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Reforms in Indian Higher Education – A Perspective

Mr. Pradeep Kumar Gupta
(Immediate Past President, EPSI)
Chancellor, Sharda University Greater Noida
  • Improving the quality of higher education by reforming and transforming higher educational institutions in India has been an ongoing concern over the last few decades. While the country has done fairly well in terms of growth in the number of institutions, from 30 universities and 695 colleges in 1951 to 903 universities and 39050 colleges in 2017-18, with a reasonably good growth in the GER which has now become about @ 25.8%, there has not been a single Indian university in the top 100 universities in the global rankings. Even the present GER does not compare favourably vis-a-vis other developing economies, such as Brazil and China, and is much below the world average of 35.65 (UNESCO 2015). The public expenditure on education hovers around 4% of the GDP against the target of 6% laid down in the National Policy on Education, 1986.
  • At present we have a very serious research deficit in the Higher Education sector as we barely have 150 researchers per million of population. While the Government intends to increase its spending on R&D to 2% of our GDP as announced by the successive Prime Ministers at the annual functions of the Science congress, we need to increase the number of effective researchers from 150 to about 1000 active researchers per million of our population. In fact, the latest higher education survey data indicates that barely 161412 students are enrolled in Ph.D. that is less than 0.5% of the total student enrolments. The Govt. should increase its research scholarships manifold if we wish to realise our dream of being a front runner in today’s knowledge society. Recently, the Government has taken an initiative to set up 6 Institutions of Eminence with the avowed goal of finding place amongst top 100 global universities in the next ten years. However, it needs to be understood by the policy-makers that there can not be any sustainable island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. All out efforts are required to be made to enhance the overall general quality and research across the education sector, so as to lead the country on a higher growth trajectory.
  • The National Policy on Education, 1986 and the Program of Action (1992) had laid down the road map for the future growth and development of the education sector in the country. It is ironical that while the deliberations are still on for formulating the ‘New Education Policy’, the Ministry of HRD seeks to introduce the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grant Commission Act), Bill 2018 for revamping the apex regulatory body in the higher education system. It tantamounts to putting the cart before the horse.
  • Even a cursory look at the draft Bill makes one feel that a great opportunity has been lost to bring about transformational legislation impacting on the quality of Higher Education in the country. In its present avatar it is more of the same, with hardly any radical departure from the past. The existing 14 different regulatory bodies and professional councils shall continue to exist and function independently, often issuing contradictory regulations and thereby interfering with higher educational systems and processes. The Commission thus fails to regain the pre-eminent position as an apex body, which the UGC was made to shed in course of time due to the multiplicity of statutory councils. In fact the medical and dental education have been totally excluded and HECI will have no say whatsoever, though the same will be very much provided through the same university system. Still worse is the fact that the proposed draft Bill fails to set up any coordination mechanism with other councils with a view to have greater synergy. Ideally, the way forward ought to empower the new regulator as the sole regulator of higher education, rendering the remaining bodies as only professional councils responsible for setting and enforcing the practice of their respective professions.
  • The draft Bill unfortunately reflects the government’s indifference towards the role played by the private enterprise in the higher education sector. While investment in the Higher Education in India has been made very substantially by private entrepreneurs, who account for almost 78% of private colleges, and 353 out of 903 Universities, with over 67% student’s enrolment; with 80% contribution in professional education , the Commission still does not have any specific representation of private sector in its apex decision making body. Further, there is a need to provide greater visibility to the Commission by having a broad-based membership of the Commission so as to include internationally acclaimed distinguished persons from the industry, professional bodies and academia. It may also be considered if members from other statutory councils could also be co-opted on the Commission to provide greater linkage and synergy.
  • Unfortunately, despite its substantial role in nation building, the Government does not treat private enterprise in the sector as a priority and hence the privately funded educational institutions find it very difficult to get loans for the development of their institutions and if they somehow struggle and manage to get some loan funding, it is at comparatively high rates of interest. Even the recent initiative of Government in setting up of Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) does not provide interest subsidy on the loans provided by the banks to the private self-funded institutions. It needs to be realised that the educational institution in India so far do not have endowment and strong alumni connect and flow of funds from them. There should be no discrimination between Private and Public HEIs when funds are disbursed for research, sponsored projects, faculty development and students’ scholarship. The private institutions do not have meritocratic access to government funding, which is skewed heavily in favour of public funded institutions. Even in the UGC research fellowships, the students from the self-financed institutions find themselves as unwelcomed claimants. There is no non-NET fellowship available for Ph.D. students in privately self-funded institutions. The knowledge economy today demands that the resources for pursuing research, knowledge-creation leading to publications should be based upon the academic attainment of the faculty and research capabilities that exists in a University, rather than on the considerations of as to whether they are publically funded or privately sponsored institutions or they belong to elite institutions such as IITs/NITs.
  • There is no provision in the Bill to institutionalise the recently introduced ‘National Institute Ranking Framework’ in the regulatory framework. Unfortunately accreditation, which is an important tool for quality improvement in learning outcomes, has been left in the hands of the Commission, making the National Assessment and Accreditation Council a sub-ordinate body of the Commission. This perpetuates the existing practice which conflates the sanctioning, now authorisation role, with that of assessing and is somewhat akin to the referee and the player being rolled in one. There is an imperative need to ensure that while the regulatory body prescribes the minimum norms and standards for the opening and operation of the higher educational institutions in the country, its implementation and progress is left to be monitored in terms of the performance of the institutions in accreditation and ranking. While the regulatory body should keep itself at arms length distance from NAAC, there is a need for more accreditation bodies – one may think of bodies such as ICRA and CRISIL.
  • Further, the composition of the proposed Advisory Council under the HECI Bill does not inspire confidence; there is need to make it more-broad based to include, apart from State Higher Education Councils, representation from NITI Ayog, National Professors, Private Universities, Heads of certain Institutions of National Importance, professional and learned bodies. This would also be in the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ which our Constitution enjoins upon the Government to follow. All substantive policy decision ought to be taken in consultation and coordination with this Advisory Council.
  • The proposed HECI has been vested with enormous administrative powers of opening & closure of institutions but no mechanism has been prescribed for grievance redressal of the aggrieved Higher Educational Institutions. The Bill also fails to subject the Commission to the rigour of ‘Peer Review’ every five years whose reports could also be submitted to the Parliament for greater oversight. The Bill also provides the Commission powers to specify norms and processes for fixing of fee chargeable by higher education institutions but without any statutory safeguard against arbitrary use of such authority. There is clearly a need for setting up of an ‘Ombudsman’ under a retired Supreme Court or High Court Judge to ensure that there is no arbitrariness or vendetta leading to victimization.
  • The Government policy and even the proposed regulatory framework has somehow failed to reflect national priorities in certain areas. For example, the encouragement to the export of Indian Education, by way of attracting foreign students to our institutions in India, and resultant earnings of much needed foreign exchange, has not been so far given due attention. Weightage and credit for export of higher education, by way of foreign exchange earned from international students in India, needs to be given while awarding NIRF Ranking or NAAC grading. It may be noted that in the year 2016-17 Sharda University was the top ranking university in the country, in terms of international students on its roll, and had earned about USD 30 million as foreign exchange.
  • Before the financial year 2016-17, Scrips were awarded to the higher education institutions under the SEIS (Services Export from India Scheme) @ 10% of net inward foreign exchange earned which could be used for adjusting against any service tax, excise duty or import duty. However, in the beginning of the year 2016-17, the value of Scrip was reduced to 5% which has been raised to 7% from November 2017.It is really appreciated that the Scrips have been made transferable, though they can be used only for adjusting against import duty as the service tax and excise duty have been merged in GST for which the Scrips are not valid. If we really want to encourage foreign exchange earnings, then we should restore the pre 2016-17 position and award Scrips to the extent of 10% of the net foreign exchange earned. It should also be allowed to be adjusted for payments against the GST.
  • It may be recalled that with effect from 01/04/2017, the Service Tax exemptions allowed in respect of all educational institutions, other than institutions providing services by way of pre-school education and education up to higher secondary school of equivalent level, was withdrawn by the Government which implied that a higher educational institution would be liable to pay Service Tax @ 15% for April to June 2017 and thereafter, GST up to 18% w.e.f. 1.07.2017. The situation may further worsen if the Government decides not to extend the exemption presently allowed from payment of the reverse charges after 30th September, 2018 to the higher educational institutions who have to often invite reputed scientists, industry experts, and other professionals for value addition to their regular courses and programs on payment basis.
  • The severe impact of the applicability of GST on the self-financed Higher Educational institutions, for whom the tuition fees paid by the students is the main source of revenue, can be understood from the fact that any additional burden on this account will have to be recovered either from the students through increased tuition fees or has to be essentially borne by the promoters which may not be always feasible. It may force some of the self-financed institution to cut down on goods and services which help in providing quality teaching and research. It may not be out of place to point out that the declared policy of the Government of India has been that there would be no GST on education and health sector– yet it has, by the aforesaid measure, imposed GST up to @ 18% on the various out-sourced services (mess, transport, house-keeping, etc.) crucial to quality teaching and learning. It would, therefore, be prudent that the Higher Educational Institutions are exempted from GST on all out-sourced services, as also from payment of any reverse charges if made applicable after 30th Sept. 2018.
  • To conclude, the role of Government in the domain of policy and that of the statutory bodies in university governance deserves serious re-consideration. There is need to recognize that once a university is established, their role is that of facilitators, ensuring autonomy of institutions. The need for seeking approvals and permissions from government, particularly at the State level, for starting new academic programs or new disciplines or even filling up of the vacant teaching positions should be dispensed with. Apprehension that in the absence of the external checks and balances, the universities will exercise power in an arbitrary manner is not well founded. It distrusts universities, creates an atmosphere of suspicion where faculty members are not in a position to drive the academic agenda. While there may be a legitimate case for some degree of regulatory oversight, assessment, and external accountability, there is a serious risk of regulatory capture where higher education policies will not be driven by innovation and creativity in the institution, but by bureaucrats, archaic regulations and callous indifference. Universities aspiring to achieve excellence need a free, liberal and facilitative environment. The default status of a good university is to be autonomous.