Should India welcome foreign universities and colleges? Against the backdrop of only two of 21st century India’s 39,000 colleges and 1,241 universities ranked among the global Top 200 in the WUR (World University Rankings) of the London-based QS and Times Higher Education, this is a critical question for the country’s youth because they need — indeed they are entitled to — world-class education, high-quality faculty and latest education technologies.
The question brings to mind the debate between Gandhiji and Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi argued that we should be rooted in our culture and be wary of outsiders and their influence. As the debate was conducted through various magazines and publications, Gandhi, as he did so often, accommodated the poet’s views without altering his fundamental belief in the uniqueness of Indian culture and civilisation. In a famous quote, Gandhi revised his opinion. “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any,” he said.
The draft National Education Policy, 2019 presented to Union HRD minister Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal on May 31, attempts to strike a balance between the foundations of Indian civilization and the fundamentals of the newly emerged ‘flat world’. The draft seems to be far more open than the establishment has been in the past towards foreign colleges and universities. Three key proposals in the Kasturirangan Committee’s draft NEP offer the hope that this could be education’s liberalisation moment, as 1991 was for the Indian economy. Of course some proposals of the committee are questionable, but let’s begin with the positives.
The first proposal that represents a titanic paradigm shift in the governance of education in post-independence India is separation of the roles and functions of the education establishment at the Centre and in the states. Currently all functions related to education are discharged by education ministries under the command of a secretary. The ministry, with its wholly controlled institutions (UGC, AICTE, NCTE etc), is policymaker, regulator, financier of infrastructure and personnel, assessor of quality and compliance, adjudicator of disputes between institutions and also service provider which runs government schools and colleges. All these diverse functions are performed under the supervision of the education secretary. Quite obviously, a single entity cannot possibly perform all these functions effectively; it militates against the basic idea of core competency. Therefore the draft NEP recommends several agencies to focus on their core competencies and functions.
Under the current system, there is an inherent conflict of interest between being a service provider on the one hand running government schools, and being the regulator and assessor of quality on the other. The draft NEP is in tune with the global movement towards ‘agencification’. Placing separate agencies in charge of distinct functions with responsibilities and power is the norm in developed OECD countries. For instance, the UK has 17 different agencies that together govern that country’s education system with two agencies reporting directly to Parliament. Separation of the regulatory and education provision functions of the government is a welcome and overdue recommendation of the KR Committee.
This idea is not entirely new in Indian administration. In several sectors, separation of functions has been implemented. For example, in the very successful telecom sector, the ministry is the policy formulator, TRAI the regulator and TDSAT the adjudicator of disputes between service providers that ensures private and government companies (Airtel, BSNL etc) remain competitive. This governance architecture has endowed India with arguably the cheapest, high quality telecom services worldwide. Therefore, the separation of powers and responsibilities proposed in the NEP is a foundational change in education governance.
The second key recommendation of the KR Committee is a shift of focus to learning outcomes as the metric for regulation. Instead of the emphasis accorded by the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, on inputs and infrastructure, the draft NEP prioritises learning achievements. This proposal if accepted will create regulatory neutrality in assessing government and private institutions. All institutions will be regulated by metrics that really matter to students and parents.
The third recommendation which is particularly relevant for higher education is recognition of the importance of online and blended learning. Today all degree programmes require face- to-face contact between faculty and students in classrooms and lecture halls. Commendably, the draft NEP understands that massive technological changes can empower students to learn in different ways and earn their degrees. It also accords high importance to the National Institute of Open Schooling and promises to strengthen it.
The above three changes recommended by the KR Committee, if accepted and implemented systematically and consistently, will usher in a brave new world of education in India.
(Dr. Parth J. Shah is president of Centre for Civil Society, Delhi. Excerpted from his address at EW India Private Higher Education Rankings Awards 2019-20)