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Reforming higher education with transparency

Higher Education

23-05-2014

University World News

Is the Indian institute of technology a university? What is the difference between a deemed-to-be-university and a state private university? How does the University of Pune ‘affiliate’ more than 600 colleges? How does the authority and control of multiple regulatory bodies differ?

These are some of the confusing and frustrating questions that researchers, policy-makers and foreign institutions who areinterested in India have to confront. They expose the complexity of the current condition of higher education in India.

Indian higher education has expanded at a break-neck speed. Between 2007-08 and 2010-11, post-secondary student enrolments grew by nearly five million students.

In the same five-year period, the number of institutions increased by nearly 10,000. But this much needed expansion came at the expense of quality, primarily due to an inadequate and incoherent policy and legal framework.

One of the most challenging problems facing Indian higher education institutions is funding mechanisms. According to the policy framework, institutions are required to have a non-profit structure, irrespective of how they are funded – by public or private sources.

At the same time, degree-awarding powers rest only with universities as specified by the University Grants Commission, or UGC, under section 22(3) of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956.

A complex system

The act has resulted in a unique and complex system of hundreds of ‘teaching’ colleges – private or public – ‘affiliated’ with public universities. Public universities themselves can be funded by state or central sources.

To achieve the goals of expanding access to higher education within the constraints of public funding, privately-funded universities were allowed. These private universities in turn can be approved by state acts or the central authority, UGC.

This complex framework resulted in four types of universities in India – central universities, state universities, private universities and would-be universities which are mostly private.

The complexity is further compounded because of the large number of regulatory bodies that sometimes have overlapping scope, resulting in power struggles and additional confusion for stakeholders.

Consider the recent example of the conflict between the UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE, on the regulatory jurisdiction for management programmes.

The previous minister of human resource development, who is also responsible for higher education, attempted to address these challenges by proposing a dozen legislative bills, including the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill 2010, the Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 and the Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Educational Institutions 2010.

Unfortunately, most of the bills are still far from seeing the light of day and have remained unapproved because of political divisiveness and general elections in 2014.

The Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, which had been talked about in its various forms for nearly a decade, became a topic of discussion again in 2010 but no progress was made as the bills had been languishing in a political stalemate.

Regulatory bodies are seeking ways to work around the politics of Indian higher education. In May last year, the UGC announced that existing and future partnerships would require their approval to offer any joint degrees or twinning arrangements.

The policy vacuum resulted in many twinning partnerships and a few branch campuses starting without any regulatory oversight. Unsurprisingly, quality is at risk and students are often deceived by the high cost and the lack of recognition of the degree they earn.

Transparency of information for students

Overall, the regulatory environment for Indian higher education is complex and fails to improve its quality and address deficiencies. One of the key solutions for addressing the challenges of higher education is to improve accessibility to credible, consistent and current information about institutional performance.

The current policy reform directions are seriously limited by the government’s political approach of using control and bureaucracy as a way of assuring quality rather than using transparency for empowering students and fostering competition.

One specific recommendation for achieving transparency goals is to mandate high standards of institutional performance data disclosures by institutions. These data could be uploaded to a user-friendly and easy-to-use national database. Hence, students would be able to make informed choices based on the data they have obtained.

Consider the case of regulation in the financial system. How is transparency ensured in publicly traded companies? It is through mandatory and easily available audited financial reports coupled with strict oversight by the financial regulator.

In contrast, the parallel information of institutional performance for higher education institutions is unavailable. This results in all sorts of academic, financial, regulatory and marketing malpractices.

Transparency of the US system

As applied in the US, transparency through data reporting and information sharing is an important policy-tool enforced by the US Department of Education where the National Center for Education Statistics collects, collates, analyses and reports on American education.

Data reported by the institutions are uploaded to a free website, namely College Navigator, enabling students to search and compare colleges based on various parameters.

Since the students have easy access to comparable information on each college’s institutional performance, they can decide on the programmes they wish to pursue and in the process create a state of enhanced competition among institutions. In addition, policy-makers and researchers also have access to rich data and this can help improve the education system.

Consequences of rapid growth

Indian higher education has expanded at a fast rate and the policy framework has failed to adapt and change its complex system. The system has remained embroiled in the politics of policy-making and suffered in terms of quality.

Given the pace of growth and unmet demand, the success of higher education lies in finding adaptable and innovative solutions.

A focus on enforcing higher standards of transparency should be the first step in enabling a stronger institutional accountability and addressing the complexities and challenges of Indian higher education.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is chief knowledge office and senior director of strategic development at World Education Services in New York. He is an international higher education strategist with a focus on student mobility, enrolment management and transnational education. This is an edited version of an articlepublished in the fall 2014 issue of the Comparative and International Education Society’s Higher Education Special Interest Group.

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