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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Delivery is in the detail

Creating universities is the easy part. Reforming HRD ministry will take more doing

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
June 8, 2009 12:36:16 am

Arguably no ministry other than human resource development has generated as much hope and public scrutiny. There is a real sense in which the future of India rests on this ministry. The accumulated backlog of self-destructive decisions in this ministry is so large that there is much to be done. There is also no shortage of advice; there is a plethora of reports floating around. There is consensus emerging on some general issues,like the need for independent,credible and sensible regulatory frameworks. Even longstanding votaries of the old system in higher education seem to be now changing their views,as was evident in the Yashpal Committee report. There is therefore an unprecedented opportunity to bring about change.

But there is all the more reason to understand the exact nature of the challenges this ministry faces. The challenges will not be formulating objectives or designing new institutions; that will be the easy part. HRD has some peculiar institutional challenges. First,it is a ministry that has to engage with perhaps the largest number of institutions and other significant actors. Primary education will require serious engagement with the states; higher education with a large number of other existing regulatory bodies and institutions. This feature of the policy-making environment makes the transmission mechanisms of policy a lot more complicated. The best-laid plans will come to naught if there is no engagement with or change in those other institutions. In short,successful execution will require a protracted set of negotiations,not just abstract policy. This task will test the perseverance of any minister.

Second,the devil is going to be in the detail. Take two examples. Everyone agrees on the need for an independent regulator. But everything will turn on how precisely the powers and functions of this regulator are defined. The Knowledge Commission’s recommendations will need to be refined further to prevent it from becoming another Leviathan. Its must not micro-manage institutions: it must simply empower students’ choices by giving them the right information. It is probably even more important to specify what this regulator should not be able to do. Or take the Foreign Universities Bill. It would better if our approach to foreign universities was part of an overall regulatory overhaul so that there is a level playing field for all institutions. But the last draft of the bill,while well-intentioned,ran the risk of producing the worst of all worlds. It will allow foreign players in. But its requirements will deter good institutions,those more keen on their autonomy,from coming in.

Third,proposals to address the most serious bottlenecks will take a slightly longer gestation period. The most significant bottleneck at all levels of education is this: teacher shortage. Even in the most richly endowed private schools,the quality variance in teaching is very high because trained teachers are not that easy to find; the problem is equally severe in the public system. Our BEd programs are a complete joke,and odd exceptions apart we do not have schools of education that can bring about a pedagogic revolution. In higher education,we have a serious faculty shortage because of the near meltdown of quality PhD programmes. The structure of expansion of the university system undertaken in recent years will only deepen this crisis. Creating quality PhD programmes will not come about as a result of the UGC’s bureaucratic measures,it will require the agglomeration of talent in a few top universities. India has a huge window of opportunity the next couple of years. The US academic job market is virtually stagnant,and we now have a chance to entice back significant talent. But it will require getting the recruiting strategy right.

Fourth,almost everything in education turns on the quality of appointments. But this has two aspects. Not only should the right people be appointed to the right positions,they have to be given an enabling environment. For instance,good individuals can get appointed and then saddled with subordinates or oversight boards that are on a completely different page. This may seem like a trivial point from the outside,but is absolutely central if good institutions need to be revived. We will not simply need good individuals here and there,but a critical mass of people who are on the same page. In short,where the HRD matters,it will have to have to do a lot of homework to ensure good teams are enabled,not simply slot random individuals here and there.

Fifth,the more difficult transitions are cultural. The HRD ministry has created a culture where all autonomous bodies become more and more subordinate to the IAS hierarchy,with joint secretaries and secretaries lording it over professors and professionals. Fundamentally,it is about government recognising that education and academia have an internal integrity and romance of their own,and they will have to be given the space to come into their own. The paradox of reform is that the government has to acquire more power in order to effect change; but it also has to learn to let go. A minister who can curb the inordinate power and hubris the bureaucracy acquired will truly revolutionise things.

A minister does not only have to contend with getting basic regulatory frameworks right. The public system will remain crucial to education at all levels. Can a minister initiate enough reforms in the public sector? Even within the public system there is a need for more diverse models,decentralisation,competition,differentiation and innovation. But the entire architecture of the public education system treats it as a homogenous whole. As currently designed,even the new world class universities run the risk of replicating the same old mistakes in their fundamental structures even as they pay lip service to reform.

The final challenge is the subtlest. The government can merely provide an enabling environment. In some ways the sad story of Indian education is that academics and professional abdicated their responsibilities and were singularly unimaginative. Even private innovation has at best filled a niche; it does not yet have a generalised aspiration to excellence and distinction. Will the change in government’s outlook be sufficient to infuse new energy in all of us? Will academics respond to the challenge of a new paradigm of innovation and citizenship? Any would-be revolutionary will also have to confront this large and subtle question.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

express@expressindia.com

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