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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?

Sibal has already approved a law — expected to pass in November — targeting mainly the private engineering and medical education sectors, a majority of which are renowned here for their malpractices. The drastic new law will punish Indian college officials who demand bribes with a fine of up to $106,400 and a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

College officials demanding capitation fees — a euphemism used in India to mean bribes to secure admission — will invite a criminal case against them and also de-recognition of the higher education institution they belong to. Bribery is common at India’s private engineering and medical colleges and a lack of government oversight has allowed private, professional education to become a profit-making venture. Many private colleges even fly in spurious faculty members — sometimes for just a few hours — when higher-education regulators come to inspect their institutions.

The regulator in charge has been unable to stop these practices. Many of these colleges were started by local politicians who pressured the regulator for approval even though the institutions lacked well qualified faculty members and a decent infrastructure, academic observers say. In addition, many allege that some of the regulator's officials are to be blamed for rampantly approving mere trade schools in exchange for money.

Reforming the regulatory bodies and better oversight of private colleges are not necessarily new ideas. They have been suggested many times in the last five years by academics as well as industry bodies. In fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made higher education a key focus area during his last tenure and plans to keep it so going forward. He set up the National Knowledge Commission, an advisory body to look into university reforms and also a high-level panel to review India's myriad higher education regulators.

Former minister Arjun Singh actively ignored reforms recommended by both the commission and the panel and even childishly downgraded the status of the latter by changing its name, so he could reject any reforms he didn't like.

Now, with the Congress Party-led coalition earning re-elected with a strong majority — that political observers believe signifies Indian voters' push for change and reforms by younger and more dynamic politicians — Manmohan Singh, who is still prime minister, has finally been able to get rid of Arjun Singh.

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