The Centre has also prepared a draft Act last month to replace the University Grants Commission with a new regulator for higher education in the country. The Act is being called the Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018 (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act), ie HECI. The draft bill has claimed that new institution will provide more autonomy to colleges and facilitate holistic growth of the education system and will provide greater opportunities to students at more affordable cost. It aims to reduce the interference of various regulatory bodies in the functioning of higher education institutions and create a single body that will have the power of giving accreditation to institutions, maintaining their academic standard and even imposing fines for non-performance.
So far, various regulators – UGC, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Technical Education (NCTE) – have been functioning under the ministry. The new regulator is planned to replace all of them to create a single regulatory authority. The HRD Minister has claimed that the transformation of the regulatory set up is based upon the principles – Minimum government & Maximum governance, Separation of grant functions, End of inspection raj, Focus on academic quality, Powers to enforce. The government has asked for suggestions online till July 7.
HECI will be tasked with the mandate of improving academic standards with specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions, mentoring of institutions, training of teachers, promote use of educational technology, among other functions. In addition to these, it will lay down standards for opening and closure of institutions, and also for appointments to critical leadership positions at all universities, even if they are established under state law.
Beneath the Surface of UGC Repeal:
The Higher Education Commission, if examined closely, shows that the role of the erstwhile UGC as a buffer between the higher education sector and the government in terms of recruitment, financial and administrative powers is also now being attempted to be abolished.
The seemingly mother-of-all reform is in fact a climb down from the HEERA (Higher Education Evaluation and Regulatory Authority) earlier promoted by the PMO and Niti Aayog which tried to form a single body to oversee entire education. UPA HRD minister Kapil Sibal tried to do the same by advocating a National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). In the neoliberal WTO-GATT order of finance capitalism, education is not a right but a marketplace of profitable commerce, and hence needs to be commercialized. HECI is purportedly claimed as a regulatory body to maintain academic standards with punitive powers. It also, in one stroke, has legislated funding as the exclusive domain of the government of the day thereby compromising academic freedom by making financial grant conditional to the pleasure of the government in power.
Most of the claims accompanying the new act are anti-people. For instance, when it claims to end Inspection Raj, it actually inaugurates Accreditation Raj. In envisioning it as overriding the specific acts of universities and the legislations of states, this Act unilaterally legislates on a concurrent subject thereby encroaching on the rights of the state governments and jeopardising constitutional federalism.
Proclamation Opposite to Intentions: Partial Autonomy to Total & Absolute Control of Govt:
In its Press Release, the government has cited the bill as “downsizing the scope of the Regulator”, “removing interference in the management issues of the educational institutions”, and improving academic standards, but a reading of the Bill, actually reveals the opposite intention, that will have a disastrous effect on the access that India’s young people will have to higher education, as well as the creation of jobs in the education sector.
By withdrawing financial powers from the regulator and handing them over to the central government, and by giving the HECI unilateral and absolute powers to authorise, monitor, shut down, and recommend disinvestment from Higher Educational Institutions (henceforth HEIs), the Draft Bill will expose higher education in the country to ideological manipulation, loss of much needed diversity as well as academic standards, fee hikes, and profiteering. It will also contribute to greater marginalisation and disadvantage of millions of students, particularly from the socially oppressed sections, and imperil many educational institutions. In my opinion, rather than dismantling the University Grants Commission, the attempt must be to strengthen its consultative and enabling architecture, in such a way that promotes access, diversity, and quality.
While the UGC Act 1956 clearly mandated that the Chairman of the Commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the Government or any State Government” – precisely with a purpose to maintaining the autonomy of the Commission from any form of direct interference by governments – Section 3.6 of the Draft HECI Bill drops this necessary condition for the Chairperson’s appointment. It is apparent from Section 3 of the Draft Bill that teachers have been pushed out of the Commission, almost entirely. Though the total number of members of the Commission has gone up from ten to twelve, the representation of teachers has been ominously reduced to just two. Whereas the earlier UGC Act ensured a minimum of four teachers in the 10-member Council and that at least 6 were not officers of State/Central governments (Section 5.3, UGC Act 1956), the HECI is proposed to be packed with government nominees, chairpersons of regulatory bodies, university administrators, but no teachers.
The HECI is empowered to specify “learning outcomes”, which invokes formulaic expectations of what university education must be oriented towards. To argue that SC/ST/OBC students, with their histories of deprivation, must achieve the same “learning outcomes” as those coming from metropolitan contexts of privilege is to argue against the very logic of reservation in public institutions. This will eventually push the frontiers of higher education towards a standard quantum of ‘merit’ (measured as learning outcome), thus forcing those who cannot live up to it to either drop out of universities or fail miserably. This formulaic approach kills diversity, innovation and experimentation. It is imperative to maintain institutional autonomy if quality is to be ensured, and an enabling framework that allows universities to harmonise their standards with the regulator’s expectations must be created.
The HECI has been given the power to carry out a yearly academic performance evaluation of universities. To audit the performance of public institutions and ascertain their fitness to function is to also come up with differential funding parameters for different orders of ‘performance’. This kind of graded financial liability (on the part of the government) towards grossly disparate contexts of performance across HEIs will not only create a few centres for excellence at the cost of all others, but will also strengthen existing hierarchies between regional and metropolitan institutions. Further, it is highly unlikely that the Commission will be able to do any kind of meaningful yearly evaluation of the 789 universities that the UGC website says are in existence today.
The Draft Bill makes the HECI inherit the UGC’s function of promoting research, except that the divestment of its financial powers means that it will only be able to “coordinate with Government for provision of adequate funding for research”: This will make all HEIs subject to the interests of the political parties in power, and subject directly to their ideological manipulation.
The HECI is empowered to “order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards without affecting the student’s interest or fail to get accreditation within the specified period”. This power to close down institutions in a country that fails to provide enough HEIs has to be wielded with great caution, and with checks and balances, and a clear and detailed specification of what protecting the student’s interest must entail. While there is no question of granting impunity to incidents of fraud being perpetrated on students and their families — and it should be noted that this is a penal offence which can easily be prosecuted — the non-availability of enough publicly funded HEIs is the major reason why students flock to such institutions at exorbitant costs.
Although the HECI Act is being publicised as giving autonomy to HEIs, the provisions of the Draft Bill actually invest the HECI and the Central Government with extraordinary powers, without any checks and balances. Individual HEIs have no power to demand consultation, inquiry, or even appeal against any of its decisions. The HECI Act sets up the regulator as a gatekeeper who manages the market and the tractability of the workforce it produces — the goal is to create an authority that has total control over the market, including the power to expel those that exact continued subsidy from the state. Compliance will demand from HEIs absolute obedience, to an authority that is ruled by political expediency and with very little expertise in education.
The provision that the HECI Act will have an overriding effect is extremely disturbing, as this will effectively nullify the various Acts of Parliament that have constituted existing universities. These acts have promoted a diversity of orientation in institutions, suited to the plural needs of our diverse country, and have maintained the distinctiveness and relevance of our institutions to their local and national milieu. Reducing all HEIs to a dull uniformity will not produce a responsive higher education. Since HECI’s “Regulations relating to promoting quality and setting standards shall have prior approval of Central Government” (Section 29), it is the government who will effectively run every single HEI in the country.
‘Autonomy’ and Government Spending:
The government wants to withdraw from the duty of providing more inputs/infrastructure in higher education by talking about public-private-personal partnership, and yet tries to reap suitable outcomes or credulous subservience from these spaces of critical thinking by having absolute administrative and financial control. HECI will pave way for higher student fees and greater curb on dissent and freedom of expression of individuals and institutions. It is nothing but the government consolidating, centralising and monopolising power in academic matters while ensuring a free run for private capital.
The union budget this year had a reduced allocation of less than 1% of Gross National Income for education. This has added woes to the already crumbling public-funded higher education sector. The imposition of partial funding formula for universities, the institutionalization of loans instead of grants from UGC, making universities and colleges ‘autonomous’ and contractualisation of jobs at universities are seen as ways to dismantle higher education. On the other hand, the CAG report tabled in the parliament in 2017 tells us that the entire education cess collected during more than a decade since its imposition in 2006-07 has remained unspent. It’s as huge as 83,497 crores. In addition, a mere 7.73 percent of the taxpayer’s money collected under the research and development cess in the last 20 years has been utilized so far. Clearly, there is more to it than what meets the eyes. Under the guise of autonomy, the government thus is pushing universities to generate their own resources through self-financed courses. This will eventually end with the state shedding its responsibility of subsidizing education or treating it as a public good, as a public service, rather than as a commodity.
Critics also asking if there a design to starve the universities, though this announcement, of funds and facilities that have challenged the state. Be it JNU, JU, the University of Hyderabad, AMU, BHU and even TISS Mumbai. No funds from the state, no democracy on the campus and no checks and balances can only sound the death knell for higher education.
While private education can co-exist based on market demands, the government’s abdication of its responsibility from public education for the poor, coupled with its attempt to regiment higher education spaces, cannot be accepted.
by Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
The author is a media academic, who has led several leading media schools of India.