The recent news of the Cabinet Secretary giving directions to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to transfer four schemes related to polytechnics to the new Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) has more serious implications than meet the eye. This, seen in conjunction with the earlier decision to transfer architecture institutions from the MHRD to the Ministry of Urban Development (MUD), could well be the beginning of the process of dismantling of the higher education system as we have known it. Already, the grapevine has it that the next subjects in line for transfer could be management and pharmacy, both of which today form part of higher education in the MHRD.
Throughout the progressive world, education is seen as a seamless whole. A university, as the very name suggests, stands for a universe of knowledge wherein all disciplines whether science, humanities, medicine, engineering, law, agriculture, architecture, management, pharmacy and even skills are seen as intrinsically linked. In fact, the top universities worldwide attach tremendous importance to research and interdisciplinary studies. Human experience shows that all path-breaking innovations take place on the fringes of disciplines. By erecting walls around disciplines are we not going further away from the idea of a university as the world sees and respects it? Even from the narrow point of view of world ranking of universities, this is a bad idea as all the major systems lay enormous stress on research and interdisciplinary studies.
The Constitution envisions that the coordination and maintenance of standards in institutions of higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions rests with the Government of India. To achieve this end, the University Grants Commission (UGC) was created in 1956. In order to be able to confer a degree, whether it is in medicine, engineering, management, law, architecture, pharmacy or even fashion technology, it is mandatory to be part of the university system, which is regulated under the UGC Act. However, over a period of time, several professional education regulators came into being, curiously through government legislation. These have encroached upon the apex regulator’s space. Today there are more than 13 de facto “regulators” in the area of higher education, often issuing contradictory instructions and causing confusion amongst the institutions and students alike.
The Kothari Commission (1964-66) was fully aware of the above dangers and stressed that “all higher education should be regarded as an integrated whole, that professional education cannot be completely divorced from general education, and that it is essential to bring together all higher education, including agriculture, engineering and medicine”. The same sentiment was repeated by the National Education Policy (1986) which states that “in the interest of greater co-ordination and consistency in policy, sharing of facilities and developing inter-disciplinary research, a national body covering higher education in general, agriculture, medicine, technical, legal and other professional fields will be set up”.
Later, the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee (2008) also recommended the creation of a single over-arching body, divesting professional bodies of their academic functions and restoring the same to the university. With the above vision in mind, the MHRD worked towards the creation of a National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), which unfortunately could not fructify as there was stiff resistance from the professional-education regulators.
Take the case of architecture: It is not a stand-alone discipline but leans on the knowledge of art, science, technology, social sciences and pedagogy and therefore is best anchored within the education system. The Council of Architecture (COA) can assume its role once the student leaves the portals of her alma mater and enters the professional world where she may need more specific skills.
The Government of India’s decision to shift four schemes of the MHRD to the MSDE, in actual terms, means that 3,500 polytechnics in the country have cut their umbilical cord with the higher education system. Till now, the better polytechnics had an opportunity to grow and evolve into engineering colleges for which there was a specific scheme in the MHRD. Internationally, several of the leading universities in Finland, UK and France were once polytechnics. The University of Oulu in Finland where Nokia was born is one such example. Instead of boxing these institutions into narrower spaces we need to provide them with opportunities to grow. The general approach would be to help them raise the bar rather than pull them down to a lower level.
Another trend that has adversely affected higher education and the idea of a university is the mushrooming of single subject universities. Scores of private engineering, management and even dental collages have become universities through the deemed university or state government route. However, the government ministries are also not far behind. For instance, the NSDE prefers to follow the arduous route of setting up its own university rather than work with the MHRD, which already has more than 700 universities and 38,000 colleges. Two-and-a-half years have gone by and we still do not have the National Skills University in place, the reason being that the process of setting up of a university is a cumbersome one. Had this been a collaborative effort, Skilling India would have been up and about by now.
It is no one’s case that all is well with higher education and nothing needs to be done. Both the UGC and AICTE require serious overhauling. The reports submitted by the expert committees set up by the government to look into this need to be discussed, debated and then acted upon instead of straight away carving away the vital organs of higher education and placing them artificially elsewhere where little domain knowledge exists. This could not only seriously affect the learning-teaching process in our institutions of higher learning but also lower the stature of the country as a serious player in the knowledge economy.
The writer a former education secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, is currently Honorary Professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh