HECI Bill

Higher education in peril

Print edition : August 17, 2018

At the convocation of IIT Madras on July 20. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The move to establish a Higher Education Commission of India, which seeks to supplant the 62-year-old University Grants Commission, is the culmination of the ongoing systematic assault, both overt and covert, on higher education that has been in evidence since the Narendra Modi government came to power.

In Hindi there is a word khilwad, whose closest English translation would be to act recklessly or irresponsibly, although these words do not fully capture the import of the native word’s usage. The government in power is doing exactly that with the education sector across the board, higher education in particular. The move to establish a new Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), which seeks to supplant the 62-year-old University Grants Commission (UGC) by enacting the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of UGC Act) Act, 2018, is in some sense the culmination of the ongoing systematic assault, both overt and covert, on higher education which has been in evidence since the government came to power.

The other overt and covert moves—the latter being executed through various front organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar—were relatively isolated and confined to specific events or individual institutions. One has witnessed utter disregard for the scientific temper through the irrational and patently unscientific utterances and propagation of falsehoods as India’s “glorious” past and history by Ministers, members of the ruling party and other Hindutva ideologues; mounting of a national programme on cow science; brazen appointments by the government of people ideologically close to the Sangh Parivar as heads of institutions and as members of important decision-making bodies and committees across the education spectrum; the RSS front organisation Vijnana Bharati dictating terms in the functioning of scientific departments and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories; the move to launch a movement to inculcate (aggressive) “nationalism” through the National Youth Empowerment Scheme (N-YES); and so on.

The University Grants Commission building in New Delhi.   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

Unlike these, the current executive proposal has, however, elicited a groundswell of criticism and opposition because it has the potential of adversely affecting a large fraction of the Indian higher educational institutions (HEIs) that are under the purview of the UGC—which include about 800 universities and 40,000 colleges—and the future of tens of millions of students who are enrolled in these institutions across the country, and thus subverting the larger constitutional objectives of ensuring access and equity in India’s education system.

The idea of a new regulatory framework in place of the UGC is not new. Reports of various committees at various times have recommended such a makeover—the Kothari Commission (1964-66), the National Education Policy (1986), the Programme of Action (1992), the National Knowledge Commission (2007) and the Yash Pal Committee on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (2009). The basic objective, particularly of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee, was to subsume under one overarching structure the multiplicity of area-specific regulatory bodies, such as the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), which had emerged since 1956 when the UGC Act was promulgated and to address rapid changes occurring in education necessitating a multidisciplinary approach to higher learning and research.

While the National Knowledge Commission recommended a body called the Independent Regulatory Authority in Higher Education (IRAHE), the Yash Pal Committee, which, given that Prof. Yash Pal himself had been UGC Chairman during 1986-91, examined all the issues fairly comprehensively and recommended establishing a constitutional body called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) to regulate all areas of higher education (barring agriculture and medicine) and research without compromising on the basic principles of autonomy. The NCHER was meant to be a buffer against political interference and to be democratic and inclusive in its approach to higher education, maintaining minimum standards of education through a regulatory framework and promoting and coordinating education and research across institutions, universities in particular, as articulated in the UGC Act.

The Higher Education and Research Bill

A Bill—the Higher Education and Research Bill—too was moved in Parliament for the creation of the NCHER, but some concerns on the proposal expressed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee (which could have been addressed), objections to the idea raised by the UGC and the AICTE themselves, opposition by university bodies (somewhat misplaced in the opinion of this author), some adverse comments by a few educationists and commentators, and the fact that the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which was in power by the time the Bill could be voted on, withdrew the Bill in September 2014 saw the end to that proposal. But as against these, the HECI proposed by the present regime is a different animal altogether. There is obvious doublespeak in the draft legislative Bill released by the Ministry; even as it speaks of increased autonomy to universities and other HEIs, it seeks to maximise government control over the structure and functions of the HECI.

The Bill in the given form would greatly facilitate direct political interference in the HECI’s regulatory functions on HEIs and, as a consequence, lead to a furthering of the Hindutva agenda in HEIs. Also, the apparent greater autonomy to institutions—“less government, more governance”—that the HECI purports to give HEIs is actually a ruse for a gradual withdrawal of the state from its obligations towards higher education and making it easier than ever before for private players and the corporate sector, with their underlying profit motive, to enter the field of education.

Before we discuss the specifics of the HECI Bill in detail, the extreme callousness of the executive and the government’s total disregard for higher education can be gauged from the following, which is indicative of what would be in store once the HECI became a reality. There are 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which are all directly under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and are avowedly autonomous. Established in different phases, six of them—at Tirupati, Palakkad, Dharwad, Bhilai, Goa and Jammu—were set up during the last phase in 2015-16. All the IITs are listed as Institutes of National Importance and also as Institutes of Excellence, while two of them, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, have made the grade to be selected recently as Institutes of Eminence (IoE), which are (at least on paper) supposed to attract privileged dispensations, including a financial assistance package of Rs.1,000 crore over the next five years, and which will enjoy a far greater degree of autonomy than other IITs.

It is more than two years since the above-mentioned six new IITs were established, but, while the directors for these IITs have been appointed, the government is yet to appoint the Board of Governors for any of them. The Secretary, MHRD, apparently doubles as the Chairman of the “virtual” two-member (including the director) board for each of them. Also, many key departments of these IITs are without adequate faculty. So, the Ministry has identified older IITs as “mentor IITs” for each of them, and the faculty of the “mentor IITs” are required to double as faculty for such teaching staff-deficient departments. For instance, IIT Delhi is the “mentor IIT” for IIT Jammu, and IIT Hyderabad is the “mentor IIT” for IIT Bhilai. Also, part of the budget for some of these new IITs is reportedly being met from the budget of the respective “mentor IITs” even as the “mentor IITs” themselves are supposed to fend for themselves to meet their plan expenditures.

Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Human Resource Development, on a visit to the Indian Institute of Technology in Tirupati on September 11, 2016.   -  K.V. Poornachandra kumar

That is, barring expenditure on salaries and building infrastructure, IITs are expected to meet their budget through internal resource generation (now sanctified by the General Finance Rules of 2017) by, for example, running continuing training centres in specialised professional courses by charging arbitrary high fees or by utilising alumni fund pool or by taking out loans from the newly established Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA), a joint venture between the MHRD and Canara Bank. The MHRD apparently has been suggesting that IITs should raise up to 40 per cent of the salaries being paid to the staff. What about the students who have come through highly competitive national-level examinations into these hallowed institutions? But who cares?

Designed to have control

This is indeed ominous because, according to the structure envisaged in the draft Bill, the HECI constitution is highly skewed with the heavy presence of the government in it. This will obviously enable the Ministry to do to universities exactly what it has done to “autonomous” institutions directly under it because the proposed HECI Bill is designed in such a way that there is complete control of the Centre over the Commission. Once the HECI gets established, it will result in gradual erosion of whatever little protection against direct political interference in the affairs of universities that the UGC Act had enabled. In the name of enhancing the autonomy of universities, they, too, would be forced to fend for themselves.

On the need for replacing the UGC, the preamble to the HECI draft Bill merely says the following: “…the existing regulatory structure, as reflected by the mandate given to the UGC, required redefinition based on the changing priorities of higher education….” As Abha Dev Habib, a professor of physics at Miranda House, a Delhi University college, notes in her critique of the move, this statement comes without any analysis on the mandate and the functioning of the UGC, the needs of “changing priorities” in higher education and why amendments to the existing structure would not have sufficed.

In June 2017, the MHRD proposed a body called the Higher Education Empowerment Regulatory Authority (HEERA) that would replace the UGC and the AICTE. While no documents relating to this proposal are available, the Ministry quickly dropped the idea within two months, in August 2017, and the Minister, Prakash Javadekar, was quoted as saying: “It is better to reinvent the current system [the UGC] which is in place than wait for a new law to come in.” Yet in less than a year, on June 27, the Ministry has come up with this move towards disbanding the existing structure and establishing a new entity, the HECI, through legislation. This really shows the complete lack of sincerity in administering this important sector of higher education. At least, earlier proposals such as the NCHER had gone through the exercise of a report prepared by an eminent committee. The following only confirms the complete arbitrariness and mindlessness with which the Ministry seems to function. It is clear that the Ministry has no idea about what it is doing and what is to be done.

Senate Building at the University of Madras in Chennai.   -  V. Ganesan

According to Abha Dev Habib, on June 10 the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee invited suggestions on “Issues Relating to Functioning of UGC” and gave 15 days for people to respond. But just two days after the deadline, the Ministry invited suggestions on the proposed HECI draft Bill and gave a deadline of July 7—just 10 days—to respond to such a serious matter as dismantling of the UGC; the deadline was later extended to July 20.

It is clear that the Ministry had already decided to disband the UGC even before the Parliamentary Standing Committee could review public responses, let alone prepare its report, observes Abha Dev Habib. “This drives home the point that we are faced with a government that has no respect for the statutory process of Parliament or feedback given by stakeholders,” she wrote in the online news service Newslaundry. “Although this ‘reform’…is being touted as a major step to improve and modernise higher education in India, it is evident that the government has no confidence in the ability of the proposal to withstand public scrutiny.”

Decline in funding

There has been a general decline in higher education funding over the years, both under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and under the present government. Now it seems to be worse. According to her, over the last four years, UGC fellowships have decreased, and there are moves to stop non-NET (National Eligibility Test) fellowships. Money for research projects, according to researchers from HEIs, seems to arrive several months or even years after a particular project is approved. As noted earlier, not only IITs but also other institutions are being asked to generate internal funds, which, as Abha Dev Habib says, can largely be done only through fee hikes and thus would shift the burden of even maintaining, let alone expanding, Central and State universities on to students. “The twin impacts of these policies are decreased access to higher education for the masses, combined with an increased market for private institutions, by creating a level playing field between the public and private sectors. The HECI draft is in line with these trends,” she writes.

A key function of the UGC is to disburse grants, both academic and infrastructural, to universities on the basis of an examination of the needs of a given university. The proposed HECI does away with the role of fund disbursal and will only focus on academic matters. The former function will be fulfulled by the Ministry, presumably by forming a separate body of sorts under it, which means it will be under the direct control of bureaucrats and politicians. But this begs the question: does the Ministry have the academic expertise and wherewithal to evaluate the needs, particularly academic, of the large number of HEIs?

Promoting quality of education and research in HEIs can be achieved only through commensurate funding, but when the two functions are separated, and the latter function vests with the Ministry, funding of HEIs would depend on how much in line a particular institution is with the political agenda of the regime. This, as we have seen, is already evident in the case of IITs. For example, according to insiders, while the Centre for Rural Development and Technology (CRDT) at IIT Delhi, which is spearheading the national programme on panchagavya (cow science) research, seems to get funds for its dubious research activities, other departments have to face the crunch or seek HEFA loans. So, with the proposed dispensation, even universities will be forced to increase fees or raise funds through other revenue-generating mechanisms, such as providing specialised services, and not focus on improving the quality of education.

Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, which has been given Institute of Eminence status.   -  K. Murali Kumar

According to the preamble to the Bill, one of its key objectives is to promote uniform development of quality of education in HEIs through creation of uniform standards. This call for uniformity goes against the very spirit of quality higher education, which calls for flexibility and diversity, the latter especially in view of the diverse cultural and social environment that obtains in the country and varying human, material and financial resource potential across States and regions. The UGC, on the other hand, had the mandated role of prescribing minimum standards and curricula across HEIs, leaving room for individual HEIs to evolve their own syllabi and standards. The other stated objectives, according to the MHRD press note, is to “reform regulatory systems that provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth of the education system” and “downsizing the scope of regulations [and] no more interference in the management issues of educational institutions”; but the draft Bill does exactly the opposite.

Direct interference

To maintain the UGC’s autonomy and prevent any kind of direct political interference by the government, the UGC Act explicitly lays down the condition that the Chairman of the Commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the government or any State government”. But the HECI draft Bill drops this requirement, and the composition of the Commission is such that it is heavily packed with bureaucrats and government officials, leaving space for only two academics. In contrast, the UGC Act mandates the inclusion of a minimum of four university academics even as it makes provision for two government representatives. The remaining four members of the 10-member Commission are mandated to include persons who are knowledgeable in agriculture, commerce, forestry or industry, or are members of learned professions like engineering, law or medicine, or are Vice Chancellors or educationists or persons with high academic distinction. So the space for any perspectives of HEIs is drastically shrunk. There is also an Advisory Council, which is supposed to be chaired by the MHRD Minister. Political diktat or interference is no longer camouflaged; it will be direct through this Council, whose advice the HECI will take steps to implement.

Student protest demanding the scrapping of a Bill moved in Parliament for the creation of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research, in Hyderabad on January 3, 2013. The Bill was withdrawn in September 2014.   -  Mohammed Yousuf

In fact, direct ministerial interference on deciding the content of course curriculum to render it uniform across institutions has been in evidence since 2014 itself when the MHRD asked HEIs to implement what is called the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), which was heavily criticised when introduced and is being continuously opposed by students and teachers alike in universities across the country. Recently, the Minister has also sought to introduce compulsory skill development training for 1,000 hours for undergraduates.

As Abha Dev Habib points out, there has been an increasing interference by the MHRD during the last four years even in the daily affairs of universities. “With a total disregard for their academic work, HEIs are issued notices by the MHRD every other day, forcing pet programmes of the government such as Swachh Parisar Abhiyan, Yoga Day and so on,” she says.

As regards “downsizing of regulation” claimed in the background press note on the HECI, the provisions of the Bill amount to over-regulation, far more than ever before. According to the Bill, the HECI will “evaluate the yearly academic performance of the HEIs by monitoring the performance criteria laid down”. The performance parameters, as specified by the Commission, will include “learning outcomes for courses of study”, “standards of teaching/assessment/research or any other aspect that has bearing on outcomes of learning in the HEIs, including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development”.

The HECI is also supposed to evolve a robust system of accreditation for evaluation of academic outcomes by HEIs. The consequent burden of this mandated yearly appraisal on both the HECI and HEIs can well be imagined. Firstly, it is not even clear if the HECI would have the wherewithal to evaluate the 800-odd universities and the 40,000 colleges on a yearly basis. More pertinently, imagine the amount of documentation and paperwork that HEIs will be faced with when they should be focussing on the teaching-learning process. “Deprived of the autonomy to develop their own curricula and specific learning outcomes and continually subjected to yearly evaluation, [the HEIs] will not be able to achieve excellence in teaching and learning, nor research and innovation, nor in engagements with societal concerns as they would always be busy in preparation of the ensuing inspections,” says Ved Prakash, former UGC Chairman.

Unlike the UGC, which could only derecognise HEIs for not meeting the minimum standards, the HECI can order closure of institutions that fail to meet the specified standards. Non-compliance by any HEI of regulations/rules/recommendations issued by the HECI will attract penalties, “which may include fine, withdrawal of power to grant degrees/diplomas or direction to cease operations”. Failure to comply with the penalty imposed can make the members of the management of the institute liable for prosecution under the Code of Criminal Procedure which could include a jail term of up to three years. These draconian provisions are questionable, to say the least.

Standards of Graded Autonomy

According to the Bill, the HECI will also evolve norms and standards for Graded Autonomy to Central and State universities. Graded Autonomy is a system introduced early this year by which universities will be granted increasing degrees of autonomy depending upon the score HEIs get through the evaluation and assessment by the National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC), an autonomous agency under the UGC. The scheme has been controversial because it seeks to evaluate institutions on a countrywide uniform scale that does not take into account the social realities and the availability of resources—human, material and financial—under which a university has to operate. Sixty-two institutions were recently placed at different rungs of the autonomy ladder depending on their “NAAC Scores”. But as was argued earlier, a higher score or apparent increased autonomy is an ominous sign for the institution. For, in the Indian context, it seems to imply a corresponding decline of state support to it.

As Ved Prakash points out, there are other infirmities in the draft Bill. Though the phrase “deemed university” occurs right in the opening (Sec.1(2)), it is not included among the definitions, nor is there any explicit article—corresponding to Section 3 of the UGC Act—regarding its governance in the Bill. So how will the 129 deemed universities be treated?

At Techfest 2017 at IIT Bombay, a 2017 picture. IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi have made the grade to be selected as Institutes of Eminence.   -  Prashant Waydande

One of the important innovations under the UGC that came about during the chairmanship of Yash Pal is the concept of Inter-University Centres (Section 12 (ccc) of the UGC Act), which allowed the UGC to set up institutions to provide common facilities, services and programmes for a group of universities or for universities in general. The idea was to make optimum use of limited resources in experimental research. These have been enormously successful in attracting people from universities to do front-line research and serve as models that deserve to be replicated. Seven such IUCs exist, but what would be the fate of these institutes? The Bill does not even take note of these, let alone facilitate creation of more such IUCs.

It is known that a new National Education Policy (NEP) has been in the works since 2015. This policy document should have been the basis for all things of consequence in the field of education, points out Ved Prakash, including the proposed HECI Act. “It will probably need much greater justification for repealing the UGC Act than replacing it with the present alternative,” he says.

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