India’s new education minister must push for university autonomy

Dharmendra Pradhan faces an uphill struggle to implement the new National Education Policy, says Mukhtar Ahmad

July 19, 2021
Indian parliment in New Delhi
Source: iStock

Dharmendra Pradhan is India’s fourth education minister in seven years of Narendra Modi’s government.

He takes charge from Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, who resigned for health reasons. More than half of Pokhriyal’s term was under the cloud of Covid-19, and many of the emergency decisions he had to take during this period did not go down well with the prime minister or stakeholders. For instance, he held more than 20 virtual meetings with school students to address their concern about taking in-person exams in the midst of a pandemic, but he could not provide any solutions, particularly to the digital divide that made moving exams online so problematic. Ultimately, the supreme court and the prime minister had to intervene to cancel the exams.

Since the pandemic is still not over, Pradhan will need to decide quickly what to do about the new academic year, which was delayed last year and may be again. Universities themselves have no autonomy to decide their own start dates.

Addressing this lack of autonomy is the most essential reform he should undertake. Governments in both the states and the centre must realise that it is in their best interests to empower universities to run themselves in accordance with their needs.

To be fair, this is starting to happen. Last year, Indian Institutes of Management were granted unprecedented autonomy, and now a committee of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) directors has submitted a report to the government recommending that the 23 institutes be granted powers to appoint their own heads and chairs. This should now be implemented.

In a recent interview, IIT Delhi director V. Ramgopal Rao expressed hope that greater autonomy would come through the implementation of India’s new National Education Policy (NEP). However, the NEP’s implementation faces many hurdles. For instance, many senior faculty are opposing the All India Council for Technical Education’s controversial decision to allow engineering colleges to admit students who did not opt for mathematics and physics in their senior secondary school years. IITs have refused to introduce undergraduate engineering courses in regional languages. And the introduction of one common exam for undergraduate admission from this year is being opposed by many universities.

In addition, the education budget is being cut, despite the additional digital infrastructure costs caused by the pandemic and the NEP’s call for a range of new institutions to be established; the government recently announced a new central university in Ladakh, for instance.

Availability of resources is an ongoing problem for Indian universities, having its effect on infrastructure and the recruitment and retention of inspiring teachers and high-quality researchers. Universities also need to improve their governance amid concerns about mismanagement.

The fear is that the government’s efforts to eradicate mismanagement will result not in more autonomy but in excessive control and declining standards. The NEP, for instance, proposes to establish an all-powerful Higher Education Commission of India to oversee accreditation, funding, regulation and standards. Nowhere in the world does a single institution perform all these tasks. However, it is beyond the power of the new minister to change course on this as the decision has already been taken at the highest level.

Related to the issue of control is the government’s failure to fill vacancies at the top higher education institutions. Of India’s 49 prestigious central universities, almost half are currently without vice-chancellors. Similarly, five IITs do not have chairs for their board of governors.

These figures are selected by the Indian president, on the recommendation of the Ministry of Human Resources: there is no role for the prime minister in the process. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that appointments are being held up by the prime minister's office because it does not like the political credentials of the ministry’s nominations.

Without a permanent vice-chancellor, renowned institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Delhi and Hyderabad universities have been unable to take important academic decisions for more than a year, including over the recruitment of faculty. This lamentable situation is yet another reason why granting universities more autonomy is so vital – but also unlikely in the current political climate.

Mukhtar Ahmad is a former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: India’s push-pull power play

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Reader's comments (1)

Education system definitely needs to work on managing the conduct better during pandemic.. very insightful & on point article .

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