By Dr D Dhanuraj & Mr Rahul V Kumar

Two events in the recent past has brought the issue of the independence of higher educational institutions to design and offer courses. The first involved a stand-off between University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs). The UGC issued a circular to all higher educational institutions including 16 IITs that the degrees offered by them have to be in concurrence with what was prescribed by the UGC. The IITs in turn contended that they fall outside the UGC regulations and hence had no requirement to follow UGC mandates. However, if several clauses of the UGC Act 1956 are read and interpreted simultaneously, the contention of the IITs remain challenged. The second incident followed a UGC circular to ensure that Hindi was taught at the college level. This was opposed by the Tamil Nadu government, which stated that the circular would not be applicable for the state. The circular was withdrawn later by the UGC. The question however remains on whether a regulatory authority can prescribe the content for teaching in higher educational institutes.

Why did the UGC bring out these circulars? UGC’s justification springs from Section 22 of UGC Act 1956 that says “The right of conferring or granting degrees shall be exercised only by a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act or an institution deemed to be a University under section 3 or an institution specially empowered by an Act of Parliament to confer or grant degrees.” This clause has been used by the UGC to prevent academic independence of universities in India to design and develop courses. The UGC came up with a gazette notification on July 5, 2014 (with the approval of the central government) naming specific degrees (‘approved nomenclature’ numbering 129) which universities could grant for their higher educational courses. In this gazette publication, the UGC allows for integrated and dual degree programmes with the freedom for “additional interactive courses”. However, these freedom are subject to regulations prescribed by the UGC and various statutory authorities.

Given this scenario there are two broad questions which face any stakeholder in higher education in India.

  1. Does our existing courses reflect the contemporary job market requirements? If not, is a restructuring in courses required?
  2. How efficiently can we design and introduce new and innovative courses?

To address these questions, we can take the case of higher education in Kerala. Higher education in Kerala is dominated by state universities and its affiliated colleges (aided and unaided). There are two deemed universities in the state. Recently selected colleges (9) were provided autonomous status. These autonomous institutions can be judged only in the near-term once they start producing results. There are no private universities in the state.

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Does the courses offered in the state’s university system reflect requirements in the job market? For answering this question, we need to first classify the courses. Professional courses offered at various affiliated colleges directly train the students for specific industrial requirements. However, the traditional courses in social sciences and sciences are mostly perceived with disdain. Much of these courses have fewer exposure to job openings. Very few students taking these courses tend to specialize or select to continue research in these disciplines in universities. So while institutes providing professional education are preferred for higher education, the fact remains that much of this preference springs from possible job openings. It should be noted that traditional social sciences like history, politics or economics or sciences are not treated on par with professional courses due to this lag. This forces us to think why the situation is so? There can be two answers: One is that the extent to which existing courses and knowledge generated in these disciplines at these affiliated colleges is insufficient and inefficient; and second we are yet to understand the requirements of the job market for traditional disciplines in its complete sense. Both could hold true in the case of Kerala. Creating the premise to re-examine the courses and developing innovative training methods could directly impact these conditions. However, there is another problem which these disciplines have to face. The demand for professional courses have created a competitive market in education where the demand for traditional courses are fading. Hence the challenge for the latter is to rejuvenate itself. Yeshpal committee report on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education notes that “there is a need to expose students, especially at the undergraduate level, to various disciplines like humanities, social sciences, aesthetics etc., in an integrated manner. This should be irrespective of the discipline they would like to specialize in subsequently.” Such a merger is likely to renovate the status of the traditional disciplines even as it reorganizes and strengthens professional disciplines.

The second question on how efficiently we can design and introduce courses should be seen in this context. There are again some issues here. One is that there should be a definite career path for the students taking traditional disciplines. If not towards the job market, it should provide them with opportunities for pursuing serious academic research. The requirement thus is to free the affiliated colleges from the universities. It has certain benefits. Primarily it would redefine the role of universities as centres for generating new knowledge through research. Secondly it would allow the erstwhile affiliated colleges independence to define and create courses. The prevailing system where these colleges are tied to the universities is also unduly influenced by political interference. For instance, although the UGC gazette provides options for providing “additional interactive courses” the existing system in Kerala would authorize the university syndicate to approve it, while autonomy should allow these decisions to be made at the college level.

The way forward is important. What we see today is that UGC as a regulatory authority aims at times to go beyond its mandate. However, its limited outreach is seen in the manner in which most of the circulars were trivialized and discarded at the federal state level. What is required at this juncture is efficient and proficient accreditation and not an inefficient regulatory mechanism with powers that are not properly defined. Accreditation and rating shall be independent of any political interference. Autonomy to higher educational institutions and its freedom to define course would effectively operate under these conditions.

*Dr D Dhanuraj is the Chairman Mr Rahul V Kumar is consultant research associate of Centre for Public Policy Research

**This article is a reproduction of views which appeared in Pallikkuttam, an online monthly magazine published by Rajagiri Group of Educational Institutions

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