Tuesday, October 7, 2008

To revamp higher education in the country

To revamp higher education in the country

The UGC review committee headed by Professor Yash Pal is to submit its interim report to the government soon. G. MAHADEVAN outlines some of the issues that were discussed at the committee’s sittings.

What began in early 2008 as an attempt to review the functioning of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) now appears to have undergone transformation as an endeavour to ‘rejuvenate and renovate’ higher education.

The committee headed by noted educationist Professor Yash Pal—set up in February 2008 as a UGC review committee—now expects to cast its net wider to prepare a blueprint for the overhaul of the higher education system in India.

The committee, Professor Yash Pal told The Hindu EducationPlus, will submit an interim report to the government in about a month from now.

Among the points about which the committee may make recommendations are the issue of upgrading UGC to a full-fledged Higher Education Commission, the granting of greater freedom and autonomy across a range of issues for universities, making the inter-disciplinary approach a norm in higher education, the need to revamp the manner in which Vice-Chancellors are appointed and ways to minimise interference by the State and Central governments in institutions of higher learning.

A major question that Professor Yash Pal and other committee members threw up for discussion at sittings held in various places, including Thiruvananthapuram, Pune, Amritsar and Varanasi, was whether the UGC needs to be upgraded into a full-fledged Higher Education Commission—a body that can integrate the functions of as many as 17 agencies which regulate higher education in the country now. The moot point was that funding and overall policy making will be made more efficient under an apex body that will act as a catalyst for quality improvement in higher education. The idea seems to have caught on with the academic community that participated in the Committee’s sittings.

At the sitting in Pune—held in May 2008— some participants pointed out that UGC was now over regulated and under governed. Universities were bound to do, to a large extent, what the Central agencies desired. Varsities had to run to these Central agencies for effecting even the smallest changes in their academic profile. This needs to be put an end to and universities need to be given the autonomy to decide what they want to teach and how, of course, within certain broad parameters laid down as part of a national policy, the participants felt.

At the Thiruvananthapuram sitting—in June 2008—another aspect of the Central agency-State university relationship was among the topics discussed. While there was no open disagreement on the need of an integrated agency for guiding higher education, a couple of participants pointed out that now the Central agencies and State universities sometimes worked at cross purposes.

The AICTE has been known to grant recognition to institutions which were not affiliated by State universities. So, if at all Central agencies function they should do so in a non-intrusive, constructive manner, they opined.

The nature and number of universities in the country came up for discussion at the other sittings of the committee also. There were many academics who were concerned about the size and spread of the universities in the country and some who argued for doing away with the system of affiliation.

Gangan Prathap, Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala and Cochin University of Science and Technology—in an email interaction with The Hindu EducationPlus—pointed out that India now has nearly 400 universities and nearly 20,000 colleges affiliated to them. Even if the nation plans to have universities with an average enrolment of 10,000 students, there needs to be 1,500 universities here.

“We could plan to continue the 400 universities as unitary universities and after disaffiliating the 20,000 colleges, re-cluster them into about 1,000 universities so that each of these newly formed cluster universities will have about 20 colleges each. It will be a good idea for the newly formed universities to actually be a universe of knowledge having, apart from arts and science colleges, their own medical and engineering, and as required, agricultural, pharmacy and management schools, colleges or faculties. This will facilitate the growth of inter-disciplinary activities, which are now missing in the academic sector in the country. While some specialised universities (e.g. technological, medical universities and so on) will continue to function as they do now, the cluster universities will have a more integrated outlook, combining general and specialised education within the same university,” Dr. Parathap noted.

However, it would then be next to impossible for any agency to control such large numbers of universities, nor would it make sense. In fact, Dr. Prathap is of the view that there should not be such a single agency doing the controlling. Agencies such as UGC should, on the other hand, act as polestars, setting standards and benchmarks. There should not be any ideological hang-ups about accepting funds from the private sector, for the State will never be able to fully meet the prohibitive requirements of this sector.

According to Professor Yash Pal one crucial area where the Committee is seeking to make changes is the ‘cubicle’ approach to education that many universities have adopted.

“A university should be a universe of knowledge. It cannot be divided into cubicles called departments. Departments should have porous boundaries. Only then can universities create insights that are required for a nation. Our universities cannot claim to have produced many such insights,” he explained. (At the committee’s sitting at Thiruvananthapuram the chairman of UGC Sukhadeo Thorat had pointed out that most of the applications received by the commission for conferring deemed university status were from single-faculty institutions.)

The educationist also expressed displeasure over the manner in which governments interfere in the running of universities. Universities, he reasoned, should be places where academicians are in control and get primacy of position. But in many universities this is not the case. The manner is which Vice-Chancellors are appointed leaves much to be desired. This is one of the problems that the committee will seek to redress.


Apart from the Yash Pal committee, another committee headed by the educationist is contemplating curricular reforms and still another committee of UGC is studying ways of restructuring universities. A common feature of such committees is that they hold sittings in many places.

At the same time other recommendations regarding higher education—views that are diametrically opposite to those professed by members of the above mentioned committees—are being sought to be implemented.

A draft consultation paper on Public-Private-Participation in higher education brought out by the Planning Commission was sent to the Chief Secretaries; consultation of any sort is yet to take place over that. There is also pressure on the government to implement the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission(NKC). There are academics who believe that the UGC’s committees are a desperate move to try and checkmate NKC.

With an army of experts showering a torrent of recommendations, it will be interesting to see which will be the ‘road not taken’ for higher education in the country.

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