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A Much-Needed Reform That Fails The Test

Observer Research Foundation Mumbai is pleased to present this report containing ourcomments and recommendations on the draft National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill 2010 for wider public debate. Both the supporters and critics of this Bill agree that this is one of the most important pieces of legislation contemplated by the Union Government to change the system of higher education and research in India. Hence, it must be debated seriously not only by the academic community, but also by MLAs and MPs (education being a subject in the concurrent list in the Constitution), others in the political and policy-making establishment, and all those stakeholders in society who are concerned about the problems faced by the universities and institutions of research in India.

ORF Mumbai believes that the draft NCHER Bill is ill-conceived. If passed in its present form, its impact would be largely negative. The proposed Commission would have highly centralized powers, with very little accountability. At a time when deregulation of higher education is the need of the hour, NCHER has been conceptualized as a super-regulator that would enjoy unprecedented authority as well as autonomy from the Central and State governments without guaranteeing real autonomy where it is most needed: our universities, their affiliated colleges, and institutions of higher learning. It would also further undermine the role of States, which need to be encouraged and empowered to advance the agenda of educational reforms. After all, it is the States, and not the Centre, that are better placed to pursue the daunting goals of nearly trebling the GER in higher education over the next 10- 15 years, vastly improving its quality, promoting excellence, enhancing inclusivity, and making higher education more relevant to the needs of society.

Rather than simply criticizing the draft Bill, this report makes a strong case for remandating NCHER as an apex-level body for strategic planning, coordination, guidance to promote higher education in all its diverse disciplines (including medical, legal and agricultural education, which have been excluded from the purview of the present Bill due to interministerial turf battles), while retaining the existing regulatory bodies in a radically reformed form. In doing so, we have explained where the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee were right – and also where they were wrong.

Our other important recommendations pertain to the need (a) to ensure genuine and effective autonomy, with clear accountability norms, to heads of academic institutions; (b) to end the neta-babu interference and also to take deterrent measures against rampant corruption in regulatory bodies; (c) to launch, on a war footing, a national mission for multiplying the number of good teachers, with incentives for those who perform better; (d) to policy-enable private and philanthropic investments on a massive scale since the government‟s own resources are grossly inadequate for achieving India‟s ambitious targets in higher education; (e) to recognise the need for diversity and competition in the governance and accreditation models in higher education; (f) to give freedom to colleges and institutions to determine fees, while simultaneously imposing inclusivity obligations on them; (g) to massively increase the number of scholarships and low-interest rate educational loans to benefit needy students; (h) to review the policy of reservations in faculty appointment and promotion in higher education, while retaining it in admission of students; (i) to forge close links between higher education and development of employable skill sets; j) to use revolutionary power of ICT enabled innovations in education especially in open and distance learning; k) to Indianize the entire orientation of higher education and research to make it relevant to India‟s needs.

The contents of this report are based mainly on the Roundtable that ORF Mumbai organised on March 27, 2010. ORF Mumbai was privileged to have it inaugurated by Dr. Narendra Jadhav, Member, Planning Commission, and one of the most distinguished personalities in India‟s public life as proven by his earlier stints in Pune University and the Reserve Bank of India. He spoke at great length in defence of the draft NCHER Bill. The passion, candour, eloquence and deep social commitment that marked his address, as well as his replies in the Q&A session, are rarely seen among policy makers in the field of education. However, most of the participants in the Roundtable were highly critical of the Bill as well as the government‟s overall approach to higher education. While agreeing with many of Dr.Jadhav‟s comments and observations, ORF Mumbai‟s own conclusions echo this critical view. This in no way diminishes our respect for him, and we remain grateful to him for having stimulated a meaningful debate. Ms. Radha Viswanathan, a research fellow at ORF Mumbai, coordinated the Roundtable. She, along with Dr. Leena Chandran Wadia, a senior fellow, conducted the basic research and helped in preparing this report. Your comments on this report are most welcome.

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