The rationale for the repeal of the UGC Act is missing.
The draft Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018, seeks to repeal the University Grants Commission Act and provide for setting up of the Higher Education Commission of India, on the premise of reforming higher education. The government has paved the way for this by putting the draft in the public domain, but it will see the light of day only when Parliament seconds it. The Union Minister of Human Resources Development had invited all stakeholders and the general public to suggest any changes to firm it up. There is a huge uproar on this, which necessitates its rollback, which is well reasoned. To begin with, the rationale for the repeal of the UGC Act is missing. Replacing one body with another does not reshape higher education; on the contrary, a lot of time will be lost in firming up procedures and practices through a new body. An important function of the UGC is to maintain standards and support universities and colleges through funding. The draft Act takes away funding responsibility from the UGC, and shifts it to the MHRD, which implies divorcing quality improvement initiatives from funding support. This is detrimental to the health of higher education.
Clause 12 of the UGC Act, on powers and functions, notes that the Commission will function in consultation with the universities for the promotion and maintenance of university education. This clause is critical to protect the autonomy of the universities. Despite the subtle assurance given in Clause 15(2) of the draft HECI Act, university autonomy seems to be under siege. A university which is a degree granting authority, is established by an Act of the state legislature, and gets concurrence by the UGC under Clause 2(f) of the Act. The authorisation by the HECI, for the grant of degree, indirectly questions the authority of the universities established by state legislatures.
Further, the provisions on graded autonomy to mobilise resources for starting new study programmes may affect the affordability of students from the marginalised sections. The new programmes open the door for entry of market principles in the operation of public institutions. Thereby, it is imperative to provide more teeth to the regulation to protect the interest of the disadvantaged. The focus on the curricula as well as monitoring effectiveness of programmes based on learning outcomes tilts the balance in favour of employability, rather than knowledge generation. While employability in itself is non-negotiable, universities need to pursue this along with their basic function of knowledge generation. The assessment of the performance of the institutions should also be based on scholarly work, which is the soul of a university. Unless autonomy is accompanied by corresponding funding support, the research and knowledge generation functions of the universities will be compromised. The new Act in the making is unclear about institutional plans for promoting research through funding, as this function has been withdrawn from HECI.
The advisory council in a university should be made more autonomous in its functioning by including stakeholders of the university system. However, it may not be sufficient only to include state higher education councils, as they are still not uniformly vibrant as an organisation in the states. The representation from the teaching community needs to be increased in the constitution of the Commission. Similarly, care needs to be taken so that the recruitment of the chairperson and vice- chairperson is relatively free from bureaucratic control. The above gap incapacitates the higher education sector in India, which is already perilously impoverished.
Aarti Srivastava is Associate Professor, Department of Higher and Professional Education, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.