Business Today

Regulated to death

Corrupt and hide-bound regulators are the bane of education in India. There’s a crying need to revamp the regulators.

Kapil Bajaj | Print Edition: August 10, 2008

When the Delhi High Court ordered, on February 8 this year, to shut down about 10,000 (a widely reported but unconfirmed number) private “unauthorised” schools running in Delhi if they failed to meet standards and get government recognition, one of the agencies supposed to do thehatchet job was Municipal Corpor-ation of Delhi, itself the manager of over 1,700 primary schools in the city. A series of surveys, conducted over recent years, have revealed MCD’s abysmal record in managing its own schools; many of them are as dreaded for their stinking lavatories and unsafe buildings as they are for their incompetence in making their pupils literate and numerate.

Powerful regulator: AICTE undertakes periodic review of curriculum and content of technical education
Powerful regulator: AICTE undertakes periodic review of curriculum and content of technical education
The judgement, delivered on a PIL and affecting schools believed to have been no more than “sub-standard teaching shops” for about 600,000 pupils from underprivileged backgrounds, brings into relief not only a government failure of frightening proportions, but also a regulatory mess in education that India will find difficult to disentangle.

While public authorities flounder miserably in providing the desired quality and quantity of education to the billion-plus population, the regulations, uninformed by any coherent policy, have ensured that private provision of education heads pell-mell into confusion and uncertainty.

Too many cooks

India’s Constitution puts education in the Concurrent list, meaning that there are 30 major government authorities administering education (the Centre and 29 states, including Delhi) in a country that makes up— importantly—a single labour market.

Counted with Parliament and all state legislatures (which create “universities” and make laws for education), the HRD ministries and departments, central and state school examination boards and text book writing agencies, state councils for higher education, University Grants Commission, and at least 14 central “professional councils” (such as AICTE, Council of Architecture, and Medical Council of India), that’s an entire army of regulators.

Their philosophies, values, and actions generally differ, so that there is hardly anything in the rag-bag of Indian education that’s not in dispute over its desirability or undesirability. (The disputants are any possible permutation or combination of different government authorities, their regulating agencies, schools/colleges/universities, and students.) “Regulation differs from state to state…Delhi frowns on ‘commercialisation’ of education, while Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat permit ‘for-profit’ schools,” notes an analysis done in March 2008 by CLSA.

The regulators also seem to be making sure—officiously—that they are listened to. Atul Chauhan, Chancellor of Noida-based Amity University, one of a new breed of private universities (created by legislatures but run by private parties), says education remains one of the last strangleholds of Licence Raj in India. “Even after you comply with all the regulations, the regulators can make your life difficult. For example, they’ll require you to file reams and reams of documents, which are impossible even for them to read.”

Amity University’s website lists details about its litigation with UGC arising from the latter allegedly excluding the former from its list of universities. That, by the way, is the kind of disputes and litigations that many other heavy-duty regulators— AICTE, Council of Architecture, to name two—are also engaged in (See Architect of Disaster). Almost all the prominent central regulating bodies in education also face allegations of widespread corruption.

Where’s the money?

Given the current state of affairs, the National Knowledge Commission’s recommendation that India should have 1,500 more universities sounds like a joke. S.R.Dugal, Chairman, Institute of Clinical Research, India, a Delhi-based private education provider that offers M.Sc. (clinical research) without any government “recognition”, says the regulators have been killing education entrepreneurship by setting fees. “If a government university were to set a market price for one of its courses, you won’t hear of the lakhs who line up to get admission.

Why does the government want a private education provider to attract lakhs, too, and then select a few for admission,” he says. The laws, inspired by the predominant public policy that sees education as a public good rather than a commercial service, have ensured that a series of judicial pronouncements have decried profit generation by academic institutions.

While higher education in the private sector (particularly, engineering/technology, medical and management) is becoming increasingly free of late from fee setting requirements, school education largely remains a captive to the regulators’ interference.

All academic institutions in India are also required to be non-profit trusts or societies, spurring their private managers to create companies that derive profits by billing the institutions on certain services.

In April 2004, in a case known as (Delhi’s private) Modern School vs Union of India and Others, the Supreme Court also prohibited transfer of fees, funds or surpluses of one school to another or to its parent trust or society, though it permitted school managements to collect “reasonable sums” for capital expenditure.

More than the regulatory mess itself, what is scary is that no one seems to be working on straightening it out.

 Architect of disaster

Council of Architecture (COA).

Despotic hold: COA has often taken steps that hampered more and helped less the architecture education in India
Despotic hold: COA has often taken steps that hampered more and helped less the architecture education in India
Created by a Parliamentary Act, COA is at loggerheads with many architecture schools, giving sleepless nights to hundreds of enrolled students and making one wonder if it’s under anyone’s control.

Armed with its statutory powers to “regulate the education and practice of profession throughout India and maintain the register of architects,” COA has been insisting that architecture schools introduce its National Aptitude Test in Architecture (NATA) or face de-recognition. COA website lists many schools of architecture (including IIT-Kharagpur and Chandigarh College of Architecture), where “intake” of students has been withdrawn or frozen for not submitting “NATA undertaking”.

COA has also recommended “withdrawal of recognition” for the reputed School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, as also several others, alleging several sins of omission and commission.

Here are a couple of litigations in which COA has been involved:
1. In a case brought by a student of Jai Narayan University-Jodhpur, the Rajasthan High Court held that the university did not need the approval of the COA for starting a B.Arch. course. The court also quashed COA’s rejection of the student’s application for registration.

2. In an ongoing case in Delhi the High Court, brought by students of TVB School of Habitat Studies, affiliated to Delh’s GGSIP University, COA has been found having granted recognition year after year to the school, which was later found to have violated zoning laws and made to close its campus. When the university absorbed the distressed students, COA insisted that the students could not join the university and would have to join another affiliated college, but in the evening batch and without adequate infrastructure. The COA also insisted that the course run by the university did not have its “recognition”. Pending the court decision, students of TVB—some 140 of them—face an uncertain future—for no fault of their own.

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