The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, adopted in July 2020, envisages a restructuring of the higher education system. It had two objectives: to impart multidisciplinary education and overhaul the regulatory mechanism. As part of this, institutions such as the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education are set to be replaced by the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), an umbrella organisation comprising four independent verticals: the National Higher Education Regulatory Council, the National Accreditation Council, the Higher Education Grants Council, and the General Education Council.
The Ministry of Education is expected to introduce a Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act, 1956) Bill in the winter session of Parliament. Since the draft Bill it prepared in 2018 met with widespread opposition, the fresh Bill is reportedly a reworked version.
One of the main objectives of establishing the HECI is to specify learning outcomes for courses and fix eligibility criteria for the appointment of Vice Chancellors. It will also have the power to order the closure of higher educational institutions that fail to meet academic standards. There is every chance that the revised Bill might still have features that attract opposition.
ALSO READ: Decoding the agenda of the NEP 2020
In the meantime, the government appears to be using the existing regulatory framework to centralise power and restrict the autonomy of higher education institutions.
Business as usual
Appointments to the existing regulatory bodies continue as usual. T.G. Sitharam, Director of IIT-Guwahati, was recently appointed Chairman of AICTE after the post fell vacant in the beginning of September.
Vacancies for the posts of AICTE Chairman and Vice Chairman, both having three-year terms, were notified in May and September 2022, respectively. In August 2022, applications were invited for the UGC Secretary’s position, which has a five-year term.
The UGC has been doing more than just filling vacancies. Recently, the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022, replaced the 2016 MPhil/PhD Regulations. The new regulations have abolished the MPhil degree, and an MPhil/PhD integrated programme is no longer possible. The maximum number of PhD scholars that one faculty member can supervise, however, remains the same.
Deemed to be universities
The UGC has also invited feedback on a new set of draft regulations for ‘Deemed to be Universities’. They are reportedly aimed at bringing these institutions in line with NEP 2020. These changes are being quickly effected through an institution that will cease to exist when the new policy is implemented.
The UGC has also implemented rules and regulations over the past two years that cover open and distance learning, online programmes, internationalisation of higher education, multiple entry and exit in academic programmes, the setting up of an Academic Bank of Credits, qualifying and curricular frameworks for higher education, institution development, transformation of higher education institutions into multidisciplinary institutions, and the engagement of professors of practice (people who are experts in the field but do not have a PhD).
The Central University Entrance Test (CUET) was promoted as part of these guidelines for undergraduate and postgraduate admissions.
Part of a plan
The Centre’s strategy seems to be part of a larger plan. Education falls under the Concurrent List in the Constitution, but the Union List includes within it “co-ordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education”.
The UGC was established through an Act of Parliament in 1956 to enable this. Under the UGC Act, universities are those higher education institutions that are established either by Acts of Parliament or State legislatures, or those the Union government deems to be universities on the basis of the UGC’s recommendation. The UGC Act serves as the foundational law for all regulations governing higher education and for the recognition of degrees.
Restructuring the higher education system and its regulatory mechanism involves a complex legislative process in which State legislatures are important players. The proposed HECI will, therefore, have to take on board the suggestions and reservations of all stakeholders to pass muster.
The recent disagreements between the Kerala Governor and the State government regarding the applicability of UGC guidelines for the appointment of Vice Chancellors are part of this inability to accept a federal approach.
Once the NEP is implemented fully, conflicts or legal issues may arise. Rather than allow this process to play out organically, the government is effecting changes using the very framework it means to overhaul.
Erosion of the autonomy
The academic community has always feared that NEP 2020’s idea of “light but tight” regulation is a euphemism for greater centralisation of powers and the erosion of the autonomy and democratic governance of higher education institutions. For instance, under the draft regulations on deemed to be universities, faculty members cannot be made representatives on Academic Councils. And all this without the Centre taking on more financial responsibility for higher education.
This one-size-fits-all-approach is set to continue even though NEP 2020 envisages two different kinds of institutions—those that are research intensive and those that are teaching intensive. What this could mean is that the number of students who can be admitted to research programmes in universities will be reduced—since the maximum PhD supervision load has not been increased to account for the absence of MPhil students. Besides, students will register for their PhD earlier because in the new scheme they will not need an MPhil to do a PhD. How prepared they will be for taking up research is a moot question.
ALSO READ: A case to make higher education free
The new regulations also require that every PhD student take a course on research and publication ethics. Whether there is infrastructure for this course is also doubtful.
These are a just few examples of how the role of universities, departments, and individual faculty in academic decision-making is being reduced.
The irony is that some of these regulations, whose ostensible objective is to define the ‘minimum’ standards for awarding a degree, may in fact define the ‘maximum’ standards achievable.
- The University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education are set to be replaced by the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI).
- The Ministry of Education is expected to introduce a Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act, 1956) Bill in the winter session of Parliament.
- In the meantime, the government appears to be using the existing regulatory framework to centralise power and restrict the autonomy of higher education institutions.
- The University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022, has replaced the 2016 MPhil/PhD Regulations.
- The UGC has also invited feedback on a new set of draft regulations for ‘Deemed to be Universities’. They are aimed at bringing these institutions in line with NEP 2020.
- The academic community has always feared that NEP 2020’s idea of “light but tight” regulation is a euphemism for greater centralisation of powers.