On Wednesday, the central government announced that it will repeal the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. The law underpins the highest regulatory and funding body for India’s university system, the UGC.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development also made public a draft law for establishing the body that will replace the UGC. It is called the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission) Act, 2018.

India has nearly 850 universities and over 40,000 colleges.

The draft law envisages major changes to the existing regulatory and financing regime. Most crucially, the proposed regulator will not disburse funds to public institutions. Currently, the government’s funding for public higher education is routed through the UGC, an autonomous body under the HRD ministry led by academics. In the new regime, a note accompanying the draft said, the “grant functions would be done by the ministry”.

“The grants will come from the ministry or some other arrangement,” the higher education secretary R Subrahmanyam told the media. “That arrangement we will notify shortly.”

The proposed body, tentatively christened the Higher Education Commission of India, will be left free to focus on quality. It will “specify learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education”, “evaluate the yearly academic performance” and even “order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards…or fail to get accreditation within the specified period”. The UGC, in contrast, can only publish lists of universities that do not meet the standards and hope the public sees them.

Subrahmanyam said the main objective of the proposal is to make the regulatory framework “more enabling”. “The idea is to reduce the scope of governance and focus on academic matters very clearly,” he added. “Through this we want to deliver the best possible academic outcomes to every student in the country. That is the main purpose – set academic standards, monitor standards, train teachers if required, and if after all that they are still not performing, order their closure.”

The shift is necessary, he argued, because “the education scenario has completely changed” with “everybody going digital”. The new body, he added, is “primarily to respond to the changing needs of education in society and take India to the next level of educational excellence”.

Teachers and policy experts have until July 7 to review and comment on this proposal.

‘Quick, desperate step’

Wednesday’s announcement precipitated a minor scramble at Delhi University, where the new academic session is yet to start and teachers still on campus are grappling with admissions, setting timetables and evaluating tests. Rajib Ray, the head of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, sent the draft law to the members and called a meeting to discuss it on July 3. The association also issued a statement saying the government’s “dismantling of the UGC to create a new agency looks like a quick desperate step”. The government had earlier proposed merging all major regulatory bodies for technical, non-technical and teacher education, only to shelve the idea. Subrahmanyan said those existing regulators will be put through “comprehensive reform” as well.

“This is a systemic change,” said Abha Dev Habib, a teachers’ association member who has served on Delhi University’s executive council, its highest statutory body. “The government could at least pretend it was serious about feedback. What giving us just 10 days during the vacations to respond really says is: ‘We don’t really care about your feedback’.” She pointed out that a Parliamentary Standing Committee had given stakeholders until June 24 to comment on the working of the UGC but the government seems to be overhauling it “before any deliberations”.

K Laxmi Narayana, who teaches at Hyderabad Central University’s economics department, had not heard about the draft until Wednesday evening. It can be discussed only after July 15, when classes begin, Narayana said. Some teachers will return by July 1 but the fortnight until the start of the new academic session will be spent interviewing candidates for research programmes and correcting answer scripts. “It will be difficult to gather people before that,” he said. “They are out, some out of the state.”

‘System of over-regulation’

Discussion is all the more essential, the teachers said, because of the magnitude of the proposed change. “This is a fundamental change in the institutional structure,” said Narayana. Besides, there is much in it that teachers are uncomfortable about. They asked why an overhaul is required, how centrally-codified policies on learning outcomes and annual measurement of quality – as provided for by the draft law – can possibly mean less regulation and how a closer relationship with the HRD ministry will ensure autonomy.

“This is an incomplete picture,” said Habib, adding that systemic changes are being made even before the new education policy is finalised. There is “no larger vision” guiding the reforms, she added.

The idea of receiving funds directly from the ministry makes her uneasy. “This brings us much closer to the ministry,” she said. “For some time we have experienced increased interference of governments in deciding academic structures, purpose and focus of education while keeping academics outside the ambit of policy making. The UGC was to prevent such direct interference and influence. When institutional heads feel funding is in direct control of the ministry, they will be forced to carry forward what they are told even informally.”

Narayana was more scathing. “The academic body should control the funds,” he said. “Otherwise the ministry will simply use it as a mouthpiece and fund universities, schools and programmes that are culturally and ideologically aligned to the politicians. Expect more schools or research on yoga, astrology, cow science.”

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association’s statement pointed out that some of the functions assigned to the proposed body are already within the UGC’s ambit. It said:

“The present structure is being completely replaced without providing a detailed study of its founding goals, achievements, its shortcomings and their possible reasons and corrective measures taken or required to improve the health of the UGC...Further, the existing UGC Act entrusts it with the responsibility of promoting and coordinating university education, determining and maintaining standards of teaching, examination and research in universities and framing regulations on minimum standards of education. So it is being falsely suggested that the UGC’s functions are limited to disbursal of grants/funds.” 

The association also argued that “increased focus on accreditation and yearly evaluation” will create “a system of over-regulation”. The law cannot promote autonomy – its professed goal – “if the commission is allowed to micromanage institutions”.

A stronger law

Former UGC chairman Sukhadeo Thorat agreed with the teachers about funding. It should remain with the new body, he said, because considerable academic expertise is required for monitoring the use of funds. He is also “not comfortable” about institutions marked as “Institutions of National Importance” being left out of the ambit of the draft law as its first section suggests. This segment includes some of India’s best-known medical, engineering and architectural colleges.

For him, however, there are several positive aspects to the draft law. The new body will be allowed to shut down fake universities and take strong action against those involved.

He also said creating scope for representation from states in the new body is a step forward; the draft law provides for an advisory council with members from states. At present, the UGC frames policies for the entire country but without any participation from states, even though 90% colleges are run by states. However, Thorat pointed out that this body “remains an advisory council” as per the draft law and does not have representatives from other education councils such as medical or nursing councils, which he would have recommended.