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India moots higher education regulation overhaul

India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development is reportedly drawing up plans to streamline the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education into one national regulator.

India, HEERA, AICTE, UGCMinister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar with the British High Commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan in New Delhi in 2015. Photo: British High Commission New Delhi.

"It has to happen before May 2019 otherwise it may be stalled by another year”

If implemented, the overhaul would eliminate regulation overlap for university and technical training providers, improve quality standards across the country and finally move towards opening up to foreign providers, observers have said.

Reports from last month said the Human Resources Development Ministry has proposed a merger of the two bodies to form the Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency.

Historically, UGC has overseen degree awarding bodies in India but has had jurisdiction run-ins with AICTE’s oversight of technical education mainly in the area of business degrees.

Details of the revamp haven’t been made public but stakeholders in the sector have said HEERA could eliminate burdensome regulatory upkeep on the part of educators.

“AICTE has failed to realise its objectives”

“The multiple sets of rules and sub-regulations prescribed by UGC and AICTE, unfortunately, seem to have acted as a deterrent to the development of premier educational institutions,” Daksha Baxi, Monika Srivastava and Radhika Kapoor of law firm Khaitan and Co., said writing in the Financial Express.

A unified regulator would also mean “sponsoring bodies of institutes of higher education would no longer be required to approach multiple authorities for clearances, which is likely to promote ease of development of institutions of higher learning,” they wrote.

The move could also finally lead to solutions for the country’s massive gap in skills training. Government data shows its goal to upskill 402 million people by 2020 has missed its skills training targets for each except one of the last five years.

And despite overseeing more than 5,000 degree granting technical institutions, AICTE “has failed to realise its objectives,” remarked Pritam Singh former director of IIM-Lucknow in the Times of India.

“In its own 2017 survey, AICTE reported that 66% of the technical graduates in the country are unemployed or worse still, unemployable,” he observed.

Pratik Dattani, managing director of London-based Economic Policy Group and the UK director of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said a new national regulator will improve the perception of skills training in the country.

“We talk about the word skills, and everyone at a university says ‘oh, skills are nothing to do with us’ which is the wrong way of looking at,” he told The PIE News.

“University learning can be academic or it can be skills… It’s just the way funding and the regulation mechanisms currently work.

“The fact that the two are coming together will mean some synergies in terms of shared resources and shared best practices.”

Meanwhile Rahul Choudaha, CEO and co-founder of DrEducation, a US-based international education research firm, said, “Indian higher education is in a dire need to improve the quality and transparency of its higher education institutions on students, economy, and society.”

But Choudaha warned that, “While the reform direction is along the lines of what India needs, there are many unknowns at this point in terms of the specifics. Given the recent experience with demonetisation, the last thing Indian students, families and institutions want is shock and surprise.”

“The fact that the two are coming together will mean some synergies in terms of shared resources and shared best practices”

Both regulators have their own rules on how to work with foreign institutions. One national body could help end India’s reluctance to create a foreign providers framework or to recognise foreign entities as universities.

“India found it difficult to revisit the foreign providers bill,” observed Dattani. “One way around it would be to set up special economic zones which are low tariff, low tax, no regulation special parts in the outskirts of the city which are mainly for industry.

“The new regulators may suggest that there can be the provision of educational services within some of these economic zones.”

Dattani also anticipates a new regulator will mean online degrees are approved for the first time in India. “Current regulation hasn’t caught up with the fact that you can have simply online degrees,” he said.

“You can still teach it but it’s just not regulated and it’s not a recognised qualification from a regulator’s perspective at the moment. So that may change but we don’t know exactly what that will look like.”

Stakeholders expect further details about HEERA to be announced before May 2019’s general election which could see current Minister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar replaced.

“It has to happen before then otherwise it may be stalled by another year,” said Dattani.

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