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From Harvard law to one of India's biggest fights

Meet Kapil Sibal, the country's new education minister. Politician or the real deal?

Kapil Sibal in Davos, Jan. 31, 2009. (Pascal Lauener/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — India's educationists are hoping the academic side of their new education minister takes precedence over the politician in him.

In the month since he was put in charge, Kapil Sibal has been highly vocal about advocating for what he sees as much-needed reforms in the higher education sector. He has also put serious muscle behind his calls for change. A former lawyer, Sibal has a Master's in law from Harvard Law School and a Master's in history from the University of Delhi.

Although Sibal said higher education programs initiated by his predecessor would not be scrapped — he was, of course, being politic — he did say modifications would be made as required. Not that there is much to be scrapped, because the former minister in charge of higher education did little aside from pushing through increased quotas — now almost 50 percent of seats in all public colleges are reserved for the so-called backward castes and classes.

Sibal has quickly signaled a marked strategic shift by allying with the U.S. — a prospect abhorred by his predecessor — to launch an initiative to expand higher education ties, reaffirming his earlier statements about wanting foreign universities in India. In June, Sibal met with William Burns, undersecretary for political affairs in the U.S. State Department, and both decided to set up a joint working group to expand education ties.

This accord has raised the hopes of American universities wanting to start campuses in India, although Sibal did warn Burns he will not tolerate fly-by-night institutions keen to set up shop here.

In fact, insiders say that on his first day in office, the first file he called for was the one related to a long-delayed draft bill — first scheduled to be introduced in Parliament in March 2007 — that outlines regulations for foreign universities wanting to operate in India. The introduction of the bill was stymied by the left parties, who were supporters of the last government and who believed that access to higher education would suffer if foreign universities charging exorbitant fees were allowed to operate in India.

In his 100-days agenda announced in late June, Sibal was unequivocal about setting up an autonomous, independent, overarching authority tentatively called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research, to oversee all universities' quality, curricula, admission policies, examinations and general operations. This is based on the recommendations of two high-powered reform groups.

India's 16 higher-education regulatory bodies are notorious for mistaking regulation for governance. Every move to change a course, add more faculty members or alter the examination format is stubbornly resisted while the system as a whole stagnates for want of leadership. The two reform groups have, in fact, suggested scrapping all 16 bodies, but Sibal hasn't said publicly whether that will happen. This has given a huge case of the jitters to the 16 existing stakeholders who are unhappy at the prospect of relinquishing power.