Transparently regulating higher education

Author: Dr Parth J Shah
Publication: Education World , 29 November 1999

The great majority of school leavers in India don't have access to institutions of higher education. The ten million who do, have very few choices, which allows colleges to prosper despite providing indifferent service and poor quality education. It's quite clear that only a substantial increase in the number of higher education institutions will improve the situation. Moreover increased institutional supply will lead to greater competition among colleges, which in turn will result in sustained improvement in the quality of higher education.

To quickly expand capacity in higher education, large scale involvement of the private sector is essential. By itself, government can't possibly meet the growing demand. Unfortunately the approach and attitudes of higher education regulatory bodies like AICTE have so far been obstructionist towards expansion of higher education capacity. An intelligent regulatory system can help to upgrade institutions of higher education as also adequately inform students about their relative merits.

To create a 21st century higher education system the following reforms of the regulatory structure are urgently required. First, there should be only one independent regulatory authority for the entire higher education system in India. The Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), the name suggested by the National Knowledge Commission, should be free and fully independent of government interference. It would be a good idea to appoint its members as per the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, with the performance of the authority and its key personnel audited annually. The findings and recommendations of such audits should be statutorily binding. This independent authority should be given a clear charter to set minimum standards for education institutions in higher education. Additionally this regulatory authority should be given powers to licence several accreditation agencies to rate and accredit tertiary education institutions.

It's important that utmost care and attention is given to making the independent regulatory authority efficient. It should have an office in every state capital for ease of interaction and supervision; each office should have a grievance cell where students and parents can lodge complaints about colleges; each office must maintain a complaints hotline and every complaint should be published on the authority's website to ensure transparency and accountability.

Moreover it's imperative to separate the functions of approving and accrediting/rating higher education institutions. The independent authority will be empowered to set minimum standards and grant approval. The task of accreditation and rating however, should be assigned by the regulatory authority to one or more accreditation agencies which will play a vital role in the new regulatory system.

After establishing a truly independent regulatory authority for institutions of higher education which in turn will appoint several independent accreditation agencies, it would be advisable to establish an independent dispute settlement and appellate tribunal to hear and adjudicate disputes between the regulatory authority or rating agencies and education institutions. This would be similar to the two independent regulatory bodies established for the telecom sector "one for regulation and the other for dispute settlement" the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal.

Moreover education needs to be included in the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. This will enable students and parents to initiate action against education institutes which fail to disclose adequate information, make false promises or shortchange them.

However, while it's important to regulate and accredit institutions of higher education, it's even more important that the existing licence-permit raj be eliminated from the education system. Subject to full disclosure of information, the right to establish and administer institutions of education "whether approved or not" should be exercisable by all citizens as confirmed by the Supreme Court in the TMA Pai Foundation (2002) and P. A. Inamdar (2005) cases. Full disclosure will make informed education choices possible.

In this connection, it's also vitally important that government institutions of higher education are obliged to follow the same process of approval and accreditation as required of private institutes. Double standards would undermine the equality of opportunity to all who seek higher education, whether in government or private institutions.

That we need a regulatory body is now an accepted dogma. But once established, regulatory bodies must be discouraged from micro-managing education institutions, as is the case currently. The job of the regulatory authorities should be to focus on learning outcomes rather than upon inputs or outlays in education.

Action to improve the regulatory governance of higher education in India needs to be taken urgently. The country's future depends on it.