Time to Act: New law a welcome step towards world-class education

Every time a world university ranking comes out, we look for the possibility of our state universities on the list in much the same way that a student scans the list of names when exam results are announced.

Digital universities

Our public institutions, however, never make it to these rankings, or appear shamefully behind universities elsewhere in the world.

This time though, Maharashtra’s Higher and Technical Education (HTE) department is working towards a better grade. In December, the State Legislative Assembly passed the Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016 to bring state universities up to par with the times and with top universities in India.

The Act introduces several reforms in the functioning of 11 institutions currently governed by the Maharashtra Public Universities Act. It proposes the idea of a Cluster University (a clutch of empowered autonomous institutes), a committee to fix fees, a digital university and a choice-based credit system with transferable credit points. It also plans to reintroduce student elections and establish centres in foreign countries.

MA Khan, registrar of the University of Mumbai says the previous Act, in use since 1994, was outdated. “The new Act is progressive and makes provisions for activities that can improve higher education in Maharashtra,” he adds.

The Bill has got the signature from the Chancellor (Governor) and has got status of an Act that may be effective from March this year. It is based on the recommendations of three committees set up in 2010-11 to suggest long-term strategies that might improve the management of the 11 state universities and the 3774 colleges affiliated to them.

Here are some of the major features of the Act and how they have been received within the community.

AIMED AT STUDENTS

The Act is designed to be more student-friendly. Clauses include appointing the previous year’s topper in a particular stream (Arts, Science or Commerce) as a member of that faculty’s board of studies. It recommends nominating the president of a university students’ council as an invitee member of the management council. It also proposes special exams for students who miss them because they are participating in sports and cultural events.

“Student representation is extremely important in university decisions and we will welcome students’ opinions on the syllabus through the Act,” says Anand Mapuskar, subject expert at the HTE department. He was also part of education minister Vinod Tawde’s 21-member committee that took a final look at the Bill before it was tabled in the Assembly. “The Act makes provisions for an ombudsman at the college and universitylevel for students’ grievances.” It also reintroduces college and university elections.

The Act recommends that universities and their affiliated colleges set up complaints committees to address sexual harassment, much like those in workplaces under the Vishakha Guidelines. It takes the existing Credit system a step ahead by proposing a choice-based credit system, which will allow students to choose a subject from any stream of education (academic, technology, professional and social, and personality and cultural development) and transfer credits smoothly. This will ease the movement of students between universities and colleges.

“Our careers will no longer depend upon our subject choices, which is a relief,” says Shweta Verhani, 20, second-year Arts student. She adds that choice based accreditation will allow more room to experiment with streams.”

In other good news for students, semester exam timetables will be released a year before the exams start. “We understand that students who opt for competitive exams after college need the dates to plan their studies and exams. Thus, there is a provision for this in the Act,” says Mapuskar.

SEEING THE OTHER SIDE

To free universities from vested interests, the Act proposes to create the Maharashtra State

Council for Higher Education and Development (MAHED). The umbrella body will plan, shape, coordinate, supervise, devise use of technology and raise finances for higher education. It will be headed by the chief minister and run by academicians, scientists, technocrats, and industry and financial experts.

The concept of MAHED comes from a committee headed by Anil Kakodkar. “But it was supposed to be in addition to the Higher Education Council, which is almost dormant,” says Kakodkar, a nuclear scientist and former member of Board of Governors of IIT-Bombay. “Political bodies can’t get too involved in running a university. It needs an environment to flourish and grow. It needs to be peer-driven and not hierarchy driven. Mixing these two defeats the purpose.”

Others see it differently. “MAHED will link the state with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and decision-making councils in higher and professional education, as well as with the government’s think tank NITI Aayog,” says MS Kurhade, dean of Arts and principal of DTSS College of Commerce, Malad. “This link was missing and is much needed.”

Madhu Paranjape, member of the Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union (BUCTU) fears that a government-led body means a loss of democratic functioning. “Nominated members protect the interest of the government and self-financing institutes,” she says.

THE LONG VIEW

The Act claims to have a far reaching vision, making progressive strides in Maharashtra’s higher education.

It proposes to create a comprehensive digital university framework for e-learning and administrative services. “The world is moving towards a digital phase and we cannot shy away from offering this opportunity to our students,” says registrar Khan. He adds that work has already begun and affiliated colleges will soon have WiFi on campuses.

Not everyone is rejoicing. Of the 750 affiliated colleges under the University of Mumbai, only 296 colleges are in Mumbai and its urbanised periphery. The majority are in rural areas, where most students don’t even own cellphones or computers. “This is an Act of the elite. It isn’t inclusive at all,” says Paranjape, referring to the new governing council and the idea of student election – provisions that can’t be modified once they are put into the act.

The Act’s other additions include cultivating research parks, technology incubators and other entities to help university research reach the commercial domain and allow faculty groups from several disciplines to collaborate on projects. It also hopes to establish centers or institutions in foreign countries with the permission of the Central and the State Government.

Its offer of empowered autonomy for groups of better-graded colleges has had a mixed response. “Cluster universities can take the load off institutions like the University of Mumbai, which has a large number of affiliated colleges,” explains Ashok Wadia, principal, Jai Hind College, Churchgate, who was also part of the team in the earlier phases of the creation of the Act. “But it is yet to be seen what statutes are made to implement them. It will be important to see how colleges are segregated and decentralised, as each college has its own culture, region and mission. Autonomy will always be preferred over clusters.”

Kakodkar sees the Act as an incremental progression. “It has failed to consider our recommendations in their entirety,” he says. “However, I understand that when you make an Act, you need to take everyone along. Probably, that is why some recommendations have been watered down.”

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