Disbanding UGC Part 1: Proposed act will kill autonomy in higher education

The HRD Ministry’s move will deal a mortal blow to whatever autonomy has been retained by the academic institutions of the country

NH photo by Pramod Pushkarna
NH photo by Pramod Pushkarna

Prasenjit Bose

The Union Minister of Human Resource Development has suddenly granted six institutions of higher education the status of “Institution of Eminence”. Besides IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay, IISc Bangalore, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and BITS Pillani, the list also includes a "Jio Institute" which is yet to be established! So far, the Reliance Foundation had only made a proposal to set up an institution. Since these “Institutions of Eminence” will function outside the purview of government regulations, the Jio Institute from its very inception will be a free-for-all.

While this latest decision needs to be opposed and resisted, such arbitrary decisions and crony processes will become the norm in India, if the proposed Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Act 2018 is enacted. The HRD Minister is set to table the HECI Bill in Parliament during the forthcoming monsoon session. The proposed HECI is designed to replace the extant UGC and overhaul the regulatory regime in higher education.

As per the draft HECI Act, its regulations shall be binding on all higher education institutions (HEI). Among other things, its powers shall include grant of authorisation, autonomy, graded autonomy to institutions; measure the "effectiveness" of programmes and "employability" of graduates; set norms for award of degrees and specify learning outcomes; determine governance structure and eligibility for all appointments; and formulate a "Code of Good Practices". Failure to comply with any of its rules/regulations/recommendations shall invite fine, withdrawal of power to grant degrees/diplomas, directions to cease operations and even criminal prosecution with imprisonment up to three years for the head or members of management of any HEI.

Other than the chair and vice-chair, ten of the twelve members of the proposed HECI are to be functionaries of the Central government. The HRD Ministry's usurption of the powers of financial allocations to the universities, which the legislation wants to facilitate, will deal a mortal blow to whatever autonomy has been retained by the academic institutions. This goes against the very objective with which UGC was set up by an act of Parliament in 1956. With such provisions, the draft HECI Act is not even making an attempt to mask its intention of exercising administrative highhandedness and undue political interference in HEIs.

What higher education in India needs today are determinedmeasures to expand academic autonomy, enhance public funding, ensure socialjustice and improve the quality of teaching, learning and knowledge creationwithin the institutions. The legislation under consideration seeks to achievethe exact opposite

India has 551 public universities and 313 that are privately managed. Public institutions offer 49.5 per cent vertical reservations in admissions to SC, ST and OBC students. On the other hand, private institutions are not legally obligated to offer any reservations for advancing the cause of social justice in education. In fact, they are allowed up to 50 per cent management quota seats (euphemism for capitation fees, nepotism, etc.). Without extending reservations to the private sector in education, the proposed “uniform quality” and “uniform standards” of the draft HECI Act betray the backtracking of the government from the social justice agenda. The sole focus on “standards” and ignoring the concerns regarding unequal access to higher education are bound to increase exclusion and discrimination based on class, caste, gender, language, religion, etc.

The "changing priorities of higher education" is cited as the main reason to abolish UGC in the HECI Act. But these changing priorities are nowhere explained, raising more questions than providing answers. Currently, higher education institutions in our country are of various types - central open universities, central universities, deemed government universities, institutions under state legislations, institutions of national importance, deemed universities, state private universities, state open universities, state public universities, state private open universities, government-aided deemed universities and minority institutions. A one-size-fits-all approach in the name of laying down "uniform standards" and redefining the mandate of universities also shows an autocratic attempt to force arbitrary homogenisation.

Over the past four years, the HRD Ministry has been in the thick of several controversies involving unsavoury incidents and arbitrary decisions related to various academic institutions, which have evoked protests from students, research scholars and teachers across the country. The common and recurrent theme of those protests relates to the erosion of institutional autonomy and unwarranted ideological-political intrusions by the ruling party and its Sangh Parivar cohorts. Coming in this backdrop, the proposed legislation appears to be an act of extreme vindictiveness.

What higher education in India needs today are determined measures to expand academic autonomy, enhance public funding, ensure social justice and improve the quality of teaching, learning and knowledge creation within the institutions. The legislation under consideration seeks to achieve the exact opposite. Rather than reforming the UGC to better serve the country's higher education system, which is already plagued by severe underfunding, reckless commercialisation and inequity in access, the government is out to abolish UGC altogether. The Opposition must prevent this misadventure and force the HRD Ministry to withdraw the proposed HECI (Repeal of UGC) Act 2018 altogether.

(The writer is an economist and political activist)

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