Over the years, staid processes, outdated regulations and academic inertia have created a culture of resistance to change in the education sector. It won’t be amiss to say that the Indian education sector is out of sync with reality. No doubt that the National Education Policy (NEP) is a refreshing attempt to infuse learning into what the education system should offer.

While the government’s intent to allow foreign universities to set base in India is welcome, it ignores the issue of domestic institutions that can be converted into universities. The draft regulations make it easier for global universities to set up base in India, and Indian regulators will have almost no control over them. Local institutions, however, continue to be stifled by bureaucracy.

Foreign institutions, for instance, will be allowed to develop their admission criteria and set the fees. The same leeway is not available for Indian institutions. Foreign institutes don’t have to worry about UGC regulations on minimum standards and procedures for award of degrees, or the ideas that NEP 2020 has proposed — like the Academic Bank for Credits scheme. The UGC regulations on minimum qualifications for appointment of teachers and other academic staff in universities and colleges will continue to stifle Indian institutes.

Decision-makers probably believe that foreign institutions will bring the best of what they have, and that could discourage Indian students from going abroad for their education and, thereby, also help stem the outflow of precious forex.

But students go abroad for not just academics, but to experience a different lifestyle and well-equipped campuses. If there is a cap on the fees Indian institutions can charge, how can they invest in improving campus infrastructure? One wonders how domestic institutes will be able to compete with the foreign ones who are being given preferential treatment.

Institutional divide

Years of regulatory cholesterol have not only choked the education system, but has also created an industry low on quality. For a land that revered its teachers, the situation now is such that teaching has become a sort of last-resort for most of those who don’t get employed elsewhere. Further, political interference and red tape have led to education institutions becoming devoid of passion and accountability.

In November 2022, the government put out draft regulations for ‘deemed-to-be’ universities. One proposal is to remove the condition that an institute needs to be in existence for at least 20 years before it can apply for conversion into a university. The draft UGC (Institutions Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2022 also recommend making multi-disciplinary institutions, or a cluster of them, with a minimum of five departments eligible to apply for deemed university status. This, the NEP envisages, can help improve the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from the current level of a mere 23 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035.

But actions to elevate higher educational institutions to deemed universities have been woefully slow. Many reputed institutions are caught in the time warp of regulatory inaction. Conversion of some of these renowned institutes/colleges into private central universities have been delayed for lack of relevant notifications.

For a nation that wants Atmanirbharta in its thinking and actions, this is a cause for concern. For a nation whose history boasts of attracting global students to the Nalanda and Takshashila education systems, amongst others, it is indeed unfortunate that regulators sit on files that can elevate many institutes into impactful universities. It’s time to upgrade and reform our educational regulatory system, so that the country is served well by quality human resources.

The writer is a policy researcher and corporate advisor