From Harvard law to one of India's biggest fights

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.

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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