Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jul 04, 2018
New higher education act: Is it really repealing UGC?

On June 27, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) did the most chivalrous job of initiating the elimination process of the University Grants Commission (UGC), a regulator that has been highly criticised across the academia in higher education ever since its inception nearly six decade ago. They put together a set of directives that will be the replacement and will be called the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) (Repeal of UGC Act) Act 2018. ‘RIP UGC’ has been the most favourite tagline that seems to be doing the round on the internet, indicating the prevailing joy among various stakeholders who have criticised UGC as the barrier, rather than an enabler.

The UGC has been time and again criticised for overregulating, resulting in curbing of autonomy, under-regulating substandard institutes, delaying disbursal of fellowships, resisting innovative changes such as the introduction of four-year undergraduate courses, putting restrictions on admissions and intake by individual institutes, and acting sluggishly on autonomy and accreditation applications by higher education institutes. It has also been criticised for mismanagement of funds.

However, the new HECI Act introduces us to a new form of lawmaking that is devoid of any vision or objective. This form of lawmaking often reveals as less as possible in the draft documents, whereas devil is really in the details. However, it is appreciable that the MHRD has kept the language of the Act simple and less legalese. It has made it much easier for all stakeholders to understand the overview in its present form.

Fair play by MHRD?

Among all the hullabaloo, we have missed analysing why UGC is supposed to be repealed at all. The MHRD too didn't consider it important to put out a release stating the reasons for this sudden move, akin to almost a revolution in the higher education space. This is also why most of us did not have a benchmark for comparing the new Act with the older UGC Act. In a macro view, this Act has identical functions sans the funding powers in the UGC Act, which makes it difficult to fathom as to why we need a whole new Act for minimal changes such as this.

Moreover, since HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar has been promising that the National Education Policy will be out in public before end of 2018, one is left wondering if this is a plan independent of the NEP and the new policy will suggest its own set of changes to the regulatory regime in India.

Unless it is just about the nomenclature, there are serious reasons to contemplate the Plan of Action required for the newly-introduced Act.

Taking note of the irregularities that happened under the erstwhile UGC, MHRD has taken away the funding powers from the proposed HECI. This is the most significant reform since the formation of the UGC in 1956. The MHRD, in a press release, stresses that the HECI will focus only on “academic matters.” However, it is not clear how the funding structure will look now. On the surface, it is dangerous to give away the most important powers to the political class that can end up in bias and curb the independence of all institutions under the proposed new body. The already cash-strapped institutes under the UGC will now have to be at the mercy of a few handful of politicians and bureacrats to run their institutes.

Moreover, the Centre will have the absolute powers to remove a Chairperson or the Vice-Chairperson in various other conditions, including “moral turpitude”. It seems MHRD has reserved autonomy of the HECI to itself. There is a fair possibility that this structure can have a trickle-down effect on the institutes regulated by the HECI. It is left to be seen as to how such a politically-charged body, with minimum autonomy to itself, will be able to ensure autonomy for the institutes under it.

Conflicting spirit of the Commission

While enabling autonomy has been the most talked about aspect of the Act thus far, according to subsection 15.3.a and 15.3.b of the Act, HECI will “specify learning outcomes for all courses” and lay down standards for even “curriculum development” and “skill development”. This is micromanaging at the lowest level possible, which will only increase regulation, rather than reducing it in any form. To promote autonomy and ensure efficacy, institutes should be given the powers to redesign and formulate their courses and syllabi, rather than endlessly waiting for an approval from a regulatory body such as the HECI. Especially in skill development courses, changes are occurring at a rapid pace and institutes need the independence to respond quickly to the demand of the sectors.

The degree of its interference isn’t restricted to just curriculum or learning outcomes. HECI will also “recommend appropriate faculty-centric governance structure” for higher education institutes, meddling with an institute’s power to structure their own governing and academic councils.

Most importantly, the HECI will also specify “norms and processes for fixing of fee” charged by all Central and State higher education institutes. While it may consider regulating fee for self-financed courses in private-aided institutes, it is unfair to clamp down on state public universities and affiliated colleges that charge minimum possible fee, much lower than the market prices as well. In order for an institute to be called autonomous, the major freedom lies in its independence to form their own governance structure, take financial decisions, formulate syllabi and all of it will be systematically been looked upon by the newly formed Act. However, it is yet to be seen how the Graded autonomous institutes under UGC will be affected by this move.

Further, the erstwhile UGC has been increasingly criticised over its member constitution, and the new HECI does not solve it in any way. Apart from the periodic mention of “temporary association of persons” with the HECI for “particular purposes” and a Secretary to the body of the rank of Joint Secretary and above to the Government of India, it is rather surprising to see no full-time members who can ensure implementation of the actions of the HECI. In fact, “management, accounting, technical and scientific experts” are also supposed to be temporary members of the committee. It well shows the beginning of the fall of another regulatory body even before it is set up. In any case, India’s higher education system has witnessed the collapse of several such bodies for lack of proper implementation of policies, which the HECI in its draft form looks like.

Moving forward, an autonomous, professional body should be constituted to disburse funds to higher educational institutions. Successful international models can be looked upon to find effective granting structures that will not completely vest the powers in the hands of the ministry as well as serve the sector well to prosper. In the absence of this, it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to achieve financial autonomy and procure funds needed for their improvement.

Furthermore, the government has restricted feedback on the Act to July 7, which will not allow several stakeholders to conduct research and focused group discussions to suggest reformative changes to the HECI Act in its present form. Besides, there is ample ambiguity in the intention of the Act, which leaves several questions on the way forward for this draft document to become an effective Act. One can only hope that the HECI hoopla does not turn out to be another ‘new wine in an old bottle’ exercise.

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Priyanshu Agarwal

Priyanshu Agarwal

Priyanshu Agarwal Student Member Centre for Law and Society Gujarat National Law University

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