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Higher Education Research Bill, 2011 (Comments & Analysis

- Shrey Verma Section I: Introduction
“The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
-Winston Churchill

Coming on the back of a series of reports by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), the Higher Education Research Bill, 2011 seeks to bring to fruition some of the key recommendations of the NKC. This is also reflected in its statement of objects & reasons. In its December 2006 report, the National Knowledge Commission laid stress on the following points which ail the current higher education system in the country: i. ii. iii. iv. v. The present regulatory system in higher education is flawed. The barriers to entry are too high. The system of authorising entry is cumbersome. There is a multiplicity of regulatory agencies where mandates are both confusing and overlapping. The system, as a whole, is over-regulated but under-governed.

The NKC, in light of its findings, argued for setting up of an independent authority called the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), which would be the only agency that i) would be authorised to accord degree-granting power to higher education institutions ii) would be responsible for monitoring standards and settling disputes iii) would apply exactly the same norms to public and private institutions, just as it would apply the same norms to domestic and international institutions and iv) would be the authority for licensing accreditation agencies.

A cursory look at the statement of objects & reasons of the Higher Education Research Bill, 2011 reveals that the recommendations of the NKC have had a strong bearing on its outlook. Important highlights of the Bill include: a) Realisation that over-crowding of regulatory institutions/mechanisms has led to “fragmentation” of knowledge across sectors thus preventing flow of ideas across disciplines and created boundaries in the higher educational sector where none should exist b) The urgent need to bring about greater coordination and integration in the planning and development of higher education system including research c) The need to disentangle the complex and cumbersome entry process of new educational institutions and attracting private investment in higher education. d) Infusion of expertise for drafting a coherent national policy on higher education and to guide the education system towards new and emerging knowledge and research areas e) Streamlining accreditation processes, grants and scholarships and harmonizing industry campus collaboration The Bill has sought to establish an over-arching authority called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) towards meeting the aforesaid objectives. This paper presents a comprehensive analysis of the provisions under the Bill, the functions of the NCHER and its various branches. It further comments on the structural framework of the NCHER and how it meets/falls short of the objectives laid down by the NKC and other expert committees in the past. Moreover, the paper discusses new ideas and suggestions to reinvigorate the higher education sector in the country.

Section II: Critical Analysis and shortcomings
A. Statement of Objects & Reasons: 5. “….the Higher Education and Research Bill,
2011 empowering the Central Government to establish the National Commission for Higher Education and Research which shall be an over-arching body to maintain and coordinate the standards in higher education in the country…..the Bill seeks to promote autonomy of higher educational institutions and universities for free pursuit of knowledge and innovation; to provide for a comprehensive and integrated growth of higher education and research keeping in view the global standards of educational and research practices and for that purpose to establish the National Commission for Higher Education and Research to facilitate determination, co-ordination, maintenance and continued enhancement of standards of higher education and research including university education, vocational, technical, professional and medical education other than agricultural education.”

According to the Higher Education Research Bill 2011, the NCHER will subsume existing regulatory authorities such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The Bill proposes to create a General Council (Clause 26) and a Collegium of Scholars “to guide and assist the Commission in its policy objectives” (Clause 28). The Board for Research Promotion and Innovation (BRPI) will “promote and facilitate research in the fields of knowledge in higher educational institutions” (Clause 45), while the Higher Education Financial Services Corporation will carry out the function of “disbursing grants to higher educational institutions” (Clause 46).
National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER)

General Council

Collegium of Scholars

Higher Education Financial Services Corporation

Board for Research Promotion and Innovation

Comments: 1. Does the proposed administrative structure address the concern regarding “high entry barriers” for new educational institutions? In India, it requires an Act of the Legislature or the Parliament to set up a University. The deemed university route hence becomes much too difficult for new institutions to enter the higher education sector. This has resulted in a steady increase in the average size of existing universities with quality taking a big hit. According to the NKC, “the existing regulatory framework constrains the supply of good institutions, excessively regulates existing institutions in the wrong places, and is not conducive to innovation or creativity in higher education”. The judgement of the Supreme Court striking down the 2002 Chhattisgarh Private Sector Universities Act (a badly drafted legislation full of loopholes), didn’t help matters further. The Court recommended that each new university had to be created through a separate law, specifically authorizing it. This means enactment of a separate law for every different university! Clause 35 & 36 of the Bill contain provisions concerning the enrolment of students. Sub clause (1) of the said clause provides that “every university or institution of higher education empowered by or under any law for the time being in force to award any degree, intending to enroll students for the first time in any course or programme of study, shall intimate such intention to the Commission, along with an assessment report prepared in accordance with section 4 of the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Act, 2010.” It further states “that the Commission shall process the intimation given to it under sub-section (1) expeditiously and in a transparent manner giving opportunity for the institution concerned wherever necessary and in no case shall the application be kept pending beyond 120 days after which it shall be deemed to have the Commission’s concurrence for enrolment of students.” While Clause 35 & 36 have tried to establish a simpler framework for streamlining student enrollments and the necessary clearances thereafter by limiting clearance time to 120 days, the Bill still does not address the basic concerns of ‘high entry barriers’ in higher education. The Bill fails to provide an easier framework for

entry of new players in higher education and clear the legislative hurdles required to be overcome in establishing a new university. While there is considerable argument towards maintaining ‘high entry barriers’ to maintain quality, there is not much merit in that argument. The demand for higher education in India is huge and it is only logical that more players are allowed entry to cater to this demand. Maintaining quality comes at a later stage where the Commission may exercise discretion in punishing/revoking license if the concerned University/Institution is found to have violated norms and regulations. To not allow an egg to hatch in the belief that the chicken may turn out to deformed is a fallacious argument after all. 2. How does the proposed structure address key concerns like “fragmentation” and greater integration that arose earlier? If one were to revisit the key findings and realizations as mentioned earlier in the paper, the proposed architecture in the form of a single, powerful authority such as the NCHER does seem to address the problems of multiple authorities in the higher education sector. The need to bring about greater coordination and integration in the development of higher education will be met better in the case of a single authority such as the NCHER. By proposing to repeal the UGC Act, 1956, the AICTE Act, 1987 and the NCTE Act, 1993 and hence dissolving the UGC, AICTE and NCTE to pave the way for a single super-regulator in the form of the NCHER, as envisaged even by the National Knowledge Commission, is a welcome step. While this would address the problem of over-crowding of regulators at the top level, the issue of “fragmentation” of higher education and lack of interdisciplinary research still remains unanswered. The establishment of the Board for Promotion of Research & Innovation (BPRI) and a Collegium of Scholars to guide and assist the Commission (NCHER) will certainly help bring about coherent policy prescriptions in the development of the higher education sector and provide an overall direction in research, but whether such a policy will actually translate into meaningful inter-disciplinary research activity and reduce “fragmentation” remains doubtful. This however could be overcome if the Bill laid down guidelines for each educational institution to

establish an interface between itself and the Commission (NCHER) in coordinating research activities and also implementing the recommendations of the BPRI and the Commission.

B. Statements of Object & Reasons 6(f). “to establish a Board for Research
Promotion and Innovation, consisting of a Chairperson and twelve other members to be appointed by the Commission to recommend measures to the Commission to promote and facilitate research in the fields of knowledge in higher educational institutions”

Comments: Research cannot take place in a vacuum. Across the globe, research and development has often been driven by industry demands and changes in policy. Moreover, collaboration between campuses and industry has led to sharing of experiences between research students and industry experts resulting in breakthroughs in cutting edge technology. A common trend visible across many university campuses in the United States for example, is the setting up of dedicated research/design labs, workstations and research centers by private companies on campus land. For example, many aerospace majors have set up permanent research labs on the Purdue University campus, attracting aerospace engineering students towards pressing and current research topics in specialized fields. Similarly, one finds IT majors having set up design/build/test labs across top technology institutions across the US. Through such mechanisms, not only have the campuses become engines of new research, but have also contributed immensely to the American technology industry. According to the Nation Knowledge Commission Report 2006-2009, it states that India “attempted to create stand-alone research institutions, pampered with resources, in the belief that research should be moved out of universities. In the process, she forgot an essential principle. There are synergies between teaching and research that enrich each other. And it is universities which are the natural home for research. What is more, for universities, research is essential in the

pursuit of academic excellence. It is time to reverse what happened in the past and make universities the hub of research once again.” The Bill echoes similar views wherein Clause 19, provisions relating to establishment of “inter university centres” finds mention. “Sub-clause (1) of the said clause provides that the Commission may, on the recommendations of the Board and with the prior approval of the Central Government, establish, in such manner as may be specified by regulations, inter university centres for providing research facilities and thrust to new and emerging areas of knowledge, common facilities for research for a group of universities or for the universities in general and provide for their maintenance by allocating and disbursing such grants as the Commission may deem necessary.” While the Bill empowers the NCHER to set up “inter-university centres”, it is silent on promoting research/design/build/test labs through industry (private/public) participation on campuses. The Bill has been vocal about encouraging private investments in the university system, but what is paramount is that such investments will fructify only if there are tangible returns attached to it. Necessary provisions to regulate participation of industry on campuses and framing guidelines in this regard is fundamental to making India’s educational institutions a hub of cutting edge research, in the truest sense. For example, the Bill could mandate the NCHER to establish a framework and lay down guidelines to help universities to lease/sell their unused land to private/public sector enterprises in setting up research centres, thus bringing industry collaboration straight to the campuses.

C. Statement of Objects & Reasons 6(g). “to establish the Higher Education
Financial Services Corporation to disburse grants to higher educational institutions”

Comments: A report by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2008, titled ‘Higher Education in India: Issues related to Expansion, Inclusiveness, Quality & Finance’ presented some very stark findings:  Trends for the past decade during 1993-94 to 2004-05 showed a consistent pattern in the decline of public expenditure per student in real terms for higher education to the extent of 21%.  A country of India’s size that has 211 universities and 17625 colleges mostly under state universities, development of state universities received only 43% of plan resources as compared to 39% for central universities. This amounted to a meagre Rs 1085 crores for 211 state universities, a grossly inadequate amount!  A major portion of the grant to universities/colleges went towards basic infrastructure thus crowding out funds for ‘research’ which received the lowest priority. A problem that finds recurring mention in nearly all reports related to finances/grants in higher education in India is the heavy top down institutional structure that governs the entire financing mechanism. This has not only stunted cutting edge research in institutes of excellence but has also failed in providing a clear direction to smaller universities/colleges in terms of driving research in specific fields as envisaged in the past. In fact, the Punnayya Committee (1992-93) on Plan Grants recommended that “each university must have a perspective plan which must be linked to its objective, environment and potential” and that “there should be a provision of specified discretionary fund with the Vice Chancellor to be used for promoting excellence in teaching and research”. While Clause 47 of the Bill has spelt out some form of financial autonomy of educational institutions in the form that “the Corporation (HEFSC), at the beginning of each financial year, shall, on the basis of the allocation of grants for that financial year communicated by the Commission, prepare a proposal, based

on the information provided by each higher educational institution and in accordance with the norms and principles specified by regulations of grants to be allocated to each higher educational institution in that financial year”. This is a positive break from the past where a high handed UGC determined the financial grants to each institution without any proper consultative mechanisms. However, a point that needs flagging here is that the Bill is silent on how exactly “the information (concerning financial requirements/assistance)” from higher educational institution will be sought. Will each university/institute from a committee/group of faculty and academic experts to prioritize research goals and approve of financial requests/assistance? The Bill must lay down guidelines on establishing a mechanism or interface between educational institutions and the HEFSC to streamline flow of finances and grants. Another area of concern that emerges from the current mandate of the HEFSC is the lack of mention regarding its role vis-à-vis the Planning Commission. As stated earlier, the country has seen dwindling expenditure in higher education and a skewed distribution of resources between state and central universities. It is essential that a body like the HEFSC (under the guidance of the NCHER) play an important role in coordinating with the Ministry of Human Resource & Development (MHRD), the Planning Commission and various other arms of the Govt. of India in plan allocation for higher research and education. Here, the HEFSC on the basis of recommendations from the Collegium of Scholars, the Board for Promotion of Higher Research & Innovation (BPRI) and on the basis of suggestions/proposals from various education institutions could play a central role in not only coordinating Central Plan allocations but also determine the way it is distributed. Making the HEFSC as the “coordinating agency” and empowering the educational institutions on financial matters (through the HEFSC) could drastically reduce ‘funding gaps’ and streamline distribution processes. The Bill should expand the mandate of the HEFSC to meet the above objectives.

The Bill lacks clarity on:
1) Autonomy of educational institutions The introductory statement of the Bill reads: “A Bill to promote autonomy of higher educational institutions and universities for free pursuit of knowledge and innovation…..” Further, Clause 16 of the Bill too mandates the Commission (NCHER) among other things, “to promote autonomy within higher educational institutions;” While a broad objective of providing educational institutions with “sufficient autonomy” has been talked about in the Bill, the truth is that one of the principal reasons for India’s higher education to have performed badly is the lack of real autonomy in educational institutions. The existing regulatory mechanisms have more or less influenced if not dictated a set pattern of pedagogy and course structure in our higher education system. As a result, the concept of ‘free thinking’ and ‘interrogation or challenge of ideas’ that should form the cornerstone of any college education has remained missing in recent years. The Bill presents no clarity on to what extent the NCHER will provide flexibility to educational institutions and their faculty in exercising choice in terms of course structure and programs. Here, distinction must be made between ‘institutes of excellence’ like the IITs, IISc, IISER etc. and smaller state level universities/colleges. Providing sufficient academic autonomy to the institutes of excellence could unshackle their research potential. This paradigm would mean that the institutes would be able to introduce new courses and texts without much interference from the Commission. Also, choice of new research areas and building of research facilities in collaboration with private and public sector enterprises on campus must be left to the institutes themselves. The Commission could limit its role in providing a broad regulatory framework for such activities. The BIPR and the Collegium of Scholars could play an ‘advisory role’ (through the Commission) in highlighting important research areas that the institutes could direct their focus on.

On the other hand, the recommendations of the BIPR and the Commission could have a binding arrangement with respect to smaller universities/colleges at the state level. Here, it must be noted that research activity at smaller universities/colleges at the state level require a big push forward and a broad policy prescription in this direction could help rejuvenate primary research in these institutions, at the same time maintaining basic quality levels through frequent monitoring and “appropriate curbs” on autonomy at the smaller universities/colleges. In addition to the absence of academic autonomy, consider the experience of an educationist from Kerala, who opines1, “To make matters worse, in the postcolonial era, in Kerala state, people became so intensely conscious of their rights that the universities and colleges became the hotbed of union activities - a fact which tied the hands of successive governments in bringing about changes, particularly in the examination /evaluation system, which I honestly believe is to be blamed in a major way for the failure of our education.” While political activity on campuses has grown tremendously across Universities and Colleges throughout India in recent years, adverse fallout of such a development has been the resistance to change that has marked the character of many university campuses in the country. The Bill should move towards empowering the Commission (NCHER) to also lay guidelines and install mechanisms in place to shield “intellectual diversity and academic changes” from any political activity on campus. It must be noted though, that autonomy per se is not a panacea to all problems and is also a double edged sword. While autonomy could help unshackle the potential of many institutes of excellence, the same could also be misused by forprofit educational institutions at the expense of quality and the individual student. It is thus important to provide differing degrees of autonomy to educational institutions according to their ranking, infrastructure and competitiveness.

“Pareltank: What ails Higher Education in India” -

2) Entrepreneurship/Innovation The debate on higher education and research has often tended to focus mainly on research in the scientific domain and issues that concern collaboration between research labs and the industry. While policy debates on improving the scientific research environment in our educational institutions is welcome, it is important not to ignore the huge opportunity costs related to an absence of an ‘entrepreneurial and innovation’ environment on campuses across the country. In its report titled ‘Entrepreneurship in India’, the National Knowledge Commission stated, “An entrepreneurial culture drives creation of wealth from knowledge and generates impetus for further innovation. Entrepreneurship, in turn, helps generate new jobs in the economy, and creates a culture of independence, risk-taking and confidence, more so amongst the emerging educated groups. A dynamic entrepreneurial environment is supported by a vibrant academic culture with innovation linking the two as a generator of new ideas and opportunities.” The Bill in its present form is silent on addressing the absence of an entrepreneurial and innovation culture in educational institutions. It has failed to lay down a comprehensive mechanism or structure to eliminate the obstacles that currently plague the entrepreneurial environment in India. Romesh Wadhwani, founder of Symphony Technology Group and chairman of Wadhwani Foundation, in an interview to the Business Standard listed out the following that plagues entrepreneurship and innovation in India: a) There are too many licenses and bureaucrats that an entrepreneur has to deal with, in order to get his company going. b) Lack of early stage funding of product development. Angel funding is nonexistent. He further suggested that “both private and public corporations have the ability to support innovation, product development etc. and there is no reason why a 50 or 100 government enterprises like State Bank of India, Indian Railways, or a Bharat Heavy Electricals limited cannot come together to fund these innovation

programmes. Similarly, large corporations like Reliance Industries, Hindustan Unilever among others could also encourage innovation because sooner or later this innovation will come back and benefit them.” Here it must be noted that the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) has played an important role in spurring entrepreneurial activity across colleges and has led to introduction of entrepreneurship courses in 600 colleges across India. Today, the organization boasts of having nurtured 1200 faculty members specializing in teaching entrepreneurship. The Bill is silent on how it will leverage such networks in spreading entrepreneurship and innovation across the country. The Bill must present more clarity on the mandate of the Board for Research Promotion & Innovation, regarding i) ii) iii) cultivating ‘incubation centres’ on campuses; streamlining legal and financial obstacles for growth of entrepreneurship in India; empowering the Higher Education and Finance Corporation (HEFC) to bring about convergence in addressing initial funding issues that are critical to early success in any entrepreneurial and innovation activity.

Here, the scope for the HEFC to intervene is huge. The HEFC in collaboration with private/public sector financial institutions could play a leading role in encouraging early stage investments into student projects and research activities, through campus incubation centres. Moreover, the Bill should lay guidelines on how the NCHER in tandem with various arms of the Government of India will help clear the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that seem to stifle growth in this sector. In addition, the Bill should state what role the NCHER sees in networks such as the NEN and how they can be leveraged to achieving the stated objectives.

1. The Bill should provide an easier framework for entry of new players in higher education and clear the legislative hurdles that are required to be overcome in establishing a new university. 2. The Bill should lay down guidelines for each educational institution to establish an ‘interface’ between itself and the Commission (NCHER) in coordinating research activities, financial grants/research funding and implementing the recommendations of the BPRI and the Commission. 3. The Bill should lay down provisions to regulate participation of industry on campuses and framing of guidelines in this regard. The Bill could expand the mandate of the NCHER to establish a framework to help universities make efficient use of their resources (unused land etc.) to extract funds & promote academia-industry ‘collaborative research’ through research centres, design labs etc. on campus. 4. The Bill should expand the mandate of the NCHER to work with various arms of the Government of India in order to clear ‘legal and bureaucratic hurdles’ for growth in the entrepreneurship sector. 5. The Bill should expand the say of the HEFSC vis-a-vis the MHRD and the Planning Commission in matters pertaining to budgetary allocations. It should make the HEFSC a “coordinating agency” between educational institutes and the Government /PSU/Banks on research funding, grants, scholarships etc. 6. The Bill should move towards empowering the Commission (NCHER) to lay guidelines and install mechanisms in place to shield “intellectual diversity and academic changes” from any political activity on campus.

There is no denying the fact that higher education in India needs a revolution of a unique kind. Today, our institutes of higher learning have ceased to exist as dynamic hubs of contemporary research; there are notable exceptions to that, but still few in number. A degree from a college has become an end in itself. The journey in between where a student develops new skillsets, acquires knowledge and develops a questioning attitude has somehow lost its value. Reigniting the scientific temper and hunger to learn is critical to rejuvenating higher education in the country. College education must not get reduced to a 4 year ritual of attaining a degree but a journey towards introduction to new thinking, research and their implications on the economy and the society at large. It is therefore important to build a robust infrastructure and help create an enabling environment for research activity on campuses across the country. Academic and financial autonomy are important ingredients in achieving that objective. More importantly, opening channels between industry and academia will help the economy immensely in the long run and make research and development sustainable in India. If the system is able to increase the returns for private and public enterprises on their investments in research labs/centres on campuses, the benefits would accrue to both industry and campuses thereby helping the intellectual growth of society at large. This arrangement would also help students acquire skillsets and contribute to the society from an early stage as compared to the existing paradigm where formal education often keeps students away from project collaborations and hands-on research experience. The Higher Education Research Bill 2011 inspires confidence in addressing some of the fundamental problems that have plagued higher education in India and indeed aims to unclutter the sector. However, the top down approach in the form of the BIPR and the Commission in general, determining larger policy directions in terms of academic research, course programs etc. is not always appropriate. While it may serve to give a big push forward in the case of smaller universities/colleges at the state level, a similar paradigm could only stunt

potential of institutes of excellence which have sufficient talent pool but lack resources. It must be remembered that the best quality research flourishes in a bottom-up structural environment, where intellectual independence and financial backing give rise to new technological innovations. It is advisable that the role of the Commission and its various arms such as the BIPR and the HEFSC as envisaged under this Bill, should be limited to laying down guiding factors in driving activity in important and strategic areas of research. A more important role that the Commission could play is in matters pertaining to entry/functioning of educational institutions and streamlining financial funding processes, allocation of resources and their distribution. The 21st century is the century of knowledge power, where conventional superiority in terms of military and economy alone will not tilt the balance of power in a country’s favour. In the words of K. Subrahmanyam, India’s foremost strategic expert, “knowledge — not weapons — will be the currency of power and will determine the international hierarchy.” With a young and energetic population raring to face future challenges, the onus is on India to leverage the underlying demographic potential by equipping her young populace with modern skillsets, knowledge and innovation; a feat very much possible if we strengthen our ‘institutions of learning’ – our universities.