What the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) has proposed in a draft Bill of the NDA government, may prove to be the most far-reaching change in the higher education in the country. This Bill does not just change or add to the existing sets of regulations. Rather, as the parentheses of the title, (Repeal of the University Grants Commission Act) claims, it aims at no less than the demolition of the old system. Such deep uprooting can be a consequence of self-assurance, or of delusional zealotry and only time will tell of which one. However, there is a very little doubt that the two Acts, the one to be repealed, the other to be enshrined, are motivated by very different visions and understandings of the higher education.
The preamble of the HECI Bill acknowledges the ‘changing priorities of higher education’ and presents them as the cause for ‘redefinition’ of the ‘mandate given to the UGC’ through the UGC Act of 1956. The higher education scenario in the country has indeed changed significantly over the six decades, which separate the current draft Bill and the older Act. According to the recent All India Survey of Higher Education, 3.5 crore students were enrolled at 799 universities and over 39,000 colleges of India in 2015-16. The higher education sector in India is the largest degree awarding sector in the world. In 2012, it awarded 5.46 million first university degrees (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2016, NSF, US). The corresponding figures for China and the US, the hubs for the workshop and technology superpower of the world, were 3.04 million and 1.81 million respectively. India awarded more first university degrees than China and the US combined.
But under the garb of this massive expansion the fact that the number and size of reasonably good educational institutions in the country remain very small, and that only a handful of students get a decent higher education, gets concealed. The coaching epidemic and the obscenely high cut-offs for colleges of the University of Delhi are symptoms of this crisis of quality of higher education. Partly linked with the dearth of quality is the question of equity. The common idea of equity in higher education takes access to well-known institutions by students from deprived sections as its benchmark. Following this goal, state governments in Delhi and Tamil Nadu have started coaching classes for JEE and NEET for such students. This however completely misses the other aspect of equity, which is linked to the gap between a million or so students who get a reasonably good education, and crores of others who are condemned to study in substandard institutions.
New policy initiatives are needed to address challenges of quality and equity. One such initiative, that has been loudly proclaimed by the Modi govt, is the grant of ‘autonomy’ to institutions of higher education. It is integral to the Agenda for Action developed by NITI Aayog, which prescribes ways to develop twenty ’world class’ universities. Increased autonomy for 62 institutions was announced with much fanfare by the MHRD minister in May this year.
‘Autonomy’ is indeed the key through which diametrically opposite understandings of higher education can be unravelled in the UGC Act of 1956, and the HECI Bill of 2018. The HECI Bill lists the promotion of autonomy of educational institutions as an important task of the commission (Clause 15(2)). Despite the word appearing nowhere in the UGC Act, the constitution and functions of the UGC envisaged in it grant very clear administrative and financial autonomy to the body responsible for regulating and funding higher education. The two documents actually articulate very different meanings of the ‘autonomy’ of higher education. The autonomy promoted in the HECI Bill and in recent initiatives of the Modi government is the autonomy of individualinstitutions to deal on their own with the sources of their funding, to develop courses to meet the student demands or to hire (and fire) faculty. The UGC Act of 1956 visualises the autonomy of higher education as self-autonomy of the entire sector to regulate itself independently of the government in power. To realise this autonomy, the UGC, a body dominated by academicians, is conceived as a buffer between the chief funder of higher education, namely the government, and institutions of higher learning. The HEIC Bill does the opposite. It removes the buffer, forcing institutes to deal with demands of the government on their own.
To be an effective buffer, it is essential that the UGC is not perceived as an agent of the government. This understanding is made clear in the clauses about the appointment of the commission members and its funding structure. Clause 5(2) of the UGC Act declares that ‘The Chairman shall be chosen from among persons who are notofficers of .. Government’ (emphasis added throughout). The ten commission members other than Chairman and Vice Chairman, are supposed to be so chosen that ‘not less than one half of the number (is from) ..persons who are notofficers of the .. Government’ (Clause 5(3)).The membership criteria show the intent to make sure that the internal character of the commission is dominated by concerns about teaching, learning and knowledge. At least four of the members have to be serving teachers of the universities. Other members can be Vice Chancellors, educationists, persons with ‘knowledge, or experience in agriculture, commerce, forestry or industry’, and ‘members of engineering, legal, medical or any other learnedprofession.’ The UGC has its own fund from which it makes grants to universities. The fund gets budgetary support from the government, but the UGC can make investments and earn from it.
The autonomy the UGC gains from the government is meant to be sharedwith the universities. The first clause of Chapter III which lists powers and functions of the UGC asks it to consult universities while taking steps for the promotion and coordination of University education. It is asked to ‘inquire into financial needs of the Universities’ (Clause 12(a)), and while disbursing funds it is expected to ‘give due consideration to the development of the University concerned, its financial needs, the standard attained by it and the national purpose which it may serve’.
The autonomy of higher education envisaged in the Act of 1956 is guided by two assumptions. One, that higher learning is best achieved in a community of scholars and students who enjoy the internal freedoms to form regulations and allocate funds. And two, that higher learning and knowledge are public goods, for which the state should provide financial support. These two assumptions were first fructified in the Humboldtian ‘Berlin Contract’ (after Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian minister who helped found Berlin University in 1810) which set up ground rules for interaction between modern universities and the state.
Neo-liberal regulations of higher education that have come to dominate over the past three decades are motivated by different logic. Higher education is believed to be a service provider to the knowledge economy. Institutions of higher learning are expected to respond efficiently to changing demand for their products, i.e. training and research from students and businesses. On the other side, universities are also expected to compete with other universities for resource inputs in the form of funding, faculty and fee-paying students. Accreditations and rankings are considered essential market signals to prospective investors and consumers of university services. The neoliberal managerialism aims to run universities like corporates, with individual administrators enjoying full authority, and displacing collegiate systems of decision making like committees and councils. It also attempts to fragment and quantify internal working of higher education, to implement an evaluation-based reward (and punishment) system for teachers and scholars, and measure return on investment.
The proposed HECI is mandated to create and enforce a neoliberal regulatory structure for higher education in India. This structure will be an outside force for institutions of higher learning. This function requires a disciplinarian administrator. The HECI Bill clearly endorses this requirement. The internal composition of the Commission is dominated by the administrative technocracy of higher education. Besides being scholars of standing, the Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and Members are expected to possess ‘leadership abilities, proven capacity for institution building, (and)governance of institutions of higher learning ..’ clause 3(5). Half of the fourteen members of the commission are ex-officio members, the three secretaries to the ministries of the Central government, chairpersons of two other regulatory bodies dealing with technical and teacher education, and two chairpersons of accreditation agencies. Besides these, there are two serving vice-chancellors and a ‘doyen of industry’. This leaves space for only two serving professors of universities.
Separation from the government, which the UGC Act appears at pains to ensure, is removed. The commission has to ‘take steps to implement advice rendered by the Advisory Council’ (clause 24(4)) which is headed by the Minister. It will also be ‘guided by such directions on questions of policy relating to national purposes as may be given to it by the Central Government’ (clause 25(2)). Further, it has no authority to grant any funds and it has nowhere been asked to consult the universities on any of the regulatory policies.
It is nobody’s case that the UGC has been an ideal body. Far from creating a sphere of shared autonomy with universities, it has arrogated to itself powers of a funding agency. Consultations with universities on regulatory issues, courses of study, etc. have been non-existent for decades. Its guidelines are often in the form of directives which try to micro-control teaching and research. The recent guidelines regarding MPhil and PhD are illogical and have put many well-functioning research programmes in jeopardy. As happened with the FYUP fiasco in Delhi University, it has often allowed the government of the day to arm-twist universities, rather than stand up for their autonomy. Even the liberal ideal of a Humbodltian university, as a space where scholars can work in ‘Einsamkeit und Freiheit’ (solitude and freedom), encourages elitism and conservatism. Without democratic pressure and state directive from above to open doors to the oppressed castes, institutes of higher education in India would have remained secure sources of cultural, educational and professional capitals for the Savarna castes.
Authoritarian control, administrative lethargy and fund crunch are killing publicly funded higher education. Many central and state universities have only half of the sanctioned faculty strength. While the crisis of higher education demands encouragement of the creative potential of teachers and students, the removal of UGC buffer will put universities fully at the mercy of the government. The regulatory structure to be imposed by HECI will, at best, create a tiered system of universities. With most of the universities falling in the lowest tier, it will only put a formal stamp of approval on the condemnation of most of the students to a substandard higher education. The neoliberal technocracy of higher education cannot even imagine anything better. The students and teachers of India, however, need an inclusive and egalitarian structure of higher education that ensures a quality education for all. The vision of academic autonomy behind the UGC Act of 1956 may not be a bad starting point.
Also Read: The Proposed Abolition of the UGC Will Increase Political Control