Modi 1.0 wasted the opportunity to reform higher education regulation in the country. To be sure, it did introduce the Higher Education Commission (HECI) Bill in June last year, which talked of ending the failed University Grants Commission (UGC)/All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) system and replace it with the HECI. But, it did precious little after. The draft National Education Policy (NEP) that has recently been put up for public feedback proposes a different regulatory ecosystem. It advises reforms, but these aren’t bold enough. And some recommendations steer higher education regulation into dangerous terrain. There is also the problem of the time it foresees will be consumed—5-7 years—in shifting from the existing regulatory set-up to the one it proposes; India simply can’t wait as long, with, say, a China that lagged in world-class higher education infrastructure and delivery having since caught up and shot past.
The ethos, as worded by the draft’s authors, seems to be “light but tight” regulation—meaning rigorous and effective regulation in certain areas but much greater autonomy for higher education institutions in others. It envisages a National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA) that will be the sole regulator for all fields of higher education, including professional and vocational education. The ecosystem, as per the NEP, must consist of NHERA and separate bodies for funding, standard-setting, outlining educational outcomes and accreditation. The license to operate universities will be given by NHERA based on meeting the standards set by these independent bodies. All higher education institutions, thus, will have the autonomy to decide on matters that should have always been in their purview—from opening new departments/programmes to foreign collaborations and distance learning. This is a change from the earlier regime, beset with unwieldy centralisation of almost all regulatory functions under the UGC system, and regulatory overlap between, say, UGC and AICTE; while this system had a lot of inspectors and regulation, it failed to achieve the higher standards it was supposed to. While the system will be accreditation-based, and licences will be granted to some public and not-for-profit private institutions to function as the accreditation bodies, why not simply move to a system where students, parents, educationists and employers assess colleges in the manner markets do? The NEP acknowledges the role of public-opinion/market-forces, but outlines no path for incorporating this. Since the capabilities of existing colleges/universities are, in any case, well established, such a system will really have to deal only with the new entrants; over time, both old and new institutions will get ranked in this manner.
As Modi 2.0 looks at NEP to inspire its higher education regulation vision, it must also be careful to avoid the risk inherent in some recommendations. The NEP proposes to make the NHERA a quasi-judicial body, with powers to shut down, derecognise or penalise institutions. While the power to shut down would have served well in the case of a fly-by-night university/college set up to swindle unaware students and parents, the chances of an overreach will always remain. It would be just as effective if the regulator was to stick to derecognition of the institution—and publicise this widely—along with monetary penalties. After all, the NEP does talk about the regulatory system also functioning as a supplement to the “court of public opinion”.