Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Updated critique on the NCHER Act 2010

The proposed NCHER act comprising 7 chapters divided into 56 sections has been necessitated because of the extremely variable standards of higher education and research in the country. It is:
AN ACT to provide for the determination, co-ordination, maintenance of standards in, and promotion of, higher education and research, including university education, technical and professional education other than agricultural [and medical] education, and for that purpose, to establish the National Commission for Higher Education and Research.
AN ACT further to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment through reforms and renovation; and to provide for an advisory mechanism of eminent peers in academia.

Quality Knowledge Quotient is going to determine the hierarchy of countries in the world in times to come. Universities in India need to act fast to improve quality, opportunities and communication skills to enable the resources it creates for the future to compete successfully in areas as diverse as rocket science and the service sector. Such cautioning had been sounded by the UGC and in the Knowledge Commission’s report. This also means that universities as a playground for opportunistic politicking especially impacted upon the state universities and the complete lack of initiatives in certain states to improve education need to be reversed. For the many academicians who have questioned the arrival of the off-shores institutions in the post-WTO regime, it is likely to be an opportunity to set one’s own house in order and provide quality education, if of course the vision of the act can be translated into reality or to put it bluntly, if the pockets of vested interests permit the positives to be achieved. The logic is simple. If we do not wish to import an institution, we need to create at least two of equal quality of our own and make the opportunities available to the most disadvantaged. In so far as the act is an attempt to bring uniformity of standards and remove iniquities in opportunities, the intent is praiseworthy.
However, many questions remain unanswered and one wonders whether the pursuit of this worthy end justifies the means and therefore it is necessary to interrogate the doubts that arise from reading the act in its present form.
Q1. Why is agricultural education and medical education (other than in Universities: ref Sec 3 t) being excluded from the purview of the act?
Q.2 In Sec. 3 (a) academic quality, among other things means physical infrastructure. How will the NCHER ensure basic minimum acceptable physical infrastructure in State Universities, colleges and institutions?
Q3. Compulsory accreditation may be ideal in spirit provided the many ambiguities are ironed out. Should there be any discrepancy in the points collected by an academic for publication in journals abroad and in India? This attitude of privileging the West is an admission of the lack of confidence we have in our own institutions. It undermines national interests and reveals that though we may be politically free, we are still mentally colonized. However, the ideological priority must not be an alibi for unacceptable quality. In many quarters, we have seen how systemic breakdown is a deliberate ploy to serve self-serving interests.
Q.4 One of the objectives of the bill is ‘to promote the autonomy of the university for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation’. However isn’t it likely that the NCHER with such overwhelming powers centralized in this body may impinge upon democratic spaces in the universities that is supposed to nurture independent research and innovative teaching?
The structure of the Collegium (Ch.3, Sec 17) again indicates the impulse toward centralization. On the other hand, a federal structure would perhaps be more representative of the intellectual, cultural and linguistic aspirations of diverse India.
Hence I would, with all humility, propose that each state should have 5 members that would constitute a Regional Collegium. They shall also be Ombudsmen for all Central and State Universities in that region. The members, who should be eminent academics with proven innovative scholastic and ethical track record, shall be appointed to the Regional Collegiums ( North, West, South, North East, East Central and Central states) for a period of 5 years.
One member of each state, on a year’s rotational basis, may be the member of the central collegium. This will ensure the democratic representation of academic diversity. The Regional/ federal collegiums will be accountable to the Central Collegium.
Six members from the central collegium constitutive of one member from each Regional Collegium shall constitute the NCHER with another three members nominated by the Central Government.
And finally and most importantly, the NCHER should be the funding body that disburses plan and non-plan grants to all the universities so that frequent complaint of fund-crunch by states may be overcome. Only then will the gap between central and state universities be bridged. Needless to mention, this is the Indian tax-payer’s money, hence accountability should be meticulously ascertained.
Prof. Yashpal in his recommendations on 'Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education’ states ‘The biggest deficiency of higher education is that it is not developing sensitivity and commitment to freedom. The Social Science subjects: Economics, History, Linguistics etc. are especially meant to help students see exploitation and discrimination with clarity. From among the students of these disciplines emerge civil servants, judges, lawyers, businessmen and economists who can assert their authority but cannot see the realities of living of the masses’. Civil servants representing the government in its interface with universities and institution should be those that have academic interests and credentials that equip them for such positions.
Professor Yashpal’s intent in the report is commendable: ‘The thrust is to give full autonomy to universities which will function as self regulatory bodies and will be vested with all academic responsibilities. They will design the function and structure of programmes’. In the post-WTO regime, under GATS, education had become a service to be provided to drive the nation’s GDP by teaching appropriate skills. This is contrary to the vision of education envisaged by the founding fathers of our republic: to be an agency for emancipation and the making to good human beings and good citizens. Professor Yashpal seeks an amalgam and one that will hopefully find clear focus in the Act and its implementation.

Higher Education works best when it is supported by structures that are democratic rather than bureaucratic.

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