People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 18, 2007
NKC REPORT 2006
Privatisation Of Higher Education Is The Main Aim
NATIONAL Knowledge Commission (NKC) has recently submitted its annual report to the prime minister. The NKC’s ‘Report to the Nation 2006’ states that “destiny of India is in the hands of 550 million people below the age of 25 who will benefit the most from the new knowledge initiatives. The proportion of our population, in the age group 18-24, that enters the world of higher education is around 7 per cent, which is only one-half the average for Asia.” The NKC therefore recommends creation of “1500 universities nationwide, that would enable India to attain a gross enrolment ratio of at least 15 per cent by 2015.”
The NKC has given recommendations regarding reforms in existing public universities, undergraduate colleges, regulatory structure, financing, quality, creation of national universities as centres of academic excellence and access to marginalised and excluded groups. However, the ‘initiatives’ or prescriptions provided by the NKC in its report are contrary to the purpose. These prescriptions are no different than those provided by the infamous Birla-Ambani report or the concept paper for the Model Act for all the universities in India. Therefore, it is necessary to analyse and discuss each block of recommendations of the NKC Report.
The universities perform a critical role in an economy and society. They create, assimilate and disseminate knowledge. Therefore, they must be flexible, innovative and creative. They have to be accountable to the society. The number of universities and colleges has to be increased several times to meet the demands. It is essential to revise the curriculum regularly at least once in three to five years. There should be continuous internal assessment and reforms in annual examination. There is no doubt that more choices of courses should be given to students. But, the funding agencies have been resisting in granting more funds that are required for these purposes virtually halting the reform process.
There must be a conscious effort to attract and retain talented faculty members. The NKC recommends, regarding faculty appointments, that there should be “cross-pollination between universities” and a “ceiling” of “one-half or even one-third” on the proportion of faculty members than can be hired from within the university. With this recommendation many prospective students who would like to join the teaching profession near their place of residence would go to other professions in order to avoid additional financial burden if one has to live in a distant place.
The NKC report recommends, as reform in the structures of governance of universities, that the appointments of vice chancellors should be free from direct or indirect intervention on the part of the governments and should have tenure of six years. It points out “the size and composition of university courts, academic councils, and executive councils slows down decision-making processes and sometimes constitutes an impediment to change.” Therefore, it recommends that large university courts should be dispensed with. Since in large academic councils “decisions are slow to come,” it recommends the creation of standing committees of academic councils for “expeditious” decisions. The vice-chancellor should, then, function as a chief executive officer who has the authority and the flexibility to govern with the advice and consent of the executive council which would provide checks and balances to create accountability.” With no university courts and academic councils redundant, the vice chancellors would be too happy to have the ‘authority’ and ‘flexibility’ in governance because the executive councils, which are of small size, are very often manipulated by them. Thus, the vice chancellors will become all powerful and accountable to none. In that event, democratic governance of universities, to whatever extent present today, will not be there.
Since the beginning of the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG) era in 1990s, the system of affiliated colleges has been under attack. There have been attempts by the UGC to force the colleges to become autonomous and self sufficient in their financing. The NKC report is therefore no different which recommends “autonomy to colleges, either as individual colleges or as cluster of colleges.”
Such autonomous colleges, or clusters of colleges, would constitute a part of the 1500 universities the NKC proposes nationwide by 2015. It clearly means that the clarion call of the NKC to create 1500 universities by 2015 is misleading because this number will include such colleges which are raised to the status of universities. The NKC should have realised that only 200 out of about 17, 700 colleges have opted for autonomous status so far, because all such proposals had hidden agenda of privatisation of higher education and leaving them to the market forces.
The NKC proposes two possibilities for colleges remaining affiliated colleges or colleges which are not good to be autonomous. The first is to remodel them as community colleges which "could provide both vocational education through two-year courses and formal education through three-year courses.” These colleges could “provide holistic education and eligibility for employment to the disadvantaged” by focussing on work or skill based education. The second is “to establish a central board of undergraduate education (CBUE) along with state boards of undergraduate education (SBUE) which would set curricula and conduct examinations for undergraduate colleges that choose to be affiliated with them.” Some of the existing undergraduate colleges, “particularly those that are at some geographical distance from their parent university”, would affiliate themselves to these boards.
It is clear from these proposals that the colleges not good to be autonomous would be good to “provide holistic education and eligibility for employment to the disadvantaged.” The colleges located in far-flung areas, in villages, hills, townships, catering to the needs of the poor and first generation learners, far away from the affiliating universities, would be affiliated to CBUE/SBUE. This has also not been made clear as to how their affiliation with CBUE/SBUE will solve the problem of their distance with the affiliating universities. This shows a bias against the disadvantaged people!
The NKC proposes the establishment of an independent regulatory authority for higher education (IRAHE) for two reasons. First, entry or setting up of a university through an Act of legislature or parliament is a “formidable barrier”. Second, entry norms will be needed for private institutions and public-private partnership. Further, it would dispense with the “multiplicity of regulatory agencies to provide a single-window clearance.”
The IRAHE, to be established by an Act of parliament, would be the only agency that would be authorised for according degree granting power to higher education institutions, for monitoring standards and settling disputes, and for licensing accreditation agencies, public or private. The Acts of the UGC, AICTE, MCI and BCI would have to be amended. The role of the UGC would be re-defined to focus on the disbursement of grants to, and maintenance of, public institutions in higher education. The entry regulatory functions of the AICTE, the MCI and the BCI would be performed by the IRAHE. It will apply “exactly the same norms to public and private institutions, just as it will apply the same norms to domestic and international institutions.”
From these recommendations it is clear that the proposed IRAHE would be a very powerful body performing all functions related to the institutions of higher education and it would not distinguish between public, private and foreign institutions. It would have no public control as it would be at “an arm’s-length from the government and independent of all stakeholders including the concerned ministries of the government.” The IRAHE, being the “only agency” to “accord degree granting power to higher education institutions” would also take away powers of the state governments to set up universities and higher education institutions. Such a body cannot be accepted and must be opposed.
The Report points out that there is no system of higher education in the world that is not based upon significant public outlays. The present support for higher education, at 0.7 per cent of GDP, is simply not adequate. In fact, over the past decade, in real terms, there has been a significant decline in the resources allocated for higher education, in the aggregate as also per student. In an ideal world, government support for higher education should be at least 1.5 per cent, if not 2 per cent of GDP, from a total of 6 per cent of GDP for education. But the government should endeavour to reach these levels by 2012.
Having said these good things, the NKC recommends that public universities should “use their land as a source of finance.” And, as a norm “fees should meet at least 20 per cent of the total expenditure in universities. In addition, fees need to be adjusted every two years through price indexation.” As a rhetoric, as all other governmental reports have said, the NKC also suggests “needy students should be provided with a fee waiver plus scholarships to meet their costs.” It is well known now that the allocations for the scholarships, despite recommendations by several committees, have been going down continuously. The fee waiver and scholarship clauses are added in every report to shut up any resistance to fee hike.
Other sources of finances suggested include licensing fees or user charges (for facilities in universities used by people from outside) and private investment. The NKC recommends that to attract more (not-for-profit) private investment to set up new institutions in higher education, the government should provide the land and the private sector should provide the finances. In today’s world, there is no private investment which is “not-for-profit.” All these recommendations will instead decrease the enrolment.
It is claimed that the competition between institutions within India and outside India would enhance quality and accountability. Foreign universities are coming to India to earn profits and loot our students. The report points out, good institutions are not coming to India as they “care more about their autonomy and wish to set benchmarks for themselves.” And therefore, the NKC recommends that “all rules that apply to domestic institutions should also be applicable to foreign institutions.” How can the rules under which the domestic institutions are funded by the government be applicable for foreign institutions? This will dismantle our public funded education system. Actually, the foreign universities should not be allowed to set up their branches in the country. The foreign and Indian universities should continue to have exchange programmes as is being done now.
For ensuring quality, it further recommends “salary differentials within and between universities as a means of attracting and retaining talented faculty members. The salary differentiation will help retain talent in some disciplines where remuneration in the market is much higher than in other subjects.” Though the universities cannot compete with salaries elsewhere, but “they should endeavour to provide a comfortable minimum for all, with some premium for those who perform.” This happens in a market-model university. The departments that make money, study money or attract money are given priority. Heads of universities and departments assume the role of travelling salesmen to promote their programmes. In such a model, the disciplines essential for a good liberal education such as social sciences, humanities and basic sciences remain at a discount. Such proposals will further weaken our education system.
In order to increase the gross enrolment, the NKC recommends the creation of up to 50 national universities that can provide education of the highest standard. At least ten such universities in the next three years should be created. The national universities need not all be new universities. Each university may be endowed with a substantial allocation of public land, in excess of its spatial requirements. The excess land can be a subsequent source of income generation, its value rising over time due to the growing stature of the university. In the case of privately executed charitable trusts, exceptions need to be made in existing income tax laws to encourage large endowments. These universities shall have the autonomy to set student fee levels and tap other sources for generating funds such as industry collaborations, overseas operations, as also commercial use of university facilities.
It is clear from the above that these universities would be high fee charging universities catering to the rich, generating its own resources, apart from others, through commercial use of university facilities. In order to thwart this impression, the NKC proposes “a host of scholarships, freeships, bursaries and awards for economically disadvantaged students.” This generally never happens!
In order to “maximise the productivity of faculty”, there shall be “salary differentials between national universities and also between disciplines.” There shall be “no career advancement schemes and appointments at every level shall be through open competition.” This is a pure private model that must be opposed.
Economic barriers to higher education can be addressed, according to the Report, by scholarships or cross-subsidies. The academic institutions would be able to “set a fee of their own choice subject to the provision that there are at least two banks that are willing to finance the entire cost of education at that institution, without any collateral other than the fact of admission.” Since “commercial banks may be wary of funding economically deprived students, especially in non-professional courses”, the NKC recommends “a well-funded and extensive national scholarship scheme targeting economically underprivileged students and students from historically socially disadvantaged groups, particularly students from rural and backward areas.” Therefore, it called upon the government to “endeavour to make available about 100,000 scholarships for such students.”
The NKC further states that “reservations are essential but they are a part, and one form of, affirmative action. Disparities in educational attainments are related to caste and social groups, but are also strongly related to other indicators such as income, gender, region and place of residence. Access to quality higher education is further limited for students from certain types of schools.” Therefore, in view of persisting multi-dimensional problems of deprivation of educational opportunities, the NKC suggests “a deprivation index” based on social background covering caste (keeping in view regional variations), religion and gender, family education history; family income, type of school, the medium of instruction, place of residence, physical disability, that could provide weighted scores to students to “compete for admissions.” Thus, the NKC proposes ‘deprivation index” rather than reservation as provided under the Constitution.
The entire structure on higher education in India presented in the NKC’s report to the Nation 2006 is elitist and will not benefit the vast majority of young people below the age of 25 years. It will decrease the enrollment instead of raising it to 15 percent by 2015. Raising the student fees to 20 percent of the recurring expenditure, financing pattern, private investment, salary differential, regulation by IRAHE with enormous powers, bias against the disadvantaged section of the society, autonomous colleges, elitist national universities based on commercialisation, etc. are retrograde recommendations which will lead to privatisation and commercialisation of higher education in India.