The regulatory framework for higher education in India is set to undergo it biggest reform yet. The Central government intends to repeal the 1956 law that established the University Grants Commission, the country’s main higher education regulating and funding body. On Wednesday, it released a draft law to set up the commission’s replacement, a Higher Education Commission of India. The draft will remain public till July 7 for comments and suggestions.

Under the proposed system, the new regulatory body will lose it funding functions to the Ministry of Human Resource Development or, according to the secretary for higher education, there will be “some other arrangement”. The University Grants Commission, which is led by academics, is an autonomous body under the ministry.

While both the announcement and the draft have invited criticism, the idea of an overhaul is not new and has been discussed many times in the past decade. When it first came up around 2006, and again in 2009, economist Sukhadeo Thorat was chairman of the University Grants Commission. During his tenure (2006 to 2011), several committees – such as the National Knowledge Commission in 2005 and the one set up by the ministry in 2008 under scientist and educationist Yash Pal – recommended restructuring the regulatory framework for higher education by merging the sundry commissions and councils for various disciplines or redefining their roles. The Yash Pal committee recommended replacing the University Grants Commission and the councils covering medicine, nursing, architecture, accountancy and other areas with a single authority – the National Commission for Higher Education and Research. However, these changes were never made and the Bills that were drafted lapsed without being enacted into law.

The present draft law, if enacted, will not achieve the degree of streamlining envisaged by these committees. However, it will significantly alter the way the university system – including over 850 universities and 40,000 colleges – has been governed and funded.

Under Thorat, the University Grants Commission had opposed the idea of a single authority but conceded that reform was required to deal with expansion of the sector and the entry of “new players” in the form of private colleges and private state universities.

Now a professor emeritus at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Thorat still believes reform of the commission is long overdue. But he said the proposed policy has some “serious limitations”. That it takes away the regulatory body’s funding powers is one. According to Thorat, the process of funding is closely linked to the academic exercise of ascertaining eligibility and monitoring progress. He also pointed out that the draft makes little mention of inclusion and access, and that there is no indication of a change in the current system of appointing university vice-chancellors – which has been criticised in recent years for being politically driven.

Thorat spoke to about why reform was required, what will change and where the draft law falls short. Here are the edited excerpts:

The effort to reform higher education did not begin with this draft law. Where did it begin and why was an overhaul thought necessary?
The reform of the University Grants Commission has been discussed for quite some time. The commission was set up in 1956 and the regulations came after four to five years. Later, the commission realised there were some limitations in the provisions of the [University Grants Commission Act, 1956]. There were suggestions from the commission that some parts of the Act be changed and notes were sent to the ministry.

For instance, the commission identifies and publishes a list of fake universities on its website. Despite this, it could not control [their proliferation] simply because the fine was Rs 1,000 – in 1956, that was perhaps a big amount.

There were other limitations with the expansion of the university system. In 1956, there were three kinds of institutions – state universities, Institutes of National Importance set up under Acts of Parliament, and colleges. Over the last 25 years, other entities have come up. You now have self-financing colleges that are purely private. Then there are state private universities, and we also brought in the concept of “deemed to be universities”. The commission dealt with these institutions with new regulations but there were problems. Then, distance education came under the Indira Gandhi National Open University, which had the power to grant permission to institutions [to start distance-learning programmes]. But this is the job of the University Grants Commission. There were problems as education expanded. To deal with those, there was a need to review the Act, to redefine and reformulate it so that it could take care of all these new players.

A major suggestion came from the National Knowledge Commission set up by [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh in [2005]. It recommended an independent regulatory authority. Soon after, Professor Yash Pal’s committee came up with a single regulatory authority. At the moment, for each higher education category, we have a monitoring authority like the University Grants Commission that covers the universities, or councils for medicine, architecture, nursing, accountancy, agriculture and others.

The Yash Pal Committee and the Knowledge Commission were of the view that such fragmented governance was not proper, and that as long as it was all higher education, it should be under one shed so that regulation becomes easy. The University Grants Commission’s ambit is mainly confined to the universities but when it comes to the question of award of degrees, it extends to other institutions as well.

That is the background to the present initiative. This government seems to have taken this ahead with steps to bring in an Act.

What do you think of the draft law?
There are positive aspects but also serious limitations. At the moment, the commission’s structure includes [just the] commission comprising a chairman, vice-chairman and 10-12 members. All decisions are taken by the commission. The secretary of the HRD Ministry is an ex-officio member, so the ministry is part of the decision-making process.

This draft proposes two components of organisation: a commission with the chairman, vice-chairman and members; and an advisory council. With the minister as chairman, the chairpersons of the states’ Higher Education Councils will be ex-officio members. This is a very positive step. About 70% of universities are state universities and 90% of colleges are state colleges but states have no role in policy-making. There is the Central Advisory Board on Education but it can only seek the advice of representatives of state governments. Ultimately, the HRD Ministry decides. But we require more involvement and more commitment from the states. If they agree to a decision, the policy becomes successful.

But there are limitations. The University Grants Commission had suggested a two-tier system: a commission and a governing council. The governing council would have representatives from the states and from all the councils for various fields – medicine, nursing, agriculture. It would decide the policy-making process. You would have the consent of the council and also of the states, and the commission could execute. That would be a lot more harmonious. But this draft law excludes the councils.

Also, having state representation on an advisory council is not the same as bringing the states on board, is it?
At the moment, it is only an advisory council. It may make recommendations, but it is not necessary that the commission or the ministry will accept these. States should be involved in policy making. Then you can have a uniform, accepted policy that state governments will act on. This does not debar the Centre from taking special initiatives.

But if you involve the states, you can have follow-up action and set targets. Otherwise, you set targets for just 20% of the sector and exclude the rest.

Reform of the University Grants Commission has been discussed for over a decade now.

A crucial change is that unlike the University Grants Commission, the Higher Education Commission of India will not have the power to make grants. What do you think of this?
The commission’s funding function is not mechanical work. It makes grants for infrastructure, salaries of teachers for some time, research, fellowships for students and others. It has schemes [under which these grants are made] and there are eligibility criteria. It is the commission that must see whether the colleges or teachers or students meet the criteria via on-the-spot inquiry, surveys and visits. It must judge on-the-spot a college or university’s capacity to do certain things. The teams sent on these assignments are made up of academic experts, not administrators. Similarly, for research, proposals are invited and examined by experts before grants are awarded.

When the ministry says it will take charge of funding, we do not know if the administrative work related to the funding will be done by them or the [new body]. In either case, it is not advisable for funding to remain with the ministry. It is best for the regulatory body to release funds because funding is based on an academic exercise and they can monitor its use.

And I think the autonomous character of an institution like the University Grants Commission should be maintained. The draft law recognises the importance of autonomy, but it is not a question of the autonomy of colleges and universities, it is also that of the commission.

Do you think shifting grant-making powers compromises the academic autonomy of educational institutions? Teachers are concerned that this will bring the academic process too close to the political one. They fear interference and loss of autonomy.
I think everywhere in the world – it is certainly true of the United Kingdom – research councils perform the function of funding and not the ministries. The teaching community is comfortable with entities operated by teachers – they can talk, cut across arguments. The concern is that the ministry, although an administrative body, is also a political body. I believe this concern is right.

Funding should be free of the political process. The general principle is that funding and academic decision-making should be done by an autonomous body on the basis of academic criteria, and it should be at an arm’s length of any political institution. The ministry still has a say but there is an advantage of an independent autonomous body with which the universities and colleges can interact with relative freedom.

The draft Act emphasises on autonomy for institutions.
Autonomy is emphasised quite a lot but my 10 years-15 years of experience tells me that political interference in the affairs of a university really comes through the appointment of the vice-chancellor. Although the process of their appointment – in Central and state universities – is through a selection panel, ultimately, out of the three to four people, it is the governor or president who makes the selection. And it is through the vice-chancellor that political influence gets carried into the institution. There are also many state universities, and possibly Central universities, whose board or council members are nominated by the government.

If you want to give autonomy to an institution, the person who governs the institution must be autonomous. And they should be autonomously appointed – on merit and by the university community. Only then is the vice-chancellor accountable to the faculty. You lay down the norms and regulations in a manner that you get the best person, define a process and do not allow the university to divert. Make qualification norms as strict as possible and create as much scope for public accountability as possible. Their backgrounds should be discussed in the open. I do not see this point in the draft Act. It just says the commission will decide qualification and norms. Perhaps it will be at the level of regulations.

The government has said the new body will be relieved of its grant-making powers so it can focus on quality. There are also concerns that the emphasis on quality – there are provisions for specifying learning outcomes, yearly evaluation of performance, accreditation – will lead to over-regulation. What do you think?
Even in the University Grants Commission Act, the main function of the commission is coordination and maintenance of standards. That essentially means laying down norms and qualifications to maintain a common standard. That job is already there with the commission – it is just being reiterated here with more emphasis.

At the moment, universities have a lot of freedom on what courses they want to introduce and the degrees. My only concern is that this is a vast country and the situation varies from state to state. A single norm, a single regulation will not help. It might even jeopardise education in some states. Norms and regulations should be of a broad generic nature. You can create an artificial norm of very high standards but the situation should allow those norms, should see the diversity and variation and whether they can help the state situation.

Any other observations on the draft?
Another concern is the lack of emphasis on access or equity. The Act makes a reference to it in the beginning, but not much beyond that. It should say that the new higher education commission will be responsible for facilitating access to poorer sections.

There is also no mention of the affirmative action policy. There are 12 members in the commission. The draft should have mentioned that due or fair representation should be given to marginalised social groups, genders and minority communities.