What is the worth of a state minister’s statement made on the floor of the house? Going by Punjab higher education minister Surjit Singh Rakhra’s example, it seems nothing. On September 21 last year, the minister, during the assembly session, had assured the house that the state government would set up a regulatory commission to monitor the working of private universities in the state, adding that the bill for setting up the commission would be tabled in the next session.
The next assembly session is already over, but there is no word on the setting up of the commission. Other than a meeting with representatives of private universities and two meetings of a joint committee--set up as a result of the first meeting--the department of higher education has done nothing in the past seven months to set the ball rolling.
While sources say the lobby of private universities has approached chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose office reportedly put “verbal” brakes on the move, an apologetic Rakhra said the department is still hunting for the right act to “copy” from. “We studied the Himachal Pradesh act under which the regulatory commission was created. But we cannot apply it to Punjab. The aim is to have an act that ensures that private universities serve students and not kill the universities under the burden of controls. Also, the act has to ensure that these universities do not take students for a ride,” Rakhra said.
Following the minister’s assurance in the assembly last year, he held a meeting with representatives of all private universities to take them on board regarding the setting up of the commission. The meeting decided that a smaller committee of three representatives of private universities will sit with officials of the department and study the acts in place in other states and draft one for Punjab. The committee met twice after that during which no decision was taken. The last meetings of the joint committee also took place months ago after which, sources said, everything came to a standstill, following political pressure.
Higher education secretary Anurag Verma said, “I don’t know its current status. We are still waiting for the copy of the minister’s statement given in the assembly from the Vidhan Sabha. Based on that we will move further.”
In almost every session of the Vidhan Sabha, agitated members of both the BJP and Congress hit out at the Badal government for allowing “commercial ventures” to thrive in the name of education, adding that the government is party to allowing private universities to “loot” students. However, despite opposition and severe criticism, the private university bills (that lead to their creation) are passed. Interestingly, with a view to wriggling out of one such discussion, Rakhra in the December 2014 session had also promised the creation of a regulatory commission, but did not do anything.