By E Revathi, Venkatanarayana Motkuri

The Telangana State Council for Higher Education (TSCHE) has taken the necessary steps to implement the National Education Policy-2020, starting with the cluster system in higher education institutions (HEIs) of the ‘State. To begin with, nine autonomous university colleges in Hyderabad formed a cluster.

The cluster approach as a strategy enhances the ‘student learning experience’, a central aspect of NEP, by expanding the choice of courses with the pooling of resources, both physical and pedagogical (human) participating institutions. This leads to an optimal use of existing resources without incurring a financial burden.

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Borrowed from industry

In India, the Kothari Commission recommended the cluster approach for school and college education. The National Knowledge Commission also recommended this for higher education. As a result, the UGC brought up the idea in the 12th plan and RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) also had an implementation plan and guidelines. Some states have taken initiatives in accordance with the UGC proposal in 2009 and then following the RUSA guidelines.

The concept of grouping was borrowed from industry. In the case of industrial clusters, the main and ancillary industries are located in geographic proximity, reducing transportation and transaction costs as well as the benefits of knowledge and technology sharing. The “cluster” as adopted in education is the grouping of colleges in closer geographic locations for academic and pedagogical, economic and administrative purposes. It is beneficial in the context of resource scarcity, especially in developing countries, where under / overuse of resources can be avoided and where participating higher education institutions reap positive externalities. This is made possible by the pooling and sharing of resources: human (teachers); learning materials (libraries and books, online learning sources, etc.); physics (laboratories, auditoriums, playground); and financial (if applicable).

NEP context
As NEP-2020 plans to develop large multidisciplinary and autonomous higher education institutions, this can be achieved by consolidating colleges into a single functional entity, making it a large autonomous and multidisciplinary institution (more holistic grouping). Second, to improve the choice and learning experience for students, there is a need to expand their choice of courses and learning facilities. There is a need to expand the courses offered in each HEI and introduce a choice-based credit system (CBCS).

NEP also plans to offer compulsory vocational training or skills development courses. As a result, colleges need to expand the availability of learning materials – libraries and books as well as physical resources – labs, etc. In addition, facilities and student support programs are essential according to the vision.

To offer a wider choice of courses, colleges need to have a diverse faculty. It also requires providing all learning materials, facilities and student support programs. It may be financially unsustainable for colleges to have all of these arrangements. Even if a college offers diverse courses, the problem of underutilization is significant.

The cluster approach offers the advantage of optimization. Each college individually does not need to have all of the faculty required for all of the courses they offer. They can share the faculty services and resources of their partner colleges by networking and forming a cluster. Hiring faculty at cluster level and setting up facilities can be done by pooling finances and sharing costs.

Cluster models

Holistic group: Within this framework, a group of colleges functions as a single unit while maintaining the dual identity (i.e. group and college identity) of partner or constituent colleges. Each institution functions as an autonomous entity ideally fulfilling the objective criterion of autonomy. Here, all the constituent colleges are disaffiliated from the university. Certain governance principles such as equal status, collective decision-making, autonomy and responsibility, independence and interdependence must be followed by all constituent colleges or partners.
The cluster governance system is organized with three preponderant bodies at cluster level: Board of Directors, Executive Body and Academic Committee as well as that of the Finance Committee. The representation of constituent or partner colleges in these bodies is based on the principle of parity.

Mid-range cluster: This model is similar to that of the holistic cluster but differs in that the colleges do not have full autonomy, i.e. they are not disaffiliated from the university. All constituent colleges / cluster partners retain their affiliation with the university and carry a dual identity.

Reasoned cluster: This is case and context specific. Clustering occurs for a particular component or purpose. For example, to achieve the specific objective of improving student choice and the learning experience, it is necessary to expand the choice of courses for students, which implies expanding the courses offered in each HEI. . Therefore, clustering is necessary to pool and share resources by optimizing their use without any additional financial burden for an individual institution. This model also requires a governance and monitoring mechanism at the cluster level.

Guiding principles

The vision and goals of higher education in terms of access, equity and quality should be the guiding principles for the implementation of the cluster strategy. The sharing of human, economic, financial and educational resources guarantees affordability, and collective governance structures guarantee accountability. The driving force must be the shared vision with broader goals encompassing the benefits to students, the transmission of quality education and the development of education. Colleges must voluntarily form a group based on the principles of independence and interdependence. It must allow and facilitate the sharing of resources and development opportunities for institutions, teachers and students.

TSCHE formed committees and drafted guidelines for the implementation of the cluster system as well as for infrastructure and resource sharing. With the deployment of the pilot project, contributions at the field level would help to understand the problems and challenges related to the implementation of this strategy and, therefore, to resolve them to go further.

(E Revathi is professor and director, Center for Economic and Social
Studies [CESS], Hyderabad. Venkatanarayana Motkuri is associated
Professor, Education Research Unit, CESS)

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