Concerned with the dubious effects of the multiplicity of regulatory bodies in higher education, nearly all advisory panels appointed since 2005 have been pitching for a single regulator. The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) announced a few months ago, too, has endorsed the idea by providing for a common single regulator for the entire higher education system, with the exception of medical and law education. If recent developments in the field of medical education are any indication, the number of regulatory bodies in higher education is only set to soar.
Regulatory bodies came up essentially in response to the rapid growth of private participation since the 1980s. Procedures of regulation became increasingly complex even as practices they were meant to control got bolder and brazen. Finding higher education “over-regulated and under-governed”, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) concluded in 2007 that the plethora of agencies attempting to control entry, operation, intake, price, size, output and exit had rendered the regulation of higher education ineffectual. The NKC recommended the setting up of an overarching Independent Regulatory Authority in Higher Education (IRAHE). The Yash Pal Committee in its 2009 report also felt that the existence of multiple regulatory bodies had become an impediment to the pursuit of excellence. The committee’s key concern was compartmentalisation of academia, with little scope for dialogue across disciplines. To promote such a dialogue, the Yash Pal committee recommended the creation of an apex body called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). It was meant to serve as a platform for academic exchange and dialogue across disciplines and professions rather than as a controlling machine.
In 2016, a committee chaired by TSR Subramanian proposed a National Higher Education Promotion and Management Act for setting up an Indian Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) to subsume all existing regulatory bodies in higher education. Media reports in 2017 hinted at the possibility of a new regulatory body, tentatively titled Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA), to dissolve all existing regulatory bodies in higher education. The draft national policy presented by the Kasturirangan Committee in 2019 commended “a common regulatory regime for the entire higher education sector to eliminate isolation and disjunction” and proposed a National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA) as a sole regulator for all higher education. The existing regulatory bodies, including MCI, were to become professional standard setting bodies. Additionally, the committee also recommended the setting up of three other independent agencies to oversee accreditation by multiple accrediting institutions (AIs).
With so many independent institutions responsible for regulating various facets of higher education, the draft NEP 2020 proposed a Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) to coordinate, direct and address inter-institutional overlaps and conflicts. The idea of a common single regulator had, thus, morphed into a complex regulatory structure comprising an authority, three councils and a national commission with existing regulatory bodies and professional councils to continue to exist, albeit as professional standard setting bodies.
While the draft policy was still being finalised, the National Medical Commission of India (NMCI) Bill originally introduced in 2017 was reintroduced and passed by the Parliament in 2019 thereby repealing the Indian Medical Council Act 1956, dissolving the Medical Council of India (MCI) and vesting the regulation of medical education in the newly created National Medical Commission of India (NMCI).
Reviling the regulatory regimes for being “too heavy-handed”, NEP 2020 has now posited for a “light but tight” system under a single regulator for all higher education barring medical and law education. It envisages an overarching Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), with four independent verticals comprising the National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), the National Accreditation Council (NAC), the Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) and the General Education Council (GEC). Under the new schema of things, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is to become HEGC while the other regulatory bodies will become professional standard setters. Thankfully, the five independent institutions recommended in draft NEP 2019 now stand collapsed into one which will function with existing, re-defined bodies.
While NEP-2020 is content with separate regulation for medical education, it envisions healthcare education as an integrative system offering allopathic medicine students “a basic understanding of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH) and vice versa”. The idea of making medical education inter-disciplinary might be easier to enforce if all medical education were to be regulated in a coordinated manner by a single regulatory body. With the enactment of the National Commission for Homoeopathy (NCH) and the National Commission for Indian System of Medicine (NCISM) and continuation of the Dental Council of India (DCI), Pharmacy Council of India (PCI) and the Indian Nursing Council (INC), it looks certain that medical education shall continue to be regulated in a fragmented manner.
It may well be argued that it is well nigh impossible to design a single regulatory framework to take care of the domain-specific needs of disparate disciplines and professions even within healthcare education. But if accepted as a principle, it has the potential to delay, if not derail, the idea of a single regulator to cater to the diverse disciplines of general, professional and technical higher education. And should that actually happen, the idea of reining in the regulators might mean drowning higher education under permanent heavy rain.
The story of regulation is nicely captured by the saying, “marz barhata gaya jyon jyon dava ki (the disease got worse with the medication)”. The regulatory architecture proposed in the NEP is far too monolithic for a system of higher education serving a geographically, culturally and politically diverse country like ours. Even in the matter of privatisation, one notices enormous diversity of players and practices. Historically too, private participation in the running of colleges has not followed a single pattern. To imagine that a uniform structure called Board of Governors can serve all different kinds of institutions across the country is to entertain a fantasy in place of a serious vision of reform. Such a vision calls for better appreciation of what exists, no matter how worrisome a condition it is in.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 2, 2021 under the title ‘Look before you reform’. Qamar is secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) and Kumar is a former director of NCERT and editor of the Routledge Handbook of Education in India.
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