Ill-advised higher education reform initiative

The Union human resource development (HRD) ministry’s proposal to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC, estb. 1956) and replace it with a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) has sparked a spirited debate in academia and industry. Faculty and industry leaders are divided on whether this initiative which will bifurcate UGC’s grants disbursement and academic benchmarking roles will improve teaching-learning and research in India’s languishing universities, none of whom are ranked among the Top 200 in the annual World University Rankings league tables published by the highly respected London-based higher education rating agencies Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) or Times Higher Education (THE).

When UGC was formally established as a statutory body through an Act of Parliament 62 years ago, it had about 30 universities on its grants list. The list has now expanded to nearly 900 universities and over 39,000 undergrad colleges. Apart from funding all Central varsities and several state government institutions, UGC also supervises coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in all universities. With institutions of higher education multiplying at a rapid rate, an ever-growing list of private colleges are also subject to UGC supervision. Therefore, the HECI proposal is being questioned by academics who wonder why a long-standing regulatory body with well-developed experience of funding and administration should be completely subsumed by another body without grants disbursal power, with this power being vested in the Union HRD ministry.
The proposal to revamp UGC isn’t a recent phenomenon. One of the education reform initiatives of the Congress-led UPA-II government (2009-14) at the Centre was the Higher Education and Research (HER) Bill 2011, which proposed the establishment of a National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). NCHER was envisaged as an independent overarching body, invested with power to steer higher education, which would replace UGC, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). But this Bill was not enacted by the UPA-II government which was swept out of office by the BJP-led NDA coalition in General Election 2014.

Unfortunately, the proposal to abolish UGC and replace it with the proposed HECI has not been sufficiently thought through. Indeed, it could prove damaging for the country’s higher education ecosystem.

First, since the HECI will have only academic matters under its purview and all monetary grants will be managed by the HRD ministry, there’s a clear and present danger the ministry will interfere directly with the administration of higher education institutions. Any institution refusing to toe the ministry’s line could suffer funding cuts, especially universities with a tradition of fearless analysis and criticism of government policies.

Secondly, while the UGC Act, 1956, clearly states that the chairman of the commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the Government or any State Government”, the draft HECI Bill is silent on this subject. Therefore, there’s a real possibility of academics being replaced by bureaucrats, chairpersons of regulatory bodies and accreditation bodies, and serving vice chancellors.

Thirdly, since HECI will be wholly focussed on monitoring academic standards in higher education institutions, it’s certain to lead to over-regulation. Yearly evaluation proposed by the Bill will result in the HECI being over-burdened and a shift of focus within higher education institutions from teaching-learning and research to maintaining documentation of their activities.

Fourth, the draft HECI Bill has prescribed norms and standards to assess institutions based on their academic performance, social and demographic considerations notwithstanding. Performance-based incentives will result in larger fund flows to well-established metropolitan colleges and universities. Already, in the past few years, state universities have been struggling because UGC has overlooked their diverse needs and capacities. This iniquity could be accentuated under the proposed HECI.

Fifth, the haste with which the government is trying to push the HECI Bill forward is alarming. The HRD ministry has invited suggestions and inputs for the Bill on its website but the time given to the public to respond was 15 days. This far-reaching and important proposal requires careful and wider consultation, adequate time and deliberation.
In short, there are too many grey areas in the proposed HECI draft Bill relating to the rationale behind replacing the relatively autonomous higher education funding and administratively experienced UGC with a new avatar. Instead of replacing UGC why can’t the commission be given more powers to go about doing its business?

The additional effort and expenditure the Union government is willing to expend to improve HECI’s quality assessment capabilities, could be invested in UGC to reform and upgrade its administrative structure and quality education assessment capabilities.

(Naveen Chopra is founder-chairman of the Chopras Group, which offers careers and study abroad counseling services)

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