The draft Higher Education Commission of India Bill, 2018, which seeks to repeal the University Grants Commission Act, 1956, and replace the UGC with the Higher Education Commission of India, is a classic example of a remedy worse than the disease. The legislation seeks to bring back the bad old days of Licence Raj, and rob our universities of whatever little autonomy they have.

The UGC was set up to promote, coordinate and monitor higher education in India. This includes determining and enforcing the minimum standards of teaching, examination and research and disbursing grants for teaching, research, infrastructure development, faculty improvement and student fellowships, among other things. The UGC has been reasonably successful in achieving its objectives. But it has several shortcomings, notable among which are inadequate funding, a tendency to micromanage universities and colleges through detailed regulations, excessive bureaucratisation leading to delays and inability to regulate private, self-financing institutions, many of which are owned and run by powerful politicians.

The Higher Education Commission of India Bill has failed to address these shortcomings and may, in fact, aggravate some of them. Its sole aim seems to be to empower the Centre at the expense of states and universities, reducing them to dummies.

Since central universities constitute less than 6% of the universities in India and the Bill conveniently excludes the “Institutes of National Importance”, most of which are Centre-run, the Higher Education Commission of India is essentially meant to control state universities, private universities, deemed universities and colleges.

Whereas in countries like the US, Australia and China, regulation and funding of higher education are primarily the responsibility of the states, with the federal government also playing a funding role, India has been moving towards greater central regulation and reduced public funding of higher education.

In a country as large and as diverse as India, with 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 stand-alone institutions (as per the All India Survey on Higher Education 2016-17), excessive centralisation will not result in improvement of academic standards and will instead lead to even more bureaucratisation, delays and corruption.

Greater power

The most shocking thing about the Higher Education Commission of India Bill is that it effectively downgrades universities to the level of colleges by clubbing both together under the name “Higher Educational Institutions” and applying common rules to them.

Currently, universities are empowered under their respective legislation to start new courses. Only colleges affiliated to a university require prior approval from the university in question for introducing a course. But as per section 16 of the Bill, not only colleges but even universities will need prior “authorisation” from the Higher Education Commission of India for starting a new course and awarding a degree in the same.

Existing universities, however long-established or eminent, will need to get authorisation from the Higher Education Commission of India for all their current courses within three years, failing which they cannot continue to offer them. The authorisation needs to be periodically validated, according to section 19(2) of the Bill. Section 20 confers on the Higher Education Commission of India the power to revoke the authorisation. Section 23 imposes penalties including criminal action for non-compliance with the Higher Education Commission of India’s directives.There is no provision for appeal against the orders passed by the Higher Education Commission of India under Sections 16-20 and affected Higher Educational Institutions can only approach the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution for relief.

Such course-by-course authorisation from Higher Education Commission of India is not only unnecessary but also demeaning to any self-respecting university.

The Higher Education Commission of India has neither the expertise nor the time to process authorisation requests for lakhs of courses from thousands of colleges and hundreds of universities. Even if the applications are made online, as mentioned in Section 17(1) of the Bill, they still need to be processed in the back office. Inspection teams comprising academic experts will have to be constituted and will have to visit the thousands of higher education institutions to verify their claims. All this will be an administrative nightmare and will impose a massive regulatory burden on institutes, to the detriment of their academic work. Either the authorisations will be given mechanically (which defeats the very purpose of the exercise) or the aforementioned sections 16-20 of the Higher Education Commission of India Bill will be used as a stick to beat states ruled by Opposition parties. Given the fractious nature of the relationship between the Centre and the States over the past 50 years under all regimes, sections 16-20 are open to serious abuse.

The Higher Education Commission of India must move toward “risk-based regulation”, except in the case of those institutes where additional monitoring is needed. This will reduce the regulatory burden across the sector.

The Bill also violates one of the fundamental principles of good governance, that of subsidiarity, which says that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more local level. Such extreme centralisation where the Higher Education Commission of India can ride roughshod even over universities created by State Legislatures is unacceptable in a federal polity.

There is absolutely no justification for applying sections 16-20 to existing Central and state universities or even the new ones. These Sections should apply only to private universities and deemed universities as these require greater regulation, not only for enforcement of standards but also for protection of students from money grubbers and fly-by-night operators. As for affiliated colleges, the concerned universities should be left to monitor and regulate them and Higher Education Commission of India should step in only where an affiliating university fails to perform its duty. For this, a provision can be introduced in the Bill enabling the Commission to intervene only as a last resort. Or, a suitable amendment may be brought to the existing UGC Act, 1956.

Khalsa College in Amritsar. Narinder Nanu/AFP
Khalsa College in Amritsar. Narinder Nanu/AFP

Government influence

Section 24 of the Bill proposes the setting up of an Advisory Council chaired by the Union Minister for Human Resources Development. The Higher Education Commission of India is supposed to “take steps to implement the advice rendered by the Advisory Council”. There is no such Council in the UGC Act and the human resources and development minister does not have any direct involvement with the UGC. This will affect the autonomy of the Higher Education Commission of India and is a retrograde step. The Union Minister has been chairing the Central Advisory Board of Education, the apex national policy-making body, and that should suffice.

Whatever its shortcomings, the UGC is an academic body run by professional academicians.The UGC Act says that the University Grants Commission must comprise a chairman, vice-chairman and 10 members. The chairman cannot be a member of the state or central government. Of the 10 members, a minimum four should be professors and at least six members should not be officers of state or central governments. But according to Section 3 of the Bill, the Higher Education Commission of India will have 12 members (apart from the chairperson and vice chairperson), of which only four will be teachers (two Vice Chancellors and two professors). The remaining eight will be chosen from among civil servants, heads of academic regulatory bodies, accreditation agencies and the industry. Thus, the new legislation reduces teachers to an ineffectual minority and makes the body that monitors higher education a preserve of civil servants and academic regulators.

This is unacceptable. If the Higher Education Commission of India is to function as an effective academic regulator, it must have eight teachers (four Vice Chancellors and four professors, of which at least two each should be from state universities) as its members.

Where’s the money?

A fundamental feature of the proposed Higher Education Commission of India as opposed to the UGC is that it will focus only on enforcement of standards and will not disburse grants. There was considerable merit in combining both powers in the UGC, as it could wield the carrot as well as the stick over higher educational institutions. The argument that has been put forth that the UGC neglected its regulatory functions because it was preoccupied with releasing funding or grants is baseless. The Higher Education Commission of India Bill has created confusion and uncertainty by remaining silent about the alternative arrangement for releasing grants.

Already, the Centrally-sponsored Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, through which HRD Ministry has been directly funding state higher education institutions since 2013-14, had taken some funding responsibilities away from the UGC. It is also not clear if this programme will continue in its present form. The UGC pay scales for teachers played a significant role in attracting good candidates to academic positions, but the Higher Education Commission of India Bill is silent about teacher salaries and service conditions. Clarifications by way of press releases will not suffice as they have no legal value. The Bill must be suitably amended to remove all doubts about how public funding of higher education will be done in the future in the absence of the UGC.

India ranks a lowly 121 in the world in terms of the percentage of the budget earmarked for education (only 3.8%), of which Higher Education gets a meagre share, most of which goes to the Institutions of National Importance. It is naive to think that we can improve the standard of higher education in India merely through regulation and without significantly increasing public funding. Students coming from socially and economically backward sections of the society will be put to great hardship if the government abdicates its financial responsibility towards universities and colleges. The Bill is silent about ensuring equity of access to such disadvantaged students.

Additionally, whereas UGC used to fund numerous individual research projects and grant research fellowships, the proposed Higher Education Commission of India will only “promote research in HEIs [higher educational institutions] and coordinate with Government for provision of adequate funding for research” [section 15(3)(e)]. This shows the low priority accorded to research in academia by the Bill, an area in which India already lags behind several countries. It gives short shrift to the “Haldane principle” (named after the famous British scientist JBS. Haldane) according to which, once the broad priorities are set by the political executive, funding for individual research projects should be decided by scientists or academicians themselves through peer review, and not by government. The Higher Education Commission of India Bill has cast doubts over the fate of even the little research grant that the UGC used to disburse.

How it stacks up

The deficiencies in the Higher Education Commission of India Bill can be best understood by comparing it to the Higher Education and Research Act, 2017, of the United Kingdom. The UGC was modelled on the pattern of the University Grants Committee of the UK, which was in existence from 1919 to 1989. There were several changes between 1989 and 2017. Pursuant to the 2017 Act, the UK has an Office for Students which acts as a regulator-cum-funding agency and a UK Research and Innovation which funds all research projects. The Office for Students is a single regulator for all branches of higher education in contrast to the multiplicity of academic regulators in India.

The UK Act specifically bars a civil servant from being a member of the Office for Students. It provides a forum for getting feedback from students about the institutes, courses and teachers. It provides for equity of access and student support to students from economically disadvantaged sections. It mandates the institutions to meet “student protection requirements” in the event of closure of a course or the institution as a whole.It also mandates them to provide data and publish information to enable students to make informed choices at the time of admission. It drives institutions to improve the quality of teaching and ensures that they deliver higher education that is value for money. Thus the Office for Students has placed students at the centre of all its activities. The UK Research and Innovation provides a single forum for funding research in multiple disciplines including funds for cross-cutting research.

It is clear from the foregoing discussion that the Higher Education Commission of India Bill is not a game changer but a wrecking ball as far as India’s higher education is concerned. What is needed is not repeal of the UGC Act, 1956 but its amendment to give greater autonomy for good higher education institutions and more regulatory bite to tackle the errant private institutes. The Centre should significantly increase the public funding for teaching and research, and take steps to ensure equity of access to higher education for students from socially and economically disadvantaged families. The shoddily drafted Higher Education Commission of India Bill must be withdrawn.

K Ashok Vardhan Shetty is a retired IAS officer, a former Registrar of University of Madras and a former Vice Chancellor of the Indian Maritime University, Chennai.