Regulation in education has been introduced since governments in developing countries presume higher education also to be a public good that requires financial support from the government. But no government has been able to fund higher education.
Many believe higher education to be largely a private good whose benefits accrue more to the individuals as they become able to earn their livelihood, although society too benefits from a literate and educated population. Perhaps the recognition of this viewpoint led to moderation of strict regulations in the education sector in most western and developed countries. Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, where higher and professional education has flourished, are also following the liberalised regime in comparison to countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, where education has remained traditional because of strict government policies.
Since Independence, various commissions, committees and learned scholars have advocated for the academic freedom of choice for higher educational institutions to achieve excellence. The Education Commission (1964-66) highlighted that only academic freedom to the teachers can help develop an intellectual climate in our country that can further go a long way in achieving educational excellence. The National Policy on Education 1986 stated, “There is a widespread feeling that the present stage of higher education is largely the result of the overt and covert interference by external agencies. Universities, it is argued, should be truly autonomous and accountable.” Former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (2005) also favoured functional autonomy of universities to enable them to generate human capital for the knowledge era.
Despite the viewpoints of noted academicians, our higher educational institutions are controlled and monitored by a number of professional bodies. These include the Bar Council of India (BCI), Pharmacy Council of India (PCI), Medical Council of India (MCI), Council of Architecture (COA), and others. Besides, some state governments have also set up their own bodies that obstruct the autonomy of the institutions. All these regulators exercise their authority apart from the University Grants Commission (UGC) which is the supreme regulating body for universities.
What Centre is doing
In light of multiplicity of regulations, the Union government is contemplating to do away with many regulations and create a single one, the Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA). We have the examples of some of the best universities of the world such as Harvard and Stanford that could reach and sustain at the top of the pyramid because of the absolute autonomy vested in them by their governments and society. Imagine, if these universities were also bounded by the shackles of regulatory mechanisms, could they have reached the epitome of success?
State governments in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh timely (from late 1990s and early 2000s) sensed the importance of doing away with rigid laws and policies, and offered a liberal regime for higher educational institutions to thrive. Thus, by 2010, these states were successful in establishing majority of the private medical, engineering, management and nursing colleges of the country. States in the north have realised the same much later and therefore Punjab too is a late starter. But fortunately Punjab is in a growth and expansion mode, looking forward to competing with universities in other states and countries.
Universities are meant to create excellence which should reflect in quality of education, transparency, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, employability, industrial collaborations, and international competitiveness. All these endeavors need autonomy because all these, especially industrial and foreign collaborations, which are most crucial for experiential learning and joint quality research, can be dampened by over-regulation. Universities should also be encouraged to become sustainable by creating their own corpus fund for research innovation and entrepreneurship.
Let students, parents judge
In this age of information and technology, complete information is available on social and digital media. Students and their parents spend a considerable time in comparing and contrasting institutions in terms of numerous parameters such as infrastructure, curriculum, learning outcomes and placements. Naturally, universities or institutions which fail to satisfy these requirements are increasingly being rejected and facing closure. In the last five years, the AICTE permitted closure of 507 institutions. This year, in the engineering stream alone, 275 institutions of higher learning have applied for closure.
In light of the above, there is a strong need to back up the efforts of performing institutions, may it be in the public sector or the private sector. Government should not infringe upon the fundamental right of students to select an institution of their choice to pursue their professional dreams. It is ironical that, on the one hand government is planning to come out with a single regulatory authority, and on the other hand some state governments have set up additional regulatory bodies, which, experience shows, have not helped the cause of excellence. Time has come to shun this approach and give way to excellence in higher education wherein students, parents and industry act as the judges.
Putting it simply, too many regulations negatively affect the teaching and learning process, making achieving excellence that much more difficult because regulation does not involve any quality benchmarks, whereas accreditation does. Self-regulation is the most effective and productive regulation. Autonomy with accountability and accreditation should be the norm.