It has been proven beyond doubt that the existing regulatory framework in higher education has failed higher education. Committees after committees, starting from National Knowledge Commission to Yashpal Committee, have agreed that there was a need to replace the bodies by a new one.
What is being done today is continuation of what had started some eight years ago. In the UPA government in 2010, they had introduced a bill called National Commission for Higher Education Research. Its purpose was also to do away with existing bodies and have a new one.
Coming to the draft bill that has been proposed, since the committee that starts framing the new education policy had been constituted and had been working for more than three and a half years, the general expectation was that there would be a draft of new education policy before reform initiatives shall be taken. It is surprising that there still is no draft and at the same time major reforms, like graded autonomy, institutes of eminence, creation of the Higher Education Funding Authority (HEFA) have been initiated leading to confusions in the higher education community. And I say this by giving benefit of doubt to the government in power.
With respect to the murmurs that this step is aimed to privatise education, the fact remains that the financial threats to universities are real and imminent, whether UGC exists or not. There have been decline in budget for education, and when the decline has not been in nominal terms, it has remained static. UGC has failed to counter it. Funding of state universities and colleges were taken away from UGC and given to Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) functioning directly under the MHRD. Thirdly, starting this year, no universities including the central universities are receiving any development grants from UGC and they are being advised to obtain loan from HEFA.
Yashpal Committee had recommended that the new body should get higher status, suggesting a constitutional scheme of things, a constitutional status. But this higher education commission does not have that kind of power
I think there is an agenda to reduce public expenditure on higher education. There has been curtailing of funds as far as publicly funded central institutions of higher education are concerned, which is not good for higher education at this stage of economic development in our country.
Coming to the specifics of the new proposed act, it’s a welcome step of bringing in a new legislation. But there are several areas of vast confusion. The multiplicity of regulatory bodies has been a major problem. This act reduces the powers of Council of Architecture and the Bar Council as this act also amends the Advocates Act and the Architecture Act as well as the IGNOU Act to take away the power of Distance Education Council, but it has allowed the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Teacher Education to continue. It means that the multiplicity of the regulatory bodies is not being addressed majorly.
When the government is passing a new law, they should try to find out an agency which should, as National Knowledge Commission or as Yashpal Committee had recommended, view higher education in a holistic perspective.
Secondly, the Yashpal Committee had recommended that the new body should get higher status, suggesting a constitutional scheme of things, a constitutional status. But this higher education commission does not have that kind of power.
Thirdly, whether withdrawing the funding task from the commission is good or bad is confusing. The MHRD has already been funding about 100 institutes of national importance, including the IITs and the NITs. UGC, on the other hand, is only funding 47 central universities. Even though MHRD did not provide as much fund to IITs and NITs as they always needed, it still funded these institutions better than the UGC-funded central universities. But at the same time, a phenomenon of significant raise in fees of these institutes have also been noticed. So, no one knows whether the task of funding going to the MHRD is good or bad. It can be hoped, since they have funded institutes better than UGC that the central universities will get better funding. But it should also be expected that there will be a demand from the universities to mobilise resources, to raise funds. And to raise funds will mean increase in fees, which is the larger part of the agenda. This bill, however, is completely silent on funding and only has a cursory mention in the introductory part. But at this point, it is also not clear whether the funding task will actually go to MHRD.
If the government is thinking of creating another agency for funding, it will add to the existing problem of multiplicity. What is also not known is whether the government is thinking of any norms for allocating funds to the universities. Ideal situation would be to develop a norm and move to norm-based funding. But whether there is any such proposal is not known.
Part of the document of Higher Education Council Act has been taken verbatim from the 2010 bill. One such common part is that every institution of higher education shall have to seek permission for commencement of their programme from the HECI without which they shall not be able to start their programme of studies. It would have been understandable had this been for new institutions, but this bill provides that existing institutions shall be given permission for the same but only for a period of three years. Which means that within three years, they will have to go back to the commission to seek its permission to run their programmes of studies. This may bring in corruption.
The rules under the act, I feel, should prescribe very strict norms for establishments and then must say that it is incumbent upon all higher education institutions to adhere to these norms. Failing which, the commission should have the powers to take strict action.
(The writer is the Secretary General of Association of Indian Universities)
(As told to Vikrant Jha)