulate and supervise HEIs in an effective manner. The reason for their failure to regulate while aiming to yield contemplated socio-economic dividends, being that there is no overarching body to monitor the working of these powerful bodies.

Given the above sad state of affairs, there was an urgency to undertake a complete overhaul of the regulatory mechanism for higher education in the country. In order to re-energize the higher education sector and enable it to thrive to meet the demands of the 21st century,  NEP-2020 hasrecommended the transformation of the regulatory system of higher education by replacing UGC and some other regulatory bodies with the establishment of Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) with four independent and empowered verticals (Bodies), one each for regulations, accreditation, funding, and academic standard setting. The verticals include; National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC), Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC), and General Education Council (GEC).

The NHERC would be empowered to regulate governance and financial probity of HEIs through a ‘Tight But Light’ regulations in a facilitative manner. It is good to have a ‘Tight but Light’ regulations, but what is more important is to have such regulations which without impinging the autonomy of the HEIs, would ensure effective governance. The new policy allows HEIs to have clearly defined, independent, and transparent processes and criteria for faculty recruitment, promotions, confirmation of services, salary increases etc. enunciated in Institutional Development Plan (IDP). But in the interest of uniformity across all HEIs, it would be appropriate that NHERC regulate this important aspect of higher education. The need is also to revisit the existing API system to make it more meaningful by exclusively focussing on teaching performance in terms of student reviews and peer reviews by independent experts, innovations in course curriculum, research output, professional development, collaborative research, extension and contribution to the corporate body. Besides, in order to recruit the very best and the brightest to the teaching profession, it would needed to have a system of multiple parameters for proper performance assessment, for the purposes of confirmed employment after probation which should be based on ‘Peer and Student Reviews’. There should also be a provision for fast-track promotion system in the regulations for recognizing high impact research, performance in teaching and extension. It is also that the prior permission of the NHERC for launching new courses or establishing new colleges, conditioned by the minimum stipulations in terms of faculty, space, labs, non-teaching staff. Such a stipulation would allow expansion only when the requisite infrastructure is available. The current state of affairs is that new courses are started and colleges established without having even bare minimum infrastructure in place.

The NHEC is also mandated to regulate full online & offline public self-disclosures of all finances, audits, procedures, infrastructure, and educational outcomes on the website of NHERC and respective HEI websites. Besides, it is mandated to seek feedback from randomly selected students online to ensure valuable inputs at regular intervals. These are far reaching initiates towards greater transparency and accountability of HEIs, however, the public self-disclosures will serve its intended purposes only when there is a well delineated blueprint for such disclosures. It is also that seeking feedback randomly from the students at regular intervals would serve stated purposes only when it is operationalised in a manner that the opinions are solicited from right type of students without the knowledge of HEIs.  However, this all will yield intended results only when the NHERC has the authority to take punitive action for inefficiencies or failures.

The NAC is another vertical which is mandated to accredit HEIs through an independent ecosystem of ‘Accrediting Institutions’, supervised and overseen by NAC. The process of quality assessment and accreditation of HEIs was going on over the past two decades. Though from 2017, the accreditation process was made more robust, objective, transparent and scalable as well as ICT enabled, yet there are still some question marks stemming from its data validation processes and integrity of peer team visit. It is known to one and all that the visiting peer teams though being paid handsomely by the NAAC, yet still they were found enjoying the five star hospitality of visiting institutions, thus posing a question mark on their credibility. Generally vigour and resolve to undertake inspection thoroughly and objectively has been largely found missing among assessors. The existing framework for quality assessment and accreditation though is comprehensive yet it needs further refinements to make it more meaningful and objective.

Under the new policy, the assessment has now to be arranged through independent ‘Accrediting Institutions’ supervised and overseen by the NAC, but ultimately this new process will yield due dividends only when credible and competent institutions are involved and effectively monitored. Assigning assessment and accreditation process to nationally or internationally recognised ‘Credit Rating’ agencies like CARE, CRISIL etc. would be a step in the right direction. Besides, the accreditation should be discipline/ Dept. specific rather than for the institution as a whole which is a universally accepted criterion. Some total of the scores of different depts/ centres should become the overall institutional score. The Dept./Centre specific assessment will usher HEIs into greater competitiveness internally thus will act as a force multiplier to continually achieve excellence in academic pursuits at each & every academic and service unit.

The third vertical is HEGC, mandated to carry out funding of higher education which includes scholarships and developmental funds for launching new focus areas and expanding quality programme offerings based on transparent criteria, and the progress made on the implementation of IDPs. It is quite meaningful to link funding with the implementation of IDPs but more appropriate would be to fix eligibility for funding to the minimum benchmark in NAC accreditations and objectively measured outcomes based on IDPs. In the interest of financial probity, utilisation of funds should be certified by the HEGC designated chartered accountants, who shall be paid by the HEGC itself out of the allotted funds to ensure impartiality

Lack of sufficient funding by the Central Govt to state universities has been one of the serious constraints which needs to be taken care-off so as to ensure access to quality education across the length and breadth of the country. Most of the earmarked funds goes to the central universities, resulting into glaring disparities in infrastructural index between central and state universities. It would carry great socio-economic logic if the earmarked developmental funds by the central govt. are distributed state-wise based on student population. Besides, the universities which fail to achieve minimum accreditation benchmark to be eligible for funding, such institution should be supported, helped and guided to achieve minimum benchmark. For this purpose, the HEGC should create “Special Development Assistance Fund” which will offer some level playing field. However, the key for all of this would lie in the resolve of the Central and State Govts. to significantly increase public expenditure on education. The new policy unequivocally endorses and envisions a substantial increase in public investment in education from current 4.43 % to 6 % of GDP. This is considered extremely critical for achieving the high-quality and equitable public education system. However, such an increase in funding was proposed in the education policy 1986 but never achieved.

The GEC is the 4th vertical, aimed to frame ‘Learning Outcomes’ also called as ‘Graduate Attributes’ for higher education programmes. Towards this end, a National Higher Education Qualification Framework will be formulated by the GEC and it shall be in sync with the National Skills Qualifications Framework to ease the integration of vocational education into higher education. The ‘Graduate Attributes’ set by the GEC will not only act as a broad framework for course curricular of all higher education programmes offered in the country but also a benchmark for evaluating the performance of the programmes. Therefore, the GEC’s working will be critical for the entire spectrum of higher education, as such, it requires to take due care in framing the ‘Graduate Attributes’. It would serve a great purpose if ‘Graduate Attributes” are set in a manner to increase the employability of the students by focussing both on intellectual and practical aspects of the subject. Therefore, among others, practitioners and industrialists should form the part of the mechanism for setting ‘Graduate Attributes’.

Final Word

Nations have become great not because of their natural resources but through morality and inspired vision; both of which unfortunately, seems to have been lost in the country. Today menace of corruption and other malpractices have pervaded all the sectors, organizations and classes of society which are eating the very vitals of socio economic development. So if we have to march towards better future, an immediate need is to contain corrupt practices at all places which would require some bold initiatives. But the menace of corruption which has become a social stigma is difficult to contain as being widespread and deep-rooted in our socio-political and administrative set-up. The existence of political-will and resolve is important to contain it, which unfortunately is lacking in the state.

Author is former Registrar & Professor in the Dept. of Commerce, University of Kashmir.