We need to remain cognizant that no countrywide silver bullet to our higher education problems exists given the great diversity across states.

 

While foundational education through pre-school and primary school undoubtedly requires significant state involvement, secondary school and higher education is more amenable to attracting private enterprise and investment. Across most nations, there is debate on the level of unbridled play of market forces allowed in essential services like education and healthcare—on the one hand, private competition and investment can yield positive results, while on the other, subjecting providers to a degree of regulation remains critical to assuring equity and outcomes. Evolving a fine balance of control and autonomy is indeed a challenge; especially in the Indian context, given our long history as a colony, followed by decades of a deep belief in the righteousness of strong state control. Above all, in India, there remains the stark reality of not meeting the learning needs of the large population of socially and economically marginalized.

Despite facing some criticism for not containing concrete proposals for the “liberation of education from political control”, or laying out specific steps for establishing more autonomy and flexibility, the recently announced New Education Policy (NEP20), which was in works for almost a decade, does at least endeavour to address the vital issue of institutional autonomy. It states “institutions will have the autonomy to innovate on matters of curriculum and pedagogy.” The stifling control on colleges and other centres of higher learning by the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and Indian Medical Council (IMC) are to be replaced by a single institution, the Higher Education Commission of India, with separate verticals for regulation, accreditation, funding and standards. Though such concentration of roles in a single body has not been attempted in any country, the suggestion forms a major constituent of the NEP’s “light but tight” regulatory regime.

NEP20 also envisions making higher institutions of learning autonomous through an empowered Board of Governors (but only by 2035). Many key questions, however, remain unanswered – whether autonomous private colleges would have freedom to set their own curriculum, if they can determine the length of their own undergraduate, graduate or doctoral courses, and perhaps most importantly, can they fix their own tuition fees – these are all questions not directly or otherwise addressed. On deeper inspection, it is unlikely they will have this autonomy since the policy also envisages allowing students to move from one institution to another at will at the end of an academic year; such portability would probably call for uniformity in factors such as course-content and duration. The importance of getting such issues right cannot be understated—prolonged continuation of the existing complex regulations in higher education has led India to be rated on par with countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia in the 2020 Academic Freedom Index score.

Proponents of autonomous private education—a school of thought akin to the system in the the United States where there is almost complete autonomy available to colleges and universities —argue that rather than enacting a maze of additional regulations, competition should be promoted to improve the quality of education. They point towards the American system where colleges, whether driven by philanthropy or profit, can add courses of study and increase or decrease the number of seats at will as long as their objectives are transparent, as being a necessary step forward. Could this perhaps be a way to meet the NEP20’s stated objective of doubling the enrolment ratio in higher education (from the current 20% enrolled at the primary level) and ensuring that “there shall, by 2030, be at least one large higher educational institution in or near every district”?

The NEP20 suggests greater autonomy in secondary school education can be established by creating a State School Standards Authority to replace the existing Directorates of Education in every state. The new body would initiate measures for improving assessments of learning outcomes including introducing compulsory vocational training courses in Classes 6 to 8. The body would also oversee a move to promote broad-based learning by ending the tight separation of secondary school curriculum into science, arts and commerce, and instead permit students to take courses across disciplines. There is to be no hostility towards for-profit schools. Instead, the Authority will foster competition and create transparency to address the market failures caused by the asymmetrical information parents have on being able to assess which school may be best-suited for their children.

When contrasting the huge public expenditure incurred in running government schools that have shown indifferent learning outcomes with the widespread phenomenon we now see of rising enrolment in private schools, the academics Geeta Kingdon and Arvind Panagariya offer a novel suggestion. Rather than parents feeling compelled to send their children to under-prepared government schools, they advocate giving parents “vouchers worth some minimum amount that they can take to the school of their choice.” This would widen the choice available to the parents to select an appropriate school for their wards. This suggestion, which in some ways bears resemblance to the system where government employees in a few states get as much as Rs 27,000 annually towards the cost of educating their children, could be an alternative way to providing a level playing field to all parents, while promoting healthy competition between private and government schools.

The proposal to subsidise education and leave it to the user to make the ultimate choice of school would be in lieu of another NEP20 proposal to merge half-filled schools and create large school complexes. Such consolidation, in many ways, overlooks addressing the core issue of there being a lack of accountability for our over 1.5 million teachers—arguably, a singular cause for poor standards of most of our four hundred thousand government-run schools.
We also need to remain cognizant that no countrywide silver bullet to our higher education problems exists given the great diversity across states. Decentralised solutions that take into account the numerous economic, social and cultural differences amongst provinces and districts are likely to prove more effective. This reality lends further credence to the fact that we now have to loosen national level controls and regulations on all levels of education.
While foundational education and basic literacy must, for quite sometime more, remain squarely in the purview of the government, it is increasingly becoming clear that greater participation of the private sector is needed to widen and deepen secondary and higher education in India. Making progress on this objective, while ensuring the doors remain open to those who cannot finance themselves, must form the backbone of our new policy approach. The current regulatory regime has to be lightened to encourage competition amongst service-providers and improve coverage and quality of education. Over time, more autonomy be granted to this level of institutions of learning with the government playing a less active role. Ultimately, improving the quality of higher education would not only help millions of our ambitious students fulfil their aspirations, but also serve as an important instrument to build a more equitable, inclusive and plural society.

Dr Ajay Dua, a public policy specialist and a development economist by training, is a former Union Secretary.