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Higher Education II: Critique of Knowledge Commission

The National Knowledge Commission presents a wide-ranging set of prescriptions on the issues relating to the current state of higher education system in the Report to the Nation 2006. This article highlights the all-pervasive interference factors as the fundamental systemic factor in eroding the functional capabilities of our higher education system and suggests ways to deal with them. It also draws attention to several new trends that are missing in the report such as regional imbalances, uni-disciplinary universities, resistance to the credit system and proliferation of a substandard distance education system.


Critique ofKnowledge Commission

The National Knowledge Commission presents a wide-ranging set of prescriptions on the issues relating to the current state of higher education system in the Report to the Nation 2006. This article highlights the all-pervasive interference factors as the fundamental systemic factor in eroding the functional capabilities of our higher education system and suggests ways to deal with them. It also draws attention to several new trends that are missing in the report such as regional imbalances, uni-disciplinary universities, resistance to the credit system and proliferation of a substandard distance education system.


he report to the Nation 2006, produced by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) deals with most of the concerns on Indian higher education system along with general prescriptions for dealing with them. A large number of such prescriptions have been advanced more elaborately during the past six decades, but with disappointing results. There are several new disturbing trends that are not considered in the report, but will have a significant bearing on the effectiveness of the recommendations. The range of issues in the higher education covered by the report may be broadly grouped under (i) expansion and structural configuration, (ii) curricular concerns, (iii) governance and (iv) finance.

Expansion and Structural Configuration

The report suggests an increase in the number of universities nationwide to around 1,500 by 2015 with a focus on new universities and also some formed by clustering of the existing affiliated colleges. The deleterious effect of the affiliation system on the Indian higher education system has been recognised since 1966, when the Kothari Commission [GoI 1966] dealt with this issue at considerable length. Some universities have as many as 600 affiliated colleges. Of the nearly 17,700 colleges 7,650 are under unaided private

Economic and Political Weekly February 17, 2007

400 350 300 250 200 150 100 50


Figure: Growth of Universities in India

Number of Universities


management and another 5,750 are under aided private management and there are only 4,300 government colleges [Agarwal 2006]. Consequently, during the past five years the increase in enrolment in the government and aided colleges is a mere 4 per cent compared to 77 per cent in private unaided colleges.

Until the affiliation system is eliminated or contained severely, there is no scope for ensuring quality of higher education. The suggestions in the report to deal with this problem require deeper reflection on the enormous range of issues relating to their size, location, programmes, ownership and governance. Now is the opportunity to wipe out this problem in the higher education system within a fixed time frame, of say, five years.

Most of our universities are of relatively recent origin – there were 120 in 1983 and as many as 367 in 2006 (see the figure). The increase during the last 20 years has been predominantly in the private sector. The table shows the different categories of the universities.

The ambivalent status of the private institutions – permitted to operate under the cloak of “charitable” institutions, but in fact, are de facto profit-oriented commercial establishments – is inimical to national interest. The concerns about private participation relate to the collection of exorbitant capitation and other institutional fees, much of it as unaccounted money manipulation of entrance results and admission processes to maximise illicit payments and the absence of predictable norms in matters of faculty salary and service conditions.

Hence in the expansion process care must be taken to avoid such trends. The NKC report suggests that “it is essential to stimulate private investments in higher

1857 1921 1927 1937 1947 1952 1962 1972 1982 1992 2002 2004 2006

education as a means of extending educational opportunities”. At the same time, it is necessary to make unambiguous, transparent and mandatory provisions for the establishment of private institutions, similar to the practices in advanced countries.

They should be categorised as: private not-for-profit institutions, established and funded by truly charitable trusts and societies consisting of prescribed broad-based membership other than the members of the family of investors; and private for-profit institutions, established and funded as commercial ventures by individuals, their families and friends. The latter category may be free to follow their own norms for admission and fee structure. Their programmes should be accredited by one of the nationally recognised accreditation agencies.

Curricular Concerns

The report contains a compendium of curricular concerns relating to the quality of higher education. This includes such aspects as a rigid and compartmental curricular structure, outdated teaching, learning and evaluation practices; obsolete course contents; lack of mobility within and outside the institutions; and so on. Despite widespread realisation of such maladies for decades, no significant improvement has taken place. This is the time to look at the impediments behind the laxity and ways to overcome them. Our premier institutions for half a century have effectively practised the credit system and yet only a very small number of institutions follow the system. This situation is mainly due to the absence of determined policy to transform the evaluation practices.

What is necessary is the national capacity for defining, organising and improving quality-related functions for assessment and accreditation. The report erroneously assumes that there is only one accrediting agency, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and that it has a “monopoly over accreditation”. The accreditation systems by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) and many others have been ignored. In any case, the origin of formal accreditation processes such as NAAC and NBA is merely 10 years old. Comparing their accomplishment with other countries that have accreditation suggestions for over eight decades is not fair. The accreditation system is an evolving process everywhere in the world. Even the most reputed accrediting agencies in the US are constantly improving their parameters and problems.

The suggestion in the report to have central and state boards of undergraduate education ostensibly to separate the academic and administrative functions of colleges and provide quality benchmarks would unfortunately result in opposite effects such as regimentation of curriculum, rote learning for examinations, rigidity in the course and credit systems and massive increase in tutorial colleges.

On the other hand, the Knowledge Commission can help persuade the policymakers to establish a national curricular framework for higher education dealing with the key curricular concerns enforceable with a time-bound implementation strategy. Such a framework will enhance the scope for “pluralism and diversity” rightly emphasised in the report. The universities and colleges should have the functional autonomy within the framework to innovate curriculum, forge links with other institutions and deal with the sponsoring and funding agencies.

Erosion of University Autonomy

At this point of time when the university system in India is subjected to harsh criticism, it would be worthwhile to examine the underlying processes that

Table: Categorywise Universities

Central universities under UGC 20 State-funded universities 217 Deemed universities

(eligible for UGC funding) 4 5 Private deemed universities 5 7 Private universities under state legislature 5 Other private universities 10 Institutions of national importance 13 Total 367

Economic and Political Weekly February 17, 2007

influence the functions of our universities. The Kothari Commission recognised the imperatives of university autonomy and cautioned that “only an autonomous institution, free from regimentation of ideas and pressure of party or power politics, can pursue truth fearlessly and build up in its teachers and students, habits of independent thinking and a spirit of enquiry unfettered by the limitations and prejudices of the near and the immediate which is so essential for the development of a free society”.

There is a high degree of propensity to put the blame on the university system itself for all the maladies. While the university system cannot absolve itself of the responsibilities for certain amount of deterioration in standards of teaching and research, it is indeed regrettable that there are clever and concerted efforts to hide the ill-effects of external interference.

The report of the Knowledge Commission recognises this phenomenon. It states that “the autonomy of universities is eroded by interventions from governmental and intrusions from political processes”. It further adds that, “experience suggests that implicit politicisation has made governance of universities exceedingly difficult and much more susceptible to entirely nonacademic interventions from outside. This problem needs to be recognised and addressed in a systematic manner within universities but also outside, particularly in governments, legislatures and political parties.” It stops short of elaborating the steps to reduce the non-academic interventions.

Form and Mode of Interference

The erosion of university autonomy is caused mainly through manipulating the two key instruments of governance, namely, the governing boards and appointment of key functionaries such as vice chancellors (VCs) and registrars. Further erosion is caused by competition to get political control of student and faculty bodies. The institutions in the country that are free from such intrusions have demonstrated their capability for superior performance. Unless the political and bureaucratic intrusions are eliminated, no amount of reforms in other functions will yield results.

It can be seen that the best universities/ institutes in India are those that have competent and autonomous governing boards. The Radhakrishnan Commission [GoI 1949] had suggested “the inclusion of wisely chosen external members of its governing body and then to leave it free from interference”.

The governing boards of centrally-sponsored and funded university-level institutions, such as the central universities, centrally-funded deemed universities and institutions of national importance such as IITs, IIMs, etc, consist of only two or three persons from the central bureaucracies in addition to outside experts who have sufficient academic and professional credibility, besides the institutional members.

In the state-funded universities, the governance structure varies considerably from state to state and even within a state. With some rare exceptions they are all faced with severe interference effects from the political system and bureaucracy. There are several known instances of incompetent persons, nominated to the governing boards/syndicates mainly on the basis of the personal relationships or political patronage or illicit financial consideration.

In the case of private universities, those sponsored by respectable philanthropic or corporate organisations, interested in protecting their reputation, seek to constitute governing boards with well known and respected persons. However, there are many private universities established by individuals or families with sole profit motivations, which seek to formulate the governing boards with docile persons.

Presently political consideration dominates the process of selecting VCs in a majority of cases. For more than 50 years, there have been many discussions on the processes for appointing VCs [AIU 2000]. The Kothari Commission [GoI 1966] suggested appointment of persons who can stand for “the commitment of the university to scholarship and pursuit of truth and can ensure that the executive wing of the university is used to assist the academic community in all its activities”. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has established detailed guidelines for selection of VCs [UGC 1993].

In violation of the spirit of these guidelines, there are recent trends whereby the state governments sanctify the deviations through legislative actions. Some states expressly mandate the chancellor (the governor of the state) to obtain the concurrence of the chief ministers before choosing the name from the panel of names for the VCs submitted.

This situation is ignored whenever the quality and excellence of Indian universities are compared to world-class institutions abroad. The report laments the fact that “the gap between our universities and those in the outside world has widened. And none of our universities rank among the best, say fifty in the world”. The relevance of many of the parameters, such as the presence of Nobel laureates in the faculty, enrolment of foreign students and foreign faculty, used for ranking universities by various foreign agencies are irrelevant in the Indian context. What is forgotten is that our universities have not been provided with the same functional environments as the eminent institutions elsewhere. On the contrary, they suffer from an extraordinary intensity of outside interferences.

It is time to establish a set of enforceable national norms for the constitution of governing boards and selection and appointment of vice chancellors/directors in public as well as private universities along with an indigenous system of ranking to promote competitiveness valid for our society.

Regulatory Systems

There is a tendency to blame the regulatory system exercised by the statutory bodies for the maladies of the higher education system. The NKC has proposed the stripping of the regulatory roles of the statutory bodies like the UGC, All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Medical Council of India (MCI), etc, and establish a super regulatory body called Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE). When eminent persons occupied advisory and policy-making positions in these bodies, the regulatory system commanded a great deal of respect and dignity for contributions to higher and professional education.

One main problem of the statutory bodies is the packing of their policy organs with persons, not quite suited for the job, based on political considerations. Without paying attention to the elimination of political interference in these bodies, it is not clear how any super regulatory body like IRAHE will perform better. The argument that the central regulatory authorities (UGC,

Economic and Political Weekly February 17, 2007 AICTE, MCI, etc) are not equipped to regulate/promote the higher education system may have some justification, but is in reality an attempt to obfuscate the real issues. The real issue is the rapid political control over the organisations, eroding their credibility.

Financing Higher Education

Compared to the centrally-funded institutions, the state universities are generally starved of funds. Consequently, they resort to running correspondence courses and self-financing programmes causing diversion of talents from the core functions. Some states have also put a ban on recruitment of teachers for a decade or more due to financial constraints resulting in accumulation of unfilled teaching positions and use of junior and inexperienced staff on ad hoc basis out of funds generated by correspondence and self-financing courses. Consequently, many state universities are unable to initiate any new programmes of study and research. There is insufficient recognition of the extraordinary commitment and dedication of the majority of the faculty in the universities, especially those in the non-metropolitan towns, to maintain the academic activities in the face of severe financial crunch.

The report advocates that “the government support for higher education should be at least 1.5 per cent, if not 2 per cent of GDP from a total of 6 per cent of GDP for education”. Similar recommendations have been made earlier by several committees. It is important to realise that there should be a normative, rational and predictable funding for higher education to plan ahead and not be stifled by vagaries for year-toyear funding. Similar norms for state funding should be established.

In proposing establishment of 50 national universities the report rightly emphasises that they “would train students in a variety of disciplines, including humanities, social sciences, basic sciences, commerce and professional subjects at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels”. Unfortunately, during the past 10 years it has become fashionable to establish in large numbers uni-disciplinary universities in the form of technological universities, health universities, law universities, veterinary universities, IT universities and management universities. A look at their curriculum framework would show utter neglect of humanities, social sciences and basic sciences. What is relevant to national universities should also be valid for other universities. This needs serious reflections by the NKC.

The report emphasises that the “Universities must become the hub of research once again to capture synergies between teaching and research that enrich each other”. Rightly so. However, very recently there is a new trend to confer (deemed) university status on a variety of research laboratories under such organisations as the Atomic Energy Commission, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), defence and space. The negative significance of this trend in depleting the research programmes of regular universities should be considered by the NKC.


The report of the NKC has prescribed approaches to revamp the higher education system. It has dealt with issues relating to expansion, curricular concerns, governance and financing. What is needed at this stage is to reflect on the causes for the disappointing results on these and similar suggestions by several eminent commissions and committees during the past decades, if this report may not see the same fate.




Agarwal, Pawan (2006):Higher Education in India: Need for a Strategic Paradigm Shift and Framework for Action, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, (ICRIER), New Delhi.

Anandakrishnan, M (2004a): ‘Equity, Quantity and Quality in Higher Education’ in Issues in Higher Education, ICFAI University Press, Hyderabad.

– (2004b): ‘Private Investments in Technical Education: Problems and Prospects’ in Private Institutions in Higher Education, Sneh Prakashan, Yamuna Nagar, Haryana.

AIU (2000): Appointments, Terms of Reference, and Status of Vice-Chancellors of Indian Universities, Association of Indian Universities, New Delhi.

GoI (1949): Report of the University Education Commission (1948-49), Ministry of Education, Government of India, New Delhi.

– (1966): Report of the Education Commission (1964-66), Ministry of Education, Government of India, New Delhi.

UGC (1993): Towards Selection and Security of the Tenure of Vice-Chancellors in Indian Universities, Report of the UGC Committee, University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly February 17, 2007

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