Based on the recommendations of the National Education Policy 2020, the Narendra Modi government announced in the Union Budget Monday it is going ahead with its plans to merge all higher education regulators into a single body called the Higher Education Commission. This sole regulator will include the University Grants Commission and the All Indian Council for Technical Education.
Although the idea is not new, having been promoted in 2011 as well, it met with resistance from the Congress, as well as members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Interestingly, medicine and law institutes have been left out of this plan. If the reason is that these are practising professions, one can argue so are Pharmacy and Architecture, which have not been exempted. Engineering is even a bigger practising profession, though it does not need a licence to practise.
AICTE’s transformative role
The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the regulator of engineering education in the country, was the brainchild of P.V. Narasimha Rao, India’s former prime minister who was the Minister for Human Resource Development when AICTE was created in 1987.
It was due to Rao’s foresight that the government has been able to create the world’s largest technical education infrastructure, with 3,500 engineering colleges, 3,400 polytechnics, 200 schools of planning and architecture, 4,000 management institutes and a host of institutions that run courses in arts and crafts, 90 per cent of which are AICTE–driven. In contrast, one new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) can cost Rs 1,000 crore or more to establish.
The sheer number of engineers produced each year by AICTE is a staggering one million, compared to the only 13,674 seats offered by IITs. The Medical Council of India (MCI) also produces just about 67,000 doctors each year. This not only creates an artificial scarcity of doctors in the country, but also seriously jeopardises India’s healthcare system, which got highlighted during the Covid–19 pandemic. The AICTE, however, shouldered its responsibility well when India faced the challenge of bringing about the IT revolution. It was engineering colleges of AICTE located in tier-two and tier-three cities that provided foot soldiers for the revolution. The AICTE also introduced uniform criteria for infrastructure, faculty, and the pedagogy to set up and run such a mind-boggling number of institutions across the country.
In the last decade, the AICTE has reinvented itself as a modern, responsive, transparent, and accountable organisation. The massive computerisation effort in 2010 brought significant impacts. A meagre corpus of Rs 43 crore rose to Rs 950 crore at the end of six years, because every penny was accounted for through an online payment gateway. Its administrative initiatives and measures even found mention in the World Bank report of 2017 on TEQIP and AICTE. A host of other initiatives like enabling and facilitating approval processes, completely online approvals that brought in much-needed transparency and accountability, new courses, new funding schemes, a large number of post-graduate programmes, scholarships, a new state-of-the-art office building, a 960-seater auditorium, and guest houses really catapulted AICTE into another league as an education regulator.
In contrast, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has had less to boast about. It was set up in 1956 for “coordination and maintenance of standards” in higher education at the national level. The metrics used to determine the quantum of grants to universities were inconsistent — sometimes determined by block grants and sometimes by peer reviews. Lack of transparency in the UGC’s procedures and inadequate funds mired its reputation. In spite of various attempts to reform and introduce transparency through computerisation, no tangible result came about.
Failing to reform the UGC, the Ministry of Human Resource Development had introduced RUSA (Rashtriya Uchhatar Siksha Abhiyan) in 2013 — a centrally sponsored scheme that aimed to provide strategic outcome-based funding to eligible State Higher Education Institutions. The central funding was in the ratio of 65:35 for General Category and 90:10 for special category states. What was interesting was that the funding flowed directly from the Centre to the State Higher Education Councils via state governments before reaching the identified institutions, completely bypassing the UGC. The funding to states is made on the basis of critical appraisal of State Higher Education Plans, which describes each state’s strategy to address issues of equity, access and excellence in higher education.
Distinct focus on technical education
Although in theory the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is a new institution, in reality, it will basically be like the UGC but with a new label. Does the UGC have the bandwidth to look after the needs of technical education? In its current shape, it certainly does not. Its hands are more than full in dealing with the 875 universities and 45,000 colleges of the country and their myriad problems. It has no time or capacity to deal with technical education, which needs its own kind of space and treatment.
Now that the HEC is a reality and cannot be wished away, the Modi government must consciously ensure that there is a separate body within the Commission, which looks after technical education in a focussed manner. The new regulator must be even–handed, and ensure space both for universities, which focus on basic sciences and research, as well as technical institutes that are engaged in developing capacities to apply science for creating products. In Germany, too, the government ensures that while Max Planck institutes work for basic research, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institutes focus on applied research and ‘productisation’. Unless this is done, the danger of boundaries getting blurred is high, and this could spell disaster for the cause of engineering and innovation in India. Additionally, the HEC must adopt the RUSA model for the release of funds because it makes the state governments and their Higher Education Councils active partners and stakeholders in the state’s brand equity for higher education.
The HEC needs to be aware of these challenges, lest this gunshot marriage proves to be unworkable and 20 years down the line, there again arises the need to have a separate regulator for engineering. That will be a monumental disaster, and it would be too late by then.
Ashok Thakur is the former Education Secretary, Government of India. Prof S.S. Mantha is former Chairman of AICTE. Views are personal.