Education News

Delhi: Gathering storm

According to all indications, it’s finally curtains for the University Grants Commission (UGC, estb.1956), a Soviet-style over-arching control-and-command body (fashioned after the British University Committee, UK, shut down in 1989). For 62 of India’s 70 years as an independent nation, UGC has presided over its higher education system monitoring and accrediting the country’s higher education institutions through its 15 autonomous statutory organisations such as the All India Council for Technical Education, Indian Council for Agricultural Research, Medical Council of India, Bar Council of India, Indian Nursing Council, National Council for Teacher Education etc. 

Quite obviously UGC’s long reign has been less than successful. Not even one of India’s 39,000 colleges and 800 universities is ranked in the Top 200 WUR (World University Rankings) of the London-based varsity rating and ranking agencies QS or Times Higher Education. The general consensus is that barring a few dozen, most of India’s higher ed institutions nurtured by UGC, churn out unemployable graduates (see special report p.74).
Abolition of UGC and replacing it with a more effective higher education supervisory body was first proposed by the National Knowledge Commission in 2006, and the Yash Pal Committee which submitted a report titled Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India in 2009. This report became the basis of the National Commission for Higher Education & Research (NCHER) Bill, 2011, which was withdrawn by the BJP-led NDA government soon after it was swept to power at the Centre in 2014.

The BJP constituted yet another committee under the chairmanship of former UGC chairman Prof. Hari Gautam which suggested establishment of a National Higher Education Authority. Last year, a Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA) was proposed to replace UGC and AICTE, but it failed to take off.
However on June 28 after cabinet approval, a draft of the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of UGC Act) Bill, 2018, was posted on the website of the Union HRD ministry for public comment. By closure date (July 20) over 10,000 suggestions and comments were posted on the website, according to Union HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar. 

Expectedly, the draft Bill has come under heavy fire from the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), academics and state governments ruled by political parties other than BJP such as Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Academics say that HECI will be packed with government bureaucrats. “This Bill promises autonomy to higher education institutions, but the only freedom HECI and universities will get is to obey the diktats of the Central government. It is a poor, if not cruel joke played in the name of reform,” says Prof. Appoorvananad, professor of Hindi at Delhi University and a newspaper columnist.

There is some merit in this charge because apart from the chairperson and vice chairperson to be selected by a search-cum-selection committee, of the 12 members of HECI, three are Central government bureaucrats and six government appointees (chairman of regulatory boards, accreditation bodies, vice chancellors etc). In s. 15 where the functions of the commission are detailed, its supervisory duties are generalised as promotion of the autonomy of higher education institutions (HEIs) for innovation, incubation, entrepreneurship, inclusion and research. 

S. 15 (3) specifies ten obligations of the commission in greater detail. Among them: specify learning outcomes, set standards of teaching, assessment & research, evaluate academic performance of HEIs, design robust accreditation systems and advise Central and state governments. However it is pertinent to note that s.15 — and indeed the draft Bill in toto — is silent on the issue of grants sanction and disbursal to HEIs. In effect this function of UGC, which funds all Central universities and disburses ad hoc grants to state varsities, has been taken away from the proposed HECI. In 2017-18 UGC’s budget was Rs.4,692 crore. 

In the draft Bill, HECI is directed to focus on “promoting the quality of academic instruction and maintenance of academic standards”. Subsequently Javadekar admitted that hence forward the Union HRD ministry will directly fund Central and state universities. 

“The proposed HECI is heavily tilted towards ex-officio government bureaucrats leaving very little space for independent views. It sounds like a council rather than commission such as the autonomous Election Commission, Information Commission,” says Prof. G.D. Sharma, a former secretary of UGC.

Adds Prof. Sandeep Sancheti, vice chancellor of the SRM Institute of Science & Technology and newly-elected president of the Association of Indian Universities: “For universities, the only concern is that we must get an efficient, speedy decision making, transparent and responsive regulatory framework which enables us to operate, serve and grow.” 

Indeed, compared with the proposed HECI, UGC is likely to be seen as a lesser evil and not surprisingly fierce opposition is gathering momentum on college/university campuses. In the circumstances it’s highly unlikely that HECI will replace UGC in the near future. Short-changed students in India’s higher education system are caught between a rock and hard place.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)