Regulatory reforms needed in higher education


Higher education in India has traversed a long distance in its journey during the post-Independence period. Notwithstanding its notable progress, the nation is yet to go a long way to realise its fullest potential. One of the key areas of reforms in higher education which, among others, has been a subject of continuous discourse is the regulatory mechanism. Considering the present status and possibilities, the core objective of the regulation has to be the promotion of equitable access and excellence in higher education. It is, therefore, imperative that higher education in India is made equitable and inclusive to ensure unhindered access by all segments of the society. Besides reservations and affirmative action policies, the higher educational environment and ecosystem shall have to be based on the principle of inclusion. It is needless to mention that further expansion in higher education shall elude us unless we make higher education equitable and inclusive by making reasonable reforms in the regulatory system.

It is important to realise that the cherished objectives of expansion and inclusion shall have no purpose unless the regulatory system in higher education promotes quality and excellence. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve our regulatory system so that our institutions can churn out talented workforce that can successfully endure the global challenges. Self-regulation may be the best regulation, but that works well only if the larger ecosystem is such wherein all institutions work with discipline and accountability. Sadly, we have not been able to create that kind of an ecosystem yet. Given the massification, the size, the diversity and the complexities of the higher education system in the country, it may not be desirable to leave higher educational institutions to either total self-regulation or to the regulation by the market forces. Freedom is important but without discipline, it often augurs chaos.

Regulation of higher education, therefore, is a necessity. However, regulations should be more of facilitative and disciplinary nature and less of the kind that commands and controls each and every aspect of higher education. The regulation must provide the framework and boundaries within which all institutions of higher education must operate to ensure goal congruence and to promote overall excellence. Simultaneously, the higher education institutions must also be given necessary freedom and flexibility to encourage efficiency and innovation. Regulations are, therefore, important in such perspectives as allowing authorisation to enter, consent to work, determination of intake capacity, organisation of courses, duration of programmes, assessment and certifications, specification of degrees, to name a few.

The general impression about the regulation process in the higher education system is that it is more cumbersome and less transparent than what it ought to be. Further, as the regulations are not being implemented properly, it is realised that the regulatory framework for higher education is not able to fulfil all its three main objectives—equity, expansion and excellence. There is a lack of accountability on the part of both regulators and institutions. Regulators do not review their regulations periodically and count their failures, maybe because of the multiplicity of regulations. On the other hand, the institutions do not implement the regulations in letter and spirit due to lack of proper monitoring on the part of the regulators.

The system also suffers from the problem of multiplicity of regulators. Institutions have to comply with many regulators even to start a course. There are separate regulators for different sectors of higher education namely general higher education, technical education and professional education. There are as many as 14 different regulators in higher education such as UGC, AICTE, NCTE, and various other professional councils for professional courses. On top of these, the judiciary has also become another regulator in the recent past as the university system has not evolved its own dispute settlement mechanism by constituting educational tribunals. Apart from the regulatory bodies, state governments also exercise control over universities. Sometimes, the states’ legislations are not found in conformity with the existing provisions of the regulatory mechanism. Additionally, there are various judicial orders passed by various courts which at times are conflicting. Such indiscriminate use of authority by multiple institutions leads to disorder and weakening of the system. Multiplicity of regulatory bodies has proved to be a problem for the higher education institutions as they are at the receiving end.

The present regulatory system makes an undesirable discrimination between the public and private institutions. This is the time when we are moving from an elitist structure of higher education to massification. The share of private institutions in terms of enrolment is around twelve percentage points higher than that of public institutions. In times such as these, it is necessary to ensure harmonious co-existence of public and private partnership. It is only then we can achieve the target of 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) within 2030, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP). The new regulatory system should rather support genuine private philanthropy in higher education. Necessary measures may, however, be introduced to ensure that private institutions are committed to equity, quality, and transparency. The regulating body, therefore, need not make any distinction between the public and the private institutions. They should rather follow a dynamic approach to keep pace with the changing scenario.

Given the heterogeneity in the nature of institutions that are there, it is desirable to design the regulatory framework in such a manner so that it can cater to the requirements of all types of institutions regardless of their size, standing, areas of specialisation and longevity. Therefore, the degree and extent of regulations have to be comprehensive enough to cover all categories of institutions.

Many a time it has been observed that regulators go overboard increasing both the volume and the number of regulations. There had been instances in which some of the regulations were found to be inconsistent with the provisions of the Acts of the regulatory bodies. Such regulations had to be nullified after legal scrutiny causing lots of embarrassment to the regulators. Therefore, efforts need to be made to ensure that regulations have the merit of consistency and that their numbers are kept as minimum as possible for their effective monitoring and implementation.

The current regulatory bodies have ensured equity and expansion to some extent but excellence leaves much to be desired. Regulations which create barriers to achieving either of these three goals of higher education need to be revised on priority basis. Regulatory bodies should exercise their autonomy in carrying forward such reform measures. Autonomy, which is a self-regulating exercise, here must mean freedom to do what one is expected to do at a given point of time. Therefore, one of the most pertinent challenges before the regulatory body in the present time is to create provisions which promote excellence in higher education.

Therefore, restructuring of the current regulatory system is of paramount significance. Efforts need to be made to reduce the multiplicity of regulatory bodies. Integrating all the regulators will surely enhance both the efficiency and the quality of the system. It may be a good idea to establish a unified regulatory body by annulling some of the existing regulators. A single regulatory body would be more effective as it is often the implementation and monitoring of the regulations rather than the regulations themselves which pose the problem.

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

Restructuring of the current regulatory system is of paramount significance. Efforts need to be made to reduce the multiplicity of regulatory bodies. Integrating all the regulators will surely enhance both the efficiency and the quality of the system.