How difficult is the road ahead for higher education under NEP-2020?

Introspecting higher education under NEP-2020: The efficacy with which the desired changes can be achieved has a series of question marks as the implementation of the NEP-2020 shall require unshackling the old framework.

The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has envisaged for a new architecture of education in new India which is digital India. The new framework proposed in NEP-2020, however, is likely to hit the entire country’s higher education system comprising nearly 40,000 colleges, 10,700 stand-alone institutions, and around 1,000 universities.

The new classification of research-intensive universities, teaching-intensive universities, and autonomous colleges shall require significant transformations in the respective institutions apart from getting geared up for multidisciplinary education. Restricting the number of affiliated institutions with a University and the presence of multidisciplinary higher education in every district are ambitious milestones to be achieved by 2035. Along with various provisions, the prescribed stratification of the undergraduate programmes for facilitating the exit after one, two, three and four years of education, discontinuance of MPhil programme and facilitating the reentering of any dropouts into the education system using the Academic Bank of Credit are novel provisions aiming for access and equity for all. But, the efficacy with which the desired changes can be achieved has a series of question marks as the implementation of the NEP-2020 shall require unshackling the old framework. Therefore, it is prudent to look into the discernible issues as priority and overcome the limitations accordingly.

1. Introspecting autonomy and affiliation in higher education in India

Kudos to the NEP-2020 for envisioning autonomy granted to all higher education institutions (HEIs) in India by the end of this decade. Autonomy with higher education institutions in the country is not a new thing. For quite a long, the University Grants Commission has had a well-laid framework for the grant of autonomy as amended from time to time since its inception based on the recommendations of the National Education Commission in 1964-66. The available statistics raise an eyebrow as the total number of autonomous colleges is less than 2% out of around 40000 colleges. Despite the academic freedom, prestige addition, and associated advantages of becoming autonomous, there has not been a very encouraging increase in the number of autonomous institutions in the country. The affiliated institutions have the largest share among the HEIs in the country. Therefore, it is germane to introspect the issue of granting autonomy to the HEIs from the two perspectives i.e. HEIs and the higher education regulator.

Why colleges do not go for autonomy

The majority of the colleges in the country are affiliated colleges. The affiliating universities are there for the academic regulations comprising admission policy, academic calendar, courses, syllabus, examination, evaluation, and grant of degrees. The colleges do have some degree of participation in the creation of the academic framework, but the responsibility lies with the University.  The colleges have to ensure teaching-learning processes on their campuses and carry out the examination & evaluation as prescribed to them. The colleges are completely free from the botheration of creating and sustaining the academic regulations. Let us look at the obvious reasons for which the institutions do not come forward to seek autonomous status. 

-The inability of creating and executing the academic processes like framing courses, syllabus, ordinances, examination, evaluation, result declaration, etc.

-In view of the smooth happening of academic processes, institutions do not find it worth it to create their own academic framework.

-Risk of credibility in operating as stand-alone and chances of losing public trust.

-Do not want to innovate and enjoy freedom.

-Inability to maintain standard and quality of education.

-Access to knowledge resources, facilities, human resource, and ICT network of the University.

-Shared brand value and overall patronage of the University.

Quite likely, there could be other reasons in addition to the above for the HEIs not venturing out to become autonomous in large numbers. Hence, the NEP targeting all affiliated colleges becoming either an autonomous college or constituent college of the University in the coming 15 years is a very big challenge that needs to be strategized effectively. 

Role of the University

Though the UGC regulations have been enabling the creation of autonomous colleges for quite a long time, the affiliating University has not been overwhelmingly interested in nurturing the affiliating colleges to become autonomous colleges. The small numbers of autonomous colleges corroborate this fact. Brooding is essential to get the possible reasons for the lack of interest on the part of the University in the transformation from affiliated to autonomous.   Some of the possible reasons are,

-University gets ample fees from affiliated colleges in the form of exam fees, affiliation charges, etc.

-University has the privilege of deploying the teachers and staff of affiliated colleges for examination, academic, and associated purposes.

-University gets glory from the accomplishments of its affiliated colleges.

-Independence of autonomous colleges from the University leads to slashing of revenue from them 

-University does not have enabling provisions for grant of autonomy in its act/statutes.

-University does not want to lose control over any of its colleges.

Thence, the financial health of the Universities requires adequate strengthening so that the captivating affiliating structure can be get rid of over a period of time. The Universities will have to do requisite handholding of the colleges for enabling them to come up with their systems for functioning as autonomous colleges. 

Further, the intent of limiting the number of affiliated institutions with any University shall also be affecting them primarily due to a reduction in receipt of fees from the students in such colleges. Also, looking at the number of colleges and the available number of Universities, there will be a need to complete redistribution of the affiliated institutions among the Universities along with setting up of many in unserved areas.

2. Multidisciplinary education

NEP-2020 has called for multidisciplinary education in the right earnest for imparting possibilities of holistic education. The single discipline-based Universities, other than medicine and law will have to be ready for offering education in multiple disciplines at various levels. Obviously, it will open up plenty of opportunities to get education as per the inherent passion and interest of the student and excel in life. But, the proclamation of transforming HEIs into a multidisciplinary institution shall require rigorous preparation to have teachers and requisite infrastructure support for extending education in different disciplines. The primary requirement of funds to start teaching subjects from various disciplines can not be met from the present funding proposition. Looking upon the present state of the unfilled teaching positions in HEIs, the recruitment of teachers is likely to be an onerous task. The creation of such multidisciplinary HEIs in every district will not be far-fetched if the government makes timely spending and enables the institutional governance to put every requirement in place. 

3. Different types of Universities

NEP-2020 has referred to the classification of the Universities based on graded autonomy as Research intensive Universities and Teaching intensive Universities, along with Multidisciplinary education and research Universities. The prevailing poor state of Universities is evinced from their conspicuous absence from top international rankings. The Universities are primarily mandated for imparting education, however, the research is an integral part of their mandate. The inadequacy of financial support, insufficiency of teachers & staff, lack of career security to research scholars,  etc. have been affecting the research output in the country. The survival instinct is predominating over the research instinct due to various reasons. Usually, there are two types of researchers at the university, namely teachers and students. Here the former does research for satiating their research instinct, consultancy, career growth, etc. while the latter does it to enrich their qualification for securing better employment. The drivers for research largely do not emanate from the passion of those engaged in research in the universities. Therefore, the specific attention to certain universities for focusing upon research shall require numerous enablers for achieving the target. Also, the lesser emphasis on the research in teaching universities may not be yielding encouraging results as the potential of teachers and students will not be tapped to the full extent. The research in the country is currently catered through the strong establishment of research institutions/laboratories and the same need to be integrated with such research universities so that their facilities & services are utilized in the best interest of higher education too. Despite the categorization of the universities based on their focus, all universities should be developed alike for nearly equal emphasis on teaching, research, and extension in multidisciplinary education. The competitiveness among the institutions for achieving excellence in all domains is essential, but the stakes should not be made so high that it invites unfair practices to achieve milestones and get drifted from the core mandate of imparting good quality education. 

NEP-2020 has referred to the classification of the HEIs based on graded autonomy as per its provisions. The processes involved in the assessment of any HEI shall have to be carried out in utmost integrity and without any biases, failing which the purpose will be defeated.  The implementation of the processes of accreditation for grading the institutions has to be carried out in a sacrosanct manner with full integrity. A cue can be had from the present state of A++ grade accredited institutions, which are unable to compete adequately at a national and international level in the ranking framework. The process for gradation of the institutions has to be objective, transparent, and tamper-proof.

4. Regulating HEIs under the new model

NEP-2020 has tabled the creation of HECI (Higher Education Commission of India) with the four major roles of regulation, accreditation, funding, and academic standard setting. It explicitly aims at the independent functioning of four distinct empowered bodies namely NHERC (National Higher Education Regulatory Council)  for regulation, NAC (National Accreditation Council) for accreditation, HEGC (Higher Education Grants Council) for funding, and GEC (General Education Council) for academic standard setting. The propounded GEC will be having the current professional bodies to assist in prescribing the learning attributes and outcomes. Ostensibly, the roles of prevailing UGC (University Grants Commission), NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) under UGC, and other regulatory bodies like AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education), PCI (Pharmacy Council of India), COA (Council of Architecture), MCI (Medical Council of India), etc. will be performed by the respective functionaries of upcoming HECI. The distinct roles of different councils are likely to improve the efficacy of respective processes, but the challenge lies in coordination among the four verticals by HECI. Apparently, the four roles of HECI may appear mutually exclusive, however, the implications of one upon the other will actually make them mutually inclusive. The effective coordination between the four distinct councils holds the key to overall qualitative improvement in higher education in the country.

5. Curbing commercialization

NEP-2020 has explicitly called for curbing the commercialization of education. If we look at higher education, it is evident that the private sector HEIs as colleges and universities have grown significantly in the last few decades. The expeditious deliveries, clarity in their goals, effective governance, leadership, etc. have brought them in good positions as discernible from NIRF rankings and few international rankings. The success of such self-financed institutions has enabled them to attract brighter minds to their campuses and this nucleates their journey towards excellence. The self-financed character of HEIs in the private sector allows them to charge heavy fees to the tune of many lakhs per annum as compared to few thousand for similar courses in the HIEs regulated and funded by the government. The accrual of heavy fees for keeping their processes self-sustainable will always lead to chances of creating a surplus. In spite of the complete ban on making profits out of education, the instances of private sector HEIs charging disproportionate fees are witnesses quite often. Therefore, it could be difficult to completely curb the commercialization of education merely by regulations, rather it warrants comparable education opportunities in the government HEIs so that those with poor financial condition are not deprived of education. 

6. Teachers and leadership

It is an all time phrase that the quality of teachers and leadership of the educational institutions should be of worthy academic merit. NEP-2020 has seriously harped upon the limited no of teachers, quality of teachers, suboptimal governance, and concerning leaderships of HEIs. The policy document righteously calls for the provisions for continuous quality improvement of teachers, rewards, promotions, recognitions, and movement of teachers into institutional leadership while holding the non-performers accountable too. Huge vacant positions of teachers demand fairness and transparency in recruitment processes while making them purely merit centric and free from nepotism and biases. The integrity of teacher recruitment processes have been questioned very often in the past and need holistic improvement. The selection of leadership in government-controlled HEIs has been repeatedly coming under the scanner and academics have been criticizing the absence of fairness, objectivity, and consideration of merit. The question of why there are controversies miring the appointment of leaderships in government-controlled HEIs while it is not seen in HEIs of the private sector. The selection of inept academic leadership can be corroborated from the fact that the appointing authorities have to terminate many such appointments on account of certain lapses. Let us see how the leadership selection is improved and made purely merit-based. Because the integrity of leadership can only assure fairness and academic quality based teacher recruitment and promotions.

Undoubtedly, NEP-2020 is a well-articulated policy document aiming at the holistic improvement in higher education in the country, but the actionable roadmap and its execution will decide whether it can really improve the quality of higher education or gets reduced to seeking changes for the sake of change. The academics and regulators have to be pious and visionary in their approach while formulating the action plan for transforming higher education through NEP-2020.

(The views expressed are the writer's own)

First Published:Sept. 5, 2020, 1:16 p.m.