UGC being scrapped; Higher education in for an overhaul?

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The draft bill for Higher education Commission of India Bill (HECI) 2018, was linked on the tweet by HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, who took to Twitter to announce the proposition that seeks to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act 1956. He urged educationists and stakeholders to provide their valuable feedback on the same. Following an announcement by the Human Resource Development that they wish to replace the existing UGC Act with the HECI Bill, once passed, there is an ongoing nationwide debate as to which regime would be better and the fate of UGC controlled affiliations and UGC NET (University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test). The Centre in its press release had described the Bill as “downsizing the scope of the Regulator”, “removing interference in the management issues of the educational institutions”, and improving academic standards. The bill has drawn its fair share of critics, who feel it is a step towards bureaucratized education that is absolutely under Government control. While a fair amount of people feel that these are winds of welcome change.

Getting down to the provisions of the bill, here is how they read as compared to the UGC Act existing in the place. The first section that has drawn a lot of attention to itself is the sections 3 and 4 which talk about the appointment of chairpersons, vice chairpersons and filling up of casual vacancies respectively. It lists the conditions for selection into such posts, being – a scholar of eminent repute preferably from institutions of national importance, citizenship, someone from the industry, the number of members on the board. This section, unlike the UGC Act, doesn’t have the clear mandate that the Chairman of the Commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the Government or any State Government”. This leads to a lot of questions on the autonomy of HECI and the fairness of this body under duress and political tactics. The Chairperson of the proposed Higher Education Commission can now be selected from among functionaries of the Central or State governments, provided he/she satisfies conditions listed. These sections make the appointment of the Chairperson of HEC incumbent on the decision of a Search-Cum-Selection-Committee (ScSc), headed by Cabinet Secretary and flanked by the Secretary of Higher Education (both Government Of India employed). The principle of non-intervention that was enshrined in the letter of the UGC Act, as an acknowledgement of the need for autonomy in educational policy-making, is discarded by the proposed HECI Bill with regard to the very setting up of the Commission. This section also allows an overseas citizen of India to be appointed in these positions. These have been met with mixed reviews, some say it brings a much sought after global perception to Indian education and some believe persons not bound by the laws of this land and away from it won’t be able to pick on its specific needs.

A lot of people including, Member of Parliament Anbumani Ramadoss, feel a complete dismantling of UGC does not serve a purpose and instead it should be enriched and given more powers to contribute towards quality education. HECI will ‘specify standards for grant of authorization to a university or higher educational institution to commence its academic operations’. In order to verify these financial requirements, UGC conducts periodic inspections, but the proposed bill will only advise on academic performance by the higher educational institutions. The new HECI will have the financial powers to fund or de-fund an institute. The number of members has been slightly extended in the fresh Bill. While UGC has a Chairman, Vice-Chairman and 10 members by the central government; in HECI, 12 members will be appointed by the Centre that will include educationists and a member of the industry.

Key concerns also include the funding of institutions. The HECI Bill promotes autonomy and the agenda of privatization. Coming close on the heels of Centre’s budget cut in the arena of education in the fiscal year to 3.8%, the institutions given full financial autonomy will now have to raise funds by imposing higher fees on the students. Though there has been a Union Cabinet decision to expand the scope of the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) by enhancing its capital base to Rs 10,000 crore to meet the rising financial requirements of educational infrastructure in the country. The UGC currently serves the dual functions of standardizing higher education and giving grants to public-funded institutions. UGC is responsible for promoting and coordinating university education, determining and maintaining standards of teaching, examination, and research in universities and framing regulations on minimum standards of education. The representation of teachers in HECI has been excluded. The transparency of HECI is dependent upon Sections 8 and 9 which state that the interests of members of HECI and their involvement in institutions whether directly or indirectly will be published, but is it enough to serve a deterrent? Under section 15 of the proposed bill, HECI has been given powers greater than UGC to specify standards of teaching and evaluation, as well as learning outcomes of the Higher education institutions and shutting the ones that do not meet desired criteria. Power like this may tempt corruption and calls out for checks and balances. The livelihood of staff and careers of students may be jeopardized if institutions are shut down arbitrarily and create a shortage of higher education institutions. The HECI is also tasked with the development of “norms and mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programmes and employability of the graduates, this is a lauded provision which makes this condition important for accessing funds. Apart from this it provides for a credit based system for the award of degrees thereby ending the current tyranny of forcing a student to repeat the entire year if she fails in even one subject, promotes enforcement via transparent self-disclosure by higher education institutions with supplying of false information attracting punitive action. The bill denies HECI the function of allocating grants to higher education institutions, in a bid to reduce inspection raj. Though it is feared that the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Teachers’ Education into the HECI. If left untouched, these councils can potentially undermine HECI’s work. The deadline for providing feedback for this bill has been increased by 10 days and the deadline is now 20th July 2018.

At the end of the day, higher education in India is in desperate need of access, diversity and quality. It requires programs and methodology of teaching that meet global standards and empower students to be a leader in their fields. The infrastructure in place must align with the needs of this modern era and produce analytical thinking, thrive in innovation, a dynamic thrust in entrepreneurship and industry based knowledge. The road to this is to be chosen with utmost care to expel any ambiguity which can be rewritten upon and whose brevities can be exploited by the Government of the day.

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