Interview: Sukhdeo Thorat

‘Takeover by the government’

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat. Photo: K.V.S. Giri

Interview with Sukhadeo Thorat, former Chairman of the UGC.

SUKHADEO THORAT, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a former Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), is of the opinion that the proposed Act on a Higher Education Commission (HEC) does not address fully the problems afflicting the higher education sector in India. He says the UGC should have been reformed if true autonomy in higher education is actually the intention of bringing in this new Act. He says the present Act makes it a complete takeover of the higher education system by the government instead of giving autonomy. Besides, a whole lot of academic stakeholders, including the private sector and the States, have been left out of the consultation process, making the Act an exercise in a hurry with a high potential for failure. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.

The UGC had come in for a lot of criticism in the last few years for failing to maintain the quality of higher education. But was this only because of lapses on the UGC’s part or were there other systemic factors behind it? Should the government have tried reforming the UGC instead of scrapping it?

The reform of the UGC has been under discussion since the Knowledge Commission was constituted in 2005. This was further reiterated by the Yash Pal Committee in 2009 and more recently in 2014 by the Hari Gautam Committee under the present government. After the Yash Pal Committee’s suggestion, Kapil Sibal [the then HRD Minister] had introduced the Bill on Higher Education and Research Commission in 2011. This government is trying to take that suggestion forward.

The main reason for the reform of the UGC pointed out by the Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee was not the quality as much as the issue relating to the organisational structure of the UGC, which has implications for quality and efficiency. These committees pointed out that the organisation structure of the UGC was fragmented in higher education, including policymaking. There are two main stakeholders in higher education, the Centre and the State. At present, of the total number of universities, about 68 per cent are State universities—public and private—and most of the colleges are also with the States.

The States are not involved in policymaking at the Centre, except on a platform called the CABE [Central Advisory Board of Education] Committee. Similarly, 17 councils, which include medical, agriculture and science, are also not involved in policymaking and related aspects in the UGC. There are several issues of national importance which cut across various sectors, for which there is the need to bring States and councils together to frame policies.

Therefore, earlier committees had suggested a single authority to bring all the 17 councils, including the UGC, under one organisation, called the Higher Education Commission, so that fragmented governance is minimised and policies are taken with the consultation of all sectors in higher education.

The Higher Education Commission Bill, 2018, does make some changes but fails to address the main issue of fragmentation of higher education governance. The [draft] 2018 Act retains the commission as the main executive body, but adds an Advisory Council with the HRD Minister as Chairperson and the chairpersons of State higher education councils as ex-officio members. From this it is obvious that the new Act has dropped the single authority concept and also excludes the three stakeholders in policymaking, namely, the States, the 17 councils (except two) and the private sector.

On the other hand, it concentrates policymaking [powers] in the Central government and weakens the Higher Education Commission in comparison to the UGC Act. The States have only an advisory role in the Advisory Council. Also, private universities, which account for 41 per cent of universities, and about 80 per cent of private colleges stand excluded from any participation. It is necessary that the Higher Education Commission be made inclusive of all stakeholders to make policymaking democratic.

It may be mentioned that the UGC itself had suggested an alternative organisational structure because it thought that dismantling all councils as suggested by the Yash Pal Committee would not be feasible. In 2009, the UGC had suggested a two-tier structure of the UGC: the executive council to perform the executive functions and the governing council with members from the States, the 17 councils, the Central universities/institutions and the private universities for framing policy. Further, in addition to a full-time Chairman and Vice Chairman, the UGC suggested at least four full-time members to look after the gigantic work of 864 universities/education institutes and about 40,000 colleges. The proposed Act does not address the issue.

One of the stated purposes of the HEC is to provide “maximum governance with minimum government”, but its structure is dominated by the government. With the commission directly under the government, will it not lead to more government control?

The 2018 Act reduces the autonomy of the UGC, the States and educational institutions and brings centralisation in decision-making. First, it takes away the funding function from the HEC. The funding function in the case of the education sector is rarely with the government. In most of the countries the funding is through independent higher education bodies like the UGC. The purpose is to keep the funding functions away from political influence and leave them to an autonomous body to decide on merit. The Act also brings concentration of policymaking [powers] in the Ministry. The Advisory Council with the Minister as Chairman, although it is advisory in nature, will in practice have the ultimate say, as experience shows. There is also a provision in the proposed Act that in the event of differences on policy matters between the HEC and the Ministry, the view of the Ministry will prevail. Thus, both in policymaking and in funding there will be concentration of powers in the Ministry and the HEC will be an administrative body without much teeth.

The new Act will reduce the autonomy of States in setting up colleges and State universities. The main mandate of the UGC is coordination, determination and maintenance of standard in higher education institutions. While framing the rule for maintenance of standards and quality, the UGC is always cautious that the rule does not encroach on the State’s domain. The provisions in the new Act encroach upon the power of the States in the awarding of degrees and [on the issue of] affiliation. The new Act requires that educational institutions seek “authorisation” from the HEC to “commence its first academic operation” for award of any degree or diploma. This power at present is with the State government/universities. Similarly, the permission of the HEC will be needed for affiliation of a college with State universities. This power is at present with the States. At present, colleges and State universities have to only inform the UGC and get included in the list, what is called 2F list, including specification of degrees. They can then begin teaching. They do not need [any other] permission to start the first academic session or for affiliation. They only approach the UGC if they need funds.

Given the immense variation across States, imposing common norms indiscriminately may discourage the growth of higher education institutions, particularly in remote areas. This may lead to de-institutionalisation and affect the expansion of higher education at a stage when our enrolment rate is only about one-fourth, much lower than other middle-income and developed countries. It seems proper that the UGC forms the norms and leaves the job to the States to implement them in their specific situation and report to the HEC.

Yet another stated purpose of the HEC is to promote autonomy of higher education institutions. Will it not usher in rampant commercialisation of higher education, which will ultimately marginalise poor and backward students?

The Act proposes to make educational institutions “self-regulatory bodies—without interference in the management”. But the actual things will be clear once the regulations are framed. However, if we go by the last four years’ experience of the UGC, there is less hope that educational institutions will enjoy academic autonomy. Earlier, the UGC would lay down the academic rules in some spheres. But in many academic spheres it suggests norms and leaves it to the educational institutions to adapt to their situation. For the last four years there has been micromanagement of the syllabus, the student-teacher ratio and many other aspects, which reduces autonomy and affects quality.

The Act mentions that it will lay down standards for appointments to critical leadership positions. But it is silent about the rules and procedures for appointments. What norms will make educational institutions self-regulatory and autonomous? The present rules badly affect autonomy at the cost of working efficiency. The Central and State governments interfere too much through the appointment of main functionaries, like Chancellors, Vice Chancellors and members of the executive bodies in State and Central universities/institutions. In the case of Central universities, the Central government has a major presence in the selection of Vice Chancellors and in the nomination to Executive Committees and Senates. In State universities it is more so. For instance, if we take the Maharashtra State University Act, the Governor is the Chancellor of the University. On the search committee, [there is] the Chairman (who is invariably the Principal Secretary of Higher Education), and one member is the nominee of the Governor, and there are 15 members on the Senate and 13 on the Executive Council nominated by the Governor. This is not autonomy from government but a takeover which undermines autonomy hugely.

How to make selection of the functionary political-influence-free is the key to autonomy of educational institutions. The Act is silent on this. The government draws lessons from the West on many aspects but not this as it involves sacrifice of power. What is the lesson from Western universities? In the University Ranking 2014, 47 universities from the United States and the United Kingdom were among the top 100 universities in the world. In these universities, the appointment process of high-level administrators are made by the Board or the Council of the university. The search committee consists of the representative of the governing board/council, distinguished faculty members, alumni, students and staff. It follows what is called a system of “open impartiality” in selection with the involvement of many stakeholders. This keeps the government at arm’s length. This is an opportunity for the government to bring the rules that will bring real autonomy to educational institutions.

The Act is also silent on the issue of fair share to the SCs/STs/OBCs/minorities and women. The 1986 education policy and the programme of action of 1992 emphasised equal access to all in governance. The proposed Act completely fails to mention framing of rules to make the provision for reservation for SCs/STs/OBCs, (fair share to minorities and women) on executive bodies of the HEC, universities and colleges, and in admissions and appointments, as per government rules.

Do you think the government engaged enough with stakeholders from the academic world while forming the HEC?

I do not think that the government has gone for enough consultation with all stakeholders. We need to recognise that this exercise is being done after 60 years of the UGC. Massive changes have occurred in higher education since then, the private sector has come in in a big way about which we have little idea. What is important to note is that there has been no review of higher education after the Kothari Commission in 1964. So we have little idea about the nature of the higher education sector. Framing policies with less relevant data and information has a high probability of failure. It should be discussed with all stakeholders like State governments, the 17 councils, private universities, colleges, student bodies and academics. In the light of the lack of full information with us on the higher education sector, the discussions with these stakeholders will bring new knowledge and benefits from their experience. This Act will have a massive influence on the higher education governance. Therefore, it is too important an issue to be discussed in 10 to 15 days with online feedback.

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