India has the largest higher education system in terms of the number of higher education institutions and the second largest in terms of enrolment, following only China. From about 20 universities and 500 colleges in 1947, the numbers have grown to 712 universities and 36671 colleges in 2014. As the number of institutions and students multiplied, there was no commensurate change in the management structure of the system. It is to the nation’s credit that such a humongous system keeps functioning smoothly despite inherent structural complexities, aggravated in the last decade due to rapid massification of the sector.
The structural constraints are manifest at the macro and micro levels, starting from the management of the system as a whole to the basic unit, colleges, that are meant to do the real work of delivering higher education.
Higher education is the responsibility of both the Central and State governments. While the major responsibility of establishing, funding and managing the universities and colleges lie with the respective State governments, the Central government provides overall guidance and policy direction. Universities are the only institutions with degree granting powers when they are “. . . established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act, and include[s] any such institution as may, in consultation with the University concerned, be recognised by the (University Grants) Commission in accordance with the regulations made in this behalf under the UGC Act, 1956.”
Though the UGC is the most important Central regulatory body in the higher education sector with a mandate to promote, coordinate and maintain standards in higher education, there are other regulatory bodies. For example, technical education is regulated by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and agricultural education by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Therefore, in addition to the regulations of the UGC, institutions are accountable to other Independent Central authorities concerned like AICTE, ICAR, Bar Council of India (BCI), Medical Council of India (MCI), Indian Nursing Council (INC), Distance Education Council (DEC), National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), etc. As there are multiple autonomous bodies with overlapping functions and mandates, there is a need for a clear coordination mechanism that is, unfortunately, absent. In spite of recommendations to establish an umbrella regulatory body, the issue still remains unaddressed. At present, various Central regulatory bodies act in silos, forcing universities to do a balancing act in complying with varied rules and regulations.
The regulatory environment at the State level has hardly any regulatory or administrative body, except the higher education departments that perform routine and rudimentary tasks. Recently, most of the States have created higher education councils to coordinate the States and Central regulatory bodies. This is still at embryonic stage and needs to go a long way to yield results. As the department of higher education of the States are busy dealing with routine issues, there is hardly any time or energy left for planning or development of the higher education at the State level, the backbone of the higher education system of the nation.
The number of university categories is also amazing. Universities could be a central university, a central open university, an institute of national importance, a state public university, a state open university, a state private university, an institute under state legislature act, a deemed university government, a deemed university government aided, or a deemed university private. In terms of evolution of the modern university system, a university could fall under any of the following categories: affiliating university, residential university, unitary university, teaching and affiliating university, deemed university, women’s university, open university, professional university, language university, private university, research university etc.
As if the prevalent complex arrangement of regulatory bodies were not enough to stifle the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge and supporting the overall development of the nation in various ways, the existing institutional management structure of universities adds further burden. The existing management is a decades old pattern of having the Courts/Senates, Executive Councils/ Syndicates. The overall head is the Visitor/ Chancellor and the key administrative head is the Vice-Chancellor. Though Vice-Chancellors preside over the Executive Councils/ Syndicates, they could only execute decisions taken by these bodies and do not wield any real powers. One reason for this is that most of the members of these bodies are bequeathed by the previous Vice Chancellor to his or her successor. To make matters worse, the procedure for appointment and removal of the Vice-Chancellors is laden with many loop-holes. There are also instances where Vice-Chancellors have been appointed in questionable ways and some have been shown the exit door on flimsy ground and on very short notice. The existing institutional management structure needs an immediate overhaul to enable universities to blossom fully to their basic potential.
The the real knowledge imparting institutions within Indian higher education are the Colleges. With few exceptions, most of the colleges are affiliated with a university and do not enjoy autonomy in academic, financial or administrative matters. In practice, almost all the affiliated colleges only mechanically follow the guidelines, rules and regulations as laid down by its parent university without any mechanism to participate in the academic, financial and administrative matters affecting them. The colleges function as mere tutorial centres as they are allowed no participation, even in key academic matters like developing curriculum, drafting syllabus etc, that are determined by the affiliating university. Unless the structure of the colleges is reformed, colleges will continue to be tutors and not what they are supposed to be.
Most of the crucial problems encountered by the higher education could be set right by reforming the prevalent management and regulatory structure at Central, State and institutional levels. The task does not imply a huge financial burden on any of the stake holders, the structural adjustment could be made smoothly and swiftly, if only the stakeholders concerned were convinced of the need and the potential benefits by removing the structural bottlenecks.
M. Saravanan is a full-time consultant for the National Higher Education Mission of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. His previous engagement was with the Planning Commission of India. Besides higher education, his other research interests include school education, development economics and development policy.