The government is working at lighting speed to finalise 20 world-class universities in India. A key input is to make these institutes autonomous, said two officials involved in the consultation. But what has come out, instead, is a list of guidelines formulated by the University Grants Commission, the country’s higher education regulator.

This is worrying, for it seems to be a continuation of the regulator’s tendency to interfere in every small matter of the universities.

The UGC spams universities almost on a weekly basis, micro-managing the very spaces meant to nurture independent thinking. Its missives cover every banality in the book, from appointing gender champions to observing Yoga Day, from participating in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan to demanding academic data to be put into a central database. There are reminders to celebrate birth anniversaries by organising debates and quiz and essay competitions, and a request to send back video recordings of the same.

The UGC, with a multi-faceted role, is a classic example of a regulator with a lot of power. It is the dispersing agency for money to keep most universities running, and the gateway for new grants in the five-year plans. It approves courses, makes rules and regulations for university employees, and, it seems, serves as a post office for every government programme and ministry that wants to involve the universities.

The vice-chancellor of one university, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to a thick file of such notifications, adding that he marked these to academic and non-academic members of his staff with instructions to get back to him. He said he wondered what the UGC did with all the paperwork it collected from universities.

As of July, India had 759 universities – 239 private (where the regulator approves courses but does not have direct control of the institutes), 47 central (which it funds and approves courses for), 350 state-run (many get central assistance through the UGC, which also sets rules and approves courses) and 123 deemed-to-be universities (controlled by the UGC).

Hands-on approach

While the regulator seems to be firing a lot more communiques to universities during the rule of the National Democratic Alliance, past governments were not particularly hands off when it came to the regulation of education. Some notifications today are simply copy-paste jobs, especially those on marking the birth anniversaries of leaders. The Narendra Modi government asked for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birthday to be celebrated. The United Progressive Alliance government before that sought the same for Motilal Nehru. The University Grants Commission requested institutes to organise celebrations on Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary both during NDA and UPA rule.

Nothing is above the notice of the regulator. It tells universities how to deal with the attendance of students in the National Cadet Corps who spend a lot of time in nation-building activities. It advises faculty to desist from caste-based discrimination and asks that universities set up separate pages on their websites where such complaints can be lodged.

There are communications asking institutes to organise events centered on a specific personality. “I would like to draw your attention to the philosophy of celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvallur (circa 3rd to 1st century BC) whose most remarkable contribution to Tamil literature is his work of ethics entitled Thirukurral,” the regulator wrote in a notification dated June 29, 2015. “The text is considered one of the most revered among ancient Tamil works, particularly because of its insightful commentary on human morals and betterment in life. I request you to organise in your university and affiliated colleges essay competitions, seminars and debates based on the lives and works of Shri Thiruvalluvar. I am sure Shri Thiruvallur’s rich message will liberate teachers and students from the stress of confrontational relationships and equip them with social relationship skills and attitudes to succeed.”

The letter asked universities to send back an action-taken report.

Universities also receive reminders about government programmes such as Mann Ki Baat, Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan and Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (on skill development), with instructions to publicise these among students.

Not surprisingly, the UGC’s academic concerns often tie into other agendas. On April 29 this year, it wrote, “This is in continuation my earlier letter dated 17th March, 2016 regarding celebration of International day on Yoga on 21st June. During the review of preparation for the same, the Hon’ble Prime Minister desired that an attempt may be made to promote PhD course on Yoga for foreign students. Ministry of AYUSH has informed that it is willing to award fellowships to students selected/recommended by the universities for pursuing PhD in this field. You are requested to provide the details of such foreign students who want to pursue PhD in this subject in your esteemed university directly to Ministry of AYUSH for it to consider award of fellowships to such students.”

On May 2, it sent out a similar letter, this time asking universities to undertake activities for the promotion of organ donation. It read, “The Govt of India has identified the following areas for higher education institutions for promotion of Organ Donation in the country: health promotion and prevention, inclusion of organ donation and transplantation in academic curriculum, end-stage organ failure and organ transplant pamphlet in all educational institutions at all levels, in-service update of teachers, celebration of Indian Organ Donation Day on 27th November in each school/college/ university, thematic activities around organ donation.”

Lack of vision

Former education minister Smriti Irani with students protesting the scrapping of PhD fellowships in November 2015. (Photo credit: PTI File)

During Smriti Irani’s tenure as Union human resource development minister from May 2014 to July this year, the University Grants Commission made several controversial decisions. It scrapped Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programme, which the faculty too had opposed, and extended this censorship to private universities, notably Ashoka University in neighbouring Haryana, which hastily made a year in its four-year programme optional. This falling in line was necessary for the private institute to get “UGC approved” status.

Last year, the regulator decided to discontinue non-National Eligibility Test fellowships for research scholars, infuriating students who showed their displeasure through the #OccupyUGC movement.

The bewildering role played by the regulator has not impressed anyone. “I think the UGC should give guidelines, they should create a set of standards and be done with it,” said sociologist Shiv Viswanathan, who called the regulator’s habit of getting into every rule and procedure crazy.

“A university needs political autonomy to say what it wants, and it needs bureaucratic autonomy,” he added. “When we make it rule-based, we forget accountability. A vice-chancellor has to be responsible for accounting, accountability and responsibility to society.”

The UGC did not reply to an interview request, and its secretary did not answer his mobile phone or reply to text messages.

While successive governments have made piecemeal policies on higher education – the UPA was no better, forcing Delhi University to follow a semester system by steamrolling teachers’ views – what is lacking is a long-term view that a slow-results but high-stakes sector like education needs. There has been no discussion on how universities need to evolve or who ends up paying for higher education. India is one of the few countries where households finance college education, unlike the Western world where college education is a public good.

No trust

There are many who believe it is not just the regulator who is to blame for the current state of higher education in India.

“The heart of the problem is that a few years back, a lot of unscrupulous people got into education,” said C Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of OP Jindal Global University in Haryana. “So the regulator has developed a distrust of anyone in education.”

OP Jindal is a private university with a large corpus, but needs UGC approval for courses. Kumar said he tried to find a balance in order to work with the regulator, but was worried about where universities in India were headed. “We have reached a point where marginal reform in higher education will not lead to marginal change, but radical reform in higher education will lead to marginal change,” he said.

He said that by now, India should have moved to making at least the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management autonomous and free of government control.

Referring to the government’s plan to set up world-class institutions, Kumar said the paper that had been floated seeking suggestions from stakeholders, to be submitted by October-end, was too rule-bound. For instance, while such an institute would be allowed to employ foreign faculty, there was a limit to the number of such hires.

Such bureaucracy-ridden paperwork is likely to put off applicants. But the incentives – including a Rs 500-crore corpus and the freedom to select their own syllabi without UGC approval – may just have universities lining up to apply.