Blackboard empires

Turf wars by Arjun Singh’s HRD ministry cost the country valuable reform

Written by The Indian Express | Published: February 7, 2009 11:56:58 pm

The human resource development ministry is an object lesson in how politicising and over-bureaucratising education — especially higher education — blunts this fundamental tool

of social progress and economic development. That is what successive HRD ministers have done,failing to treat higher education as more than their personal fiefdom. This mania for control has done immense damage to higher education in India.

Under the incumbent HRD minister,Arjun Singh,the ministry has defeated the vision of the prime minister when he had set up the National Knowledge Commission in 2005 with the stated objective of reforming education and transforming India into a “knowledge society”,in keeping with the country’s core competencies and desperate needs. The NKC’s November 2006 report had analysed the crisis in higher education and advised “systemic overhaul” to facilitate the spread of education while maintaining academic quality. Since that report,the HRD ministry has systematically dismissed the recommendations of the NKC,such as its call for an end to political intervention in the appointment of university vice-chancellors or for greater institutional autonomy. The recent Central Universities Bill 2008 ominously maintains the status quo,allowing the government to appoint the VCs of the proposed universities. Besides,the Bhargava Committee’s support for a pan-IIM board headed by the secretary of the HRD ministry will only strengthen governmental control over the IIMs. IIM-Lucknow has already lived through Arjun Singh’s tussle with the selection committee over directorial appointment. Ditto the IITs,when the Madras high court had recently set aside the appointment of the new director at IIT,Madras. Additionally,the NKC’s proposal for creating the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education has been countered with greater bureaucratic complication by the ministry. The list could go on.

This predicament results not just from the ministry’s obsession with control but also from the reluctance of political appointees in academia and their political backers who tend to view reforms as inimical to their interest. In the end,it is a holistic governmental failure that goes beyond the ministry concerned.

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