Less regulation, not removal of minority status, will improve Universities

Cancelling minority status of two universities will do little to help regulate institutions or improve the quality of higher education in India, when the problem lies with the regulatory system–consisting of at least eight central-level bodies, some of which are inefficient while others have been investigated for corruption.

The union government is opposing the minority status of two universities funded by the taxpayer: It indicated it will soon withdraw its support for Jamia Millia Islamia’s minority status (the case is ongoing in the Delhi High Court), as it did for Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the Supreme Court in July 2016, arguing that these universities were established by Acts of Parliament and not by Muslims.

The government has chosen to cancel the minority status of these two universities, even though these are not the only ones that have minority status. The government’s stance on Jamia and AMU, instead of underscoring ideology, should have opened up the debate on the larger regulatory mess in higher education, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice chancellor of Haryana-based Ashoka University, wrotein the Indian Express on August 8, 2017.

Mehta further argued that a minority college such as St Stephen’s has an autonomy over admissions that a college such as Shri Ram College of Commerce lacks, despite both colleges being part of Delhi University. “It does create situations where institutions that are identical in purpose face differential regulation merely on account of who started it,” he wrote.

Minority-status institutions are allowed to set aside half their seats for a particular community, such as Muslim or Sikh, and not reserve any seats for Dalits. A minority institute can also decide who will be part of their governing council, but so can most other universities. Minority-status institutions also follow regulations binding on other publicly-funded universities, such as rules on teacher employment and salaries.

For instance, minority institutions “can’t say that for vice-chancellor we will have other qualifications (different from other institutions)”, said Irfan Habib, historian and professor emeritus at AMU.

These rules were formed as part of the St Stephen’s College judgement, which upheld the Christian-minority college’s right to function as a minority institution even though it is part of Delhi University. The ruling said the college will be subject to regulation.

Even after the cancellation of minority status of two universities, the University Grants Commission (UGC) would still preside over universities and colleges that fall into several categories: Private universities, those funded by the union government, those funded by state governments, and those deemed-to-be universities (which are institutions considered to hold the highest standards in a field, and labelled as “universities” by the central government. These can include private universities).

At least 8 central-level regulators, several other state-level regulators

The main problem in Indian higher education lies in its over-regulation, and easing regulations could open up university education to many more in a country where about a quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 23 years were enrolled in higher education institutions in 2015-16, according to government data.

There are more than eight regulators. There are also higher education commissions and regulators at the state level, said C Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of privately-owned O P Jindal Global University, who has campaigned for less-intrusive regulation and for public universities. He said the number of regulators could be about 20.

At least half of those enrolled in higher education in India are enrolled in private higher education, according to O P Jindal University’s research.

The eight higher education regulators have different structures and report to different ministries. Some are statutory bodies created by acts of Parliament. They give permission for new courses and colleges, additional seats in existing colleges, disburse public money, and exercise quality control.

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