In an alphabet soup

Worried about getting into a good college? Here’s why....

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:February 10, 2009 2:23 am

Heracles had to complete 10 (later 12) labours and the second was the killing of Lernaean Hydra,a serpent-like monster with many heads. One of these heads was immortal. The trouble with the other heads was that as soon as Heracles chopped a head off,two others sprouted in its place. Eventually,with his nephew’s aid,Heracles arrived at the solution of burning down a head once it had been chopped off. In 2005,World Bank published a report on India and the knowledge economy. The thrust of the report was on education’s role as an enabler of the knowledge economy and set out the main issues,as perceived by the Bank,in strengthening India’s education system.

Paraphrased,these issues are: (a) improving efficiency in the use of public resources; (b) making the education system responsive to market needs; (c) ensuring that access does not mean crowding out of the relatively poor; (d) ensuring quality,relevance and practical skills; (e) in higher education,shifting the focus of the government from administrative management to regulation; and (f) relaxing entry barriers and accreditation systems for private players,including foreign ones. We forget.

But in May 2004,there was a National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). If headings in the NCMP indicate the UPA’s priorities,those were employment,agriculture,education,health,panchayati raj,infrastructure,water resources,administrative reforms,industry and labour. When the UPA is evaluated at the end of its tenure,it should be gauged on these heads it identified as priorities. It shouldn’t be judged on opening up pensions or insurance,or privatisation of PSUs or Chapter V-B of the Industrial Disputes Act. It never gave commitments on those. I recently heard a fellow economist list the UPA’s economic achievements and he mentioned NREGA and RTI. I understand the non-listing of VAT and roads,because those were legacies. But whatever happened to education and health?

There is a double problem with health though. First,health outcomes take longer to improve,since they depend on preventive measures like clean drinking water,sewage and sanitation. Also,the minister doesn’t belong to the Congress and goes off on tangents so often that a Congress MP described him as “Minister for Venugopal Affairs”.

Education is different. It is in-house,not at the mercy of allies. What did the NCMP pledge on education? An increase in public education expenditure to 6 per cent of GDP (half for primary and secondary),a cess,a National Knowledge Commission,or NKC,autonomy for institutions of higher learning and professional education,mid-day meals and steps so that no one is deprived access because of poverty.

Planning Commission discussions divide education into five segments: elementary education,secondary education,technical/ vocational education and skill development,higher/ technical education and adult literacy. Of these,the UPA can’t be blamed (or take much credit) for what has happened in elementary/ secondary education. First,there is a legacy element there too,be it in constitutional amendments,the 1994 District Primary Education Programme which began to push up enrolment rates,or mid-day meals. Second,delivery and regulatory structures are often with states. When it comes to higher education,defined both as technical/ vocational and higher/ technical education,that problem is less. Since 1976-77,higher education has been in the Concurrent List. How has the UPA succeeded there? Barring opposition to the Foreign Universities Bill,the Left hasn’t played an obstructionist role.

On higher education proper,the present regulatory and control structure is a maze. Although the human resource development ministry is involved,directly or indirectly,there are multiple layers. First,there are Central universities,funded by the Centre and therefore under direct Central control. Second,there are deemed universities under the UGC Act,institutions established under state legislation and institutes of national importance established under Central legislation. Third,there exist state universities and colleges,with coordination function supposed to be exercised by the UGC and the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). Fourth,some universities are affiliating,others are unitary. Some are single campus,others are multi-campus. Fifth,several forms of professional education are regulated by statutory councils like the All India Council for Technical Education,Distance Education Council,Indian Council for Agriculture Research,Bar Council of India,National Council for Teacher Education,Rehabilitation Council of India,Medical Council of India,Pharmacy Council of India,Indian Nursing Council,Dentist Council of India,Central Council of Homeopathy and Central Council of Indian Medicine. This creates multiplicity and confusion,the artificial distinction between diplomas and degrees being a case in point.

This is Hydra with its many heads and these should be lopped off and burnt. That’s the key,not increasing public expenditure on education. Competition is the key,with appropriate regulation. Here is the NKC on regulation: “There is a clear need to establish an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE)… Entry through legislation alone,as at present,is a formidable barrier. The consequence is a steady increase in the average size of existing universities with a steady deterioration in their quality. The absence of competition only compounds problems. Second,as we seek to expand the higher education system,entry norms will be needed for private institutions and public-private partnerships… And there are extensive rules after entry,as the UGC seeks to regulate almost every aspect of an institution from fees to curriculum. The system is also based on patently irrational principles… In higher education,regulators perform five functions: (1) entry: licence to grant degrees; (2) accreditation: quality benchmarking; (3) disbursement of public funds; (4) access,fees or affirmative action; (5) licence: to practice profession. India is perhaps the only country in the world where regulation in 4 of the 5 functions is carried out by one entity,that is,the UGC. The purpose of creating an IRAHE is to separate these functions.”

Strong words and compelling arguments. The NKC submitted more than 250 recommendations. Most have gone for a six,including dilution of governance in the Central Universities Bill. The HRD ministry isn’t Hydra’s immortal head. It too needs to be sliced off and burnt.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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