Better higher education
By: Ashok V. Desai
The government has abolished University Grants Commission. The education ministry proposes to give grants to universities directly. But then the minister had doubts - on what basis would he hand out money? Can he give out Rs 50 crore and Rs 100 crore to party favourites as the finance minister does in his budget? Should he not place some conditions on how universities should use the money? And universities are not generally friendly to the ruling party; should the universities that go out of favour be allowed to run out of money? When a minister is in doubt, he appoints a committee. So he created a higher education commission. It is not known whether it comprises any human beings. But in its name, the minister of education has invited comments and suggestions. They should have reached him by five pm on July 7. These comments will not, which is all right, since they are unlikely to change his mind.
The ministerial missive has no title; in a corner, it bears the letters PN_HECI.pdf, which is what I shall call it. PN_HECI.pdf says the government has already launched a number of reforms, namely reform of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, grant of graded autonomy to universities, grant of autonomous status to colleges, regulation for open and distance learning, regulation for online degrees and so on. These reforms are news to me; if I, who read newspapers, am largely unaware of them, so will be the general public.
PN_HECI.pdf says a bill has been prepared "for reforming the regulatory systems that provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth of the education system and which provides greater opportunities to Indian students at more affordable cost". That sounds fine, though I wonder what holistic means here. But if such a commendable bill has been drafted, why not put it out for public comment?
There will be "no more interference with the management issues of the educational institutions". What kinds of interference were there? Which of them will be removed?
"The grant functions would be done by the Ministry, and the HECI would focus only on academic matters." Would grants then be divorced from academic matters? Would they have nothing to do with academic standards? Would they depend only on the ministry's grace-and-favour? If so, why would any university bother to achieve any standards? Would not cultivation of the minister's friends and patrons be more profitable?
"Regulation is done through transparent public disclosures, merit-based decision making on matters regarding standards and quality..." Wrong tense; if it is so being done, it needs no change. Public disclosures? How can disclosures to the general public set standards?
The HECI is to focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance, mentoring of institutions, training of teachers, use of technology and so on. It will set standards for opening and closing institutions, appointing and dismissing their leaders, and give institutions more autonomy and flexibility. It will apply to all universities irrespective of who owns them. It seems it is meant to just observe the institutions; if it did anything punitive, it would impinge on institutions' autonomy. But the ministry will fund institutions; how will it do so without impinging on their autonomy? If the HECI will do all the observing, why not let it use its information to allocate funds? What do joint secretaries know about how to judge and run universities?
The regulator will have powers to enforce standards and order closure of substandard and bogus institutions. Non-compliance would result in fines and jail sentences. This is completely contrary to what the PN_HECI.pdf states earlier: HECI was supposed to do all the observing, and the ministry was to give and take away funds, reward and punish. And fines and jail sentences? If anyone can go to jail for running a university, who except the politically favoured would attempt it? Lawsuits take decades to settle; what will happen meanwhile to the universities whose leaders are in jail?
Thus, PN_HECI.pdf embodies tall promises and tough threats. If they were to be carried out, the ministry would need academic knowledge and confidence. Nowhere in the world do ministries become centres of academic excellence; the running of a civil service is a day-to-day affair, whereas building up academic excellence takes years of specialist application. PN_HECI.pdf is a plan for disaster.
Behind this ill-conceived plan is ignorance of the knowledge industry; but why did the minister ever have to venture into it? Why this sense of dissatisfaction with the existing conditions? There is a deep feeling that wrong academics are filling students' minds with wrong knowledge. What knowledge is right? The minister is silent on this, but the view of his party is that right knowledge is to be found in ancient Hindu scriptures. Nehruvian Congress enforced import substitution in goods; Modist Bhajana wants to enforce import substitution in ideas.
Import substitution is a mistake in both. Import substitution in goods replaces cheap imports with expensive domestic products, appreciates the rupee, makes exports less competitive abroad, and worsens the balance of payments. Import substitution in knowledge is worse: it reduces the domestic supply of knowledge, diminishes competition in the knowledge market and prevents or slows down elimination of errors. Modist Bhajana does not mind; it believes that invaluable knowledge is to be found in Hindu scriptures. The test of knowledge is empirical verification; if the scriptures are right, Modists should be able to make flying saucers that would compete airplanes out of existence, and ayurvedic medicines and operations that would replace the allopathic industry. Assertion proves nothing, even if it comes from the honourable minister of human resource development; the test of truth is that it survives empirical verification.
The prime minister has raised development to a religion. In economics, development means improvement of the human condition - a rise in living standards, less strenuous work, more leisure, more time and resources for what people enjoy. It is they who must decide what they enjoy. On promoting development, economics has ideas such as innovation, investment, economies of scale - and a competitive knowledge industry connected with productive activity. This economics emerged in the West, though the Chinese and the Japanese have no qualms about accepting and using it. If Bhajana thinks it is all wrong, let it try out a controlled experiment. Let India be divided into North and South. Let South be entirely open to international goods, services and ideas; let Aryavarta revert to scriptures. In a generation we will know what works better. But meanwhile, let it be one country with one people. They will migrate to whichever part offers them a better life. Materialists will all go south. The north will become a jungle; holy men with matted hair will live in caves and recreate the utopia of 50th century BCE. If majoritarian politicians want it and win the votes to bring it back, they cannot be prevented. But this country belongs to Indians, irrespective of their beliefs, religion, language, education, colour or height. Politicians have no right to segregate nationals of their choice from anti-nationals, and to favour one against the other. It would be ideal if there was debate, experimentation, intellectual competition. But in its absence, let there be freedom at least.