End of autonomy

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Students at a protest demonstration against the Bill for the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal Of University Grants Commission Act) Act, 2018, on July 18 in New Delhi. Photo: Kanika Thapliyal

The HECI Bill allows the Central government to monopolise control over the academic life of the country, gravely endangering the autonomy and the future of institutions of higher education.

The Preamble to the “Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act 1956) Act, 2018”, makes some intriguing claims. Firstly, it states that “the existing regulatory structure as reflected by the mandate given to the University Grants Commission required redefinition given the changing priorities of higher education.”

The mandate for the UGC was based on the extensive analysis and recommendations of the Report of the University Education Commission (1949-51) chaired by Dr S. Radhakrishnan. It identified many “evils” as arising from the fact that the universities had “no real autonomy whatsoever” although education was not “a discipline (to be) imposed from above on an apathetic if acquiescent nature.” Academic autonomy was an essential enabling condition, and universities, while remaining “sensitive to enlightened public opinion, should never let themselves be bullied or bribed into actions that they knew to be educationally unsound.” The power given to the UGC to allocate and disburse grants was to ensure that universities remained capable “of resisting pressure from outside.”

The Central government, which has embarked on a sweeping reform of higher education, has not been able to produce even a single document that could provide justification for accepting the “changing priorities” which it claims to have detected in the education system. There were tantalising glimpses, quickly rejected and withdrawn, in the form of the Subramaniam Committee Report and the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s own “Some Inputs” document. Another Committee was set up but its report is also long overdue and little mention is made of it nowadays. What we have instead of a New Education Policy outlining “changing priorities” are “reforms” effected through circulars from the PMO, “tweets” from the HRD Minister and newspaper articles penned by the former Vice-Chairperson of the NITI Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, who had explicitly warned that “to make these reforms permanent, the government will need to bring a new legislation to replace the UGC Act, 1956. Absent such legislation, the risk of a future government reverting to old rules remains” (The Times of India, February 15, 2018).

Secondly, the Preamble states that to promote “uniform standards of quality... there is need for creation of a Body that lays down uniform standards and ensures maintenance of the same through systematic monitoring.” Now, here we clearly have a changed scenario. “Uniformity” of standards and quality were not part of the mandate of the UGC and terms like “systematic monitoring” were not part of its procedures. The UGC Act 1956 specifies the functions of the Commission as follows: “It shall be the general duty of the Commission to take, in consultation with the Universities or other bodies concerned, all such steps as it may think fit for the promotion and co-ordination of University education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities.” For the purpose of performing this important function, the UGC allocates and disburses grants to universities, “provided that in making any grant to any such University, the Commission shall give due consideration to the development of the University concerned, its financial needs, the standard attained by it and the national purposes which it may serve.”

The UGC was established as an autonomous, statutory body which was appointed by the Central government, but the government’s role was specifically restricted and the contribution of serving professors (“at least four”) was ensured among its ten members. Four members were to be drawn from the different fields of social production and from “the learned professions”. One-half of these were not to be officials of either Central or State governments. Two officials would be members as “representatives of the Central government”. The Chairperson was specifically not to be an official of either the Central or a State government.

Under government control

The Higher Education Commission of India’s (HECI) strength has been increased to 14 members but it will reduce the academic component to just two serving professors. Three Secretaries, of Higher Education, Skill Development and Enterprise, and Science and Technology, will be inducted from the “stakeholder Ministries”. Two other Central government appointees are the Chairpersons of the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). While there will be two serving Vice Chancellors, they need not be academics, as we have seen them being drawn not only from the bureaucracy but also from the armed forces, and even a “doyen of industry”, but unfortunately there is no room now for representatives from agriculture or forestry or from other “learned professions”.

The HECI’s Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson are to be appointed by a permanent search-and-selection committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary and including the Secretary, MHRD, along with three co-opted academicians. The UGC Act’s stipulation regarding the non-official status of the Chairperson has been removed although the fact that the Chairperson can be an “Overseas Citizen of India” has been specifically provided for.

The Central government’s control is further enhanced by allowing it to remove members of the HECI before the completion of their term not only for conviction for an offence which “in the government’s opinion” involves moral turpitude but also for “such other disqualifications as may be prescribed.” UGC members could not be so easily removed before their term was completed.

The withdrawal of power to allocate and disburse grants from the HECI and the transfer of this power to the MHRD makes it clear that the HECI will act as a rubber stamp for the Centre. Just in case any chinks in the official armour of the HECI may be exploited to provide some autonomy for the academic community within universities and other institutions of higher education (IHE), provision is made for an overarching Advisory Committee. Headed by the Union Minister of HRD, it will comprise the Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and members of the HECI and Chairpersons and Vice Chairpersons of Councils of Higher Education of all States. It will meet twice a year while the HECI will meet once a year. It will have the power to advise the HECI on all issues and its “advice” will be binding as the HECI will have to “implement” its decisions. This exposes the fact that what is being proposed is a mechanism for routine interference by the Central government in the day-to-day functioning of the HECI.

Seen in the context of the withdrawal of power to allocate and disburse grants from the HECI and the transfer of this power to the MHRD, it becomes abundantly clear that the HECI will act as a rubber stamp for the Central government and this will gravely threaten the autonomy made possible for IHE under the UGC Act 1956. The HECI will in effect be an instrument through which whatever happens in the academic world will be decided by government officials answerable to their political masters and nominees close to the government of the day.

On questions of policy relating to “national purpose”, the HECI will follow the “directions” of the Central government and, in case of any disagreement about what constitutes “national purpose”, it will be the decision of the Central government that will be final. How can a body which will so obviously be subservient to the Central government of the day even make a credible claim that it will be concerned with promoting autonomy for the “free pursuit of knowledge”, for “facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all” and for the “holistic growth of higher education and research”? The question is really the elephant in the room which directs our attention to the “changing priorities” that have overtaken the education sector without being declared, debated or arrived at through democratic consensus.

Two-faced HECI

An incapacitating straitjacket restraining the large number of public-funded institutions, which cater to the non-elite sections of society, is only one face of the HECI. The series of recent decisions “granting” autonomy to selected institutions to follow the path of privatisation reveals the other face of this Janus-type body which points in a completely different direction. The autocratic ruler over a submissive world of state-funded IHE becomes the permissive enabler granting complete freedom from all regulation for institutions which are supremely “autonomous” as long as they raise their own funds and initiate a huge privatisation of higher education “in a competitive global environment”. This will, of course, be at the expense of the students and the faculty, for all that is required of these institutions is that they “transparently” proclaim their costs and conditionalities at the time of admissions and of appointment. Their unilateral decisions need no regulation. Students and faculty alike are left unprotected before the complete control of the managements over them.

It is only the Central and State governments which the HECI will be able to “advise” on how to keep education “affordable for all”. If recent experiences are anything to go by—with loans replacing grants, post-Matric scholarships for SC/ST and OBC students being delayed and withheld, hostel and mess fees being steeply hiked, and eligibility conditions for research fellowships being made more stringent, and at the same time, fees of prestigious public higher education institutions being massively hiked—keeping higher education affordable for the vast majority of students will be an impossible task. This is an inevitable result of the drive towards privatisation. It will be similar to what we have already seen in the school system where State-funded schools are declining so rapidly that even children from the poorest and the most marginalised sections are being pushed out. Instead of improving the quality of education which the children are receiving, the reintroduction of detention in Class V and Class VIII will only aggravate the situation.

The HECI Bill, if passed, will also be legislating on a Concurrent subject thereby overriding specific Central and State Acts for establishing universities and other related legislation passed by the State Assemblies. This encroachment on the rights and powers of State governments violates the basic federal structure of the Constitution. According to the Article 246 read with Entry 32 of List 2 and Entry 44 of List 1 in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India, the “Incorporation, Regulation and Winding up of a University is an exclusive domain of the State Government” and the Union Government cannot legislate on these matters.

‘Merit alone’

The HECI is being empowered to specify “learning outcomes” and not just course structures. This invades the academic autonomy of the universities as such chosen “outcomes” determine the teaching and learning methods for the acquisition of particular “skills”. No education, let alone higher education, can be so narrowly defined and restricted.

To say that all students must attain uniform patterns of proficiency in a specified area within a given time span removes from the classroom situation all material references to the specificity of individual experience as well as to historical manifestations of privilege and discrimination. To stipulate that SC/ST/OBC students, minorities, women and persons with disability, who have direct experience of oppression and have culturally imbibed histories of deprivation, are required to achieve the same “learning outcomes” as those coming from contexts of privilege is not only to argue against the logic of the need for affirmative action in public institutions. It is also to deny the very nature of the learning process by determining in advance what will, and what will not, count as knowledge and achievement. This standardised, and hence privileged, notion of “merit” invariably corresponds to and coincides with the experience of socially dominant classes. It carries no inherent worth or excellence but forces out the life and dynamism from the search for knowledge. It replaces actual diversity and innovativeness with an anaemic homogeneity and imposes dull routine in the education system instead of encouraging the adventure that is true learning.

The Draft HECI Act speaks of “Merit alone”—a standardised concept invariably accommodated to market needs and job requirements, but which fails to comprehend merit as the creative result of the learning process itself. So it cannot appreciate or enhance the diversity of the experience and potential of different sections, particularly the deprived, to contribute to learning. It remains aloof from the process which makes education a means to transform society and therefore denies the significant agency of the socially and educationally marginalised in effecting their own emancipation. A market-oriented concept of merit can only reinforce the hold of the elite over higher education and thereby strengthen existing inequalities and injustices.

It is a tragic fact that the UGC itself has been gradually handing over its own independence under pressure from the government over the past two decades and more. It has allowed itself to become a scapegoat for the Central government’s numerous misconceived policy initiatives. The imposition of the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) in Delhi University is but one recent example. However, with the passage of the Graded Autonomy and Autonomous College Regulations, the UGC has literally dug its own grave. This process must not only be stopped, it must be reversed. It involves not just the future of an important institution which should be strengthened, but even more so it is concerned with the future of higher education itself. Can the governing structure and regulations of higher education create and protect the space to encourage wider access for diverse sections of youths and overcome mediocrity by enriching the plurality of ideas? Both are essential for the healthy growth of a democratic intellectual and social order.

If the HECI Bill is passed it will allow the Central government to centralise, consolidate and monopolise control over the academic life of the country and over the institutions that it can exercise its regulatory powers. On the one hand, the Central government’s role in the composition and the day-to-day functioning of the HECI is complete, and on the other, the HECI will have the punitive powers not only to “discipline” defiant institutions but also to initiate criminal proceedings against those that fail to conform.

It is not difficult to imagine the fate of the universities across the country whose academicians, both students and faculty, are courageously resisting the present government’s “illegitimate” diktats and interference, if the law itself were to be changed into one that allowed and promoted such interference.

Madhu Prasad is the presidium member of the All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE).

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