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Stop bickering and start regulating : UGC, AICTE, COA

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Financial Chronicle | MyDigitalFC | By Amita Sharma Aug 05 2015 | Opinion |

A burning question in today’s educational discussions is the role of regulators in higher education. Envisaged as custodians of educational quality, apex regulatory bodies like the University grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the Council of Architecture (COA) have been in the news more for their internal wrangling than for any significant transformational thinking. A large part of the responsibility for this disarray lies with the government. In generating a tangled web of regulators, one after the other, in response to historical exigencies, the government has betrayed its own conceptual ambiguity and policy confusion. It has spawned multiple statutory bodies with similar functions and powers, creating a paradox of over-regulation by the state, discreet privatisation and declining educational standards. To resolve these conflicts, the bill for National Council for Higher Education and Research 2011 proposed a single regulator merging UGC, AICTE, COA and other such agencies. This was, however, withdrawn in 2014.

Yet another bill seeking to regulate the regulator — the Architects (Amendment) Bill, 2010 is pending in the Rajya Sabha and is a cameo study of the problems inherent in the present regulation policies of not just architectural education but of education in general. The Architects Act, 1972, set up the Council of Architecture (COA) to prescribestandards of architectural education (u/s 21). In 1987 came the AICTE Act subsuming architecture education within technical education and AICTE’s purview. This conflict of legislation between the two councils has engendered serious problems for architectural education and typifies the regulator rows that plague higher education. When AICTE declares architectural colleges as unapproved by it, COA defends them by claiming architecture under its jurisdiction. On the other hand, COA often de- recognises the architecture courseware offered in AICTE approved institutions. Institutions are afraid of ignoring COA’s authority because COA registers qualified architects and may not register graduating students of defiant institutions as architects.

Problems also occur between the government and the COA. COA has to recommend de-recognition to the central government. If the government’s response is inordinately delayed, and COA acts on its own, students get affected. If it waits interminably for government approval, more students admitted in consecutive batches get affected. The proposed amendmentdoes not remove the anomalies of overlapping powers of AICTE and COA. It simply stipulates that the central government may in public interest issue directions to the COA, including amendment to its regulation. The central government may also supersede the council for a maximum of two years if it fails or persistently defaults in its duties, exceeds or abuses its powers or willfully defies central government’s directives. It makes government the real regulator in architectural education. It already has similar powers of issuing directives in the case of UGC and AICTE. Such regulatory solipsism by the ministry reduces statutory regulators to subordinate offices exercising only spurious autonomy. Surely, regulatory mechanisms should be at arms distance from the ministry and the ministry should not twist their arms. Even if the Architects (Amendment) Bill, 2010, is legislated, far from instituting a transparent system of quality standards for architectural education, it will add bureaucratic caprice to existing regulator skirmishes.

It is imperative to remove the Damocles sword of conflicting regulations dangling over higher education. Instead of hiding the ostrich head of policy in ad hoc directives, basic issues — conceptual issues like ‘should higher education in an era of cross-disciplinary, holistic education be fragmented into technical education and architecture education?; procedural issues, like the need for reiterative annual approvals of old institutions and multiple approvals at each step of institutional activity; and structural issues pertaining to regulators themselves — need re-visiting. The reports of committees set up by the ministry to review UGC and AICTE merit consideration and not a status quo preservation of the discretionary powers of a central authority. Even more fundamental premises need reopening. Has the existing regulatory system reduced wanton educational ‘shops’? Considering that top institutions like IITs , in the public sector and the Indian School of Business in the private sector are outside the existing regulatory system, what measures promote quality? Is academic autonomy not needed for academic excellence? Is academic innovation possible under the yoke of expensive, input-based, rigidconditionalities? How effective is outcome-based accreditation? Hopefully, the new education policy expected by December 2015 will address these issues. Till then it makes eminent sense to withdraw the Architects (Amendment) Bill, 2010 .
It is said that Troy rose upon Apollo’s music:
…that strange song I heard Apollo sing,  While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.’ –  — Tennyson.
Our nation cannot rise if educators are busy dancing to the discordant tunes of bickering regulators. We need a harmonious policy environment where creative freedom and transparency form the music for India to rise again as a knowledge leader . (The writer is former additional secretary, MHRD) – Courtesy


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