Dr Manasvi M Kamat
In a significant development towards reforming higher education, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has announced a complete overhaul of the apex regulator – the University Grants Commission, repeal of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act, 1951 and to bring in a new legislation to set up Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). Accordingly, the draft law was uploaded on the official website of MHRD and was available for comments and suggestions till July 7.
It is understood from the draft that the HECI has separated the funding and academic functions earlier looked after by the UGC.
The parent legislation of the UGC will now be repealed to make a place for a new comprehensive regulation enabling establishment of the Higher Education Commission.
The new body will now exclusively focus on setting up and implementing academic standards rather than on giving grants, with the funding function of the UGC being taken over by the MHRD.
The thrust area of the commission would be to downsize over-governance of institutions and for the first time, bring in disclosure-based regulatory regime with powers of enforcement of regulations.
It seems that the HECI will have more teeth with backing of penal powers to order closure of institutes that violate set norms.
The commission would also be able to impose fines and prosecute the offenders in higher education system as per procedures laid down under the Criminal Procedure Code including that of imprisonment for a term which may extend up to three years where necessary.
Over a decade ago, the National Knowledge Commission had recommended constituting an independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (RAHE) to replace all the existing regulatory bodies in higher education including the UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
Subsequently, Prof Yashpal Committee on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in June 2009 also advocated a single apex regulatory body like the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) by converging multiple regulatory agencies in the field of higher education under the MHRD including the UGC and AICTE.
As soon as the present government assumed power, the UGC Review Committee was constituted in 2014 headed by Prof Hari Gautam. This committee recommended that UGC be scrapped and should be replaced with an apex institution titled National Higher Education Authority (NHEA).
This report was never put in public domain for suggestions, was shelved by the MHRD and subsequently forwarded to the NITI Aayog only to be put in cold storage.
The Prof Hari Gautam Committee report had plainly put forth that the UGC does not have the sufficient number of personnel of necessary quality to be a useful regulatory force in the higher education sector.
Incidentally, HRD Ministry headed by Irani chose to differ with the committee over the issue of scrapping the UGC.
In the Budget 2017 speech, the PM had announced that the UGC shall be reformed with NITI Aayog pitching for a Higher Education and Empowerment Regulatory Authority (HEERA) by bringing institutions like the UGC, AICTE, the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) and the Distance Education Council under the MHRD.
This idea supported the belief that the approval and regulatory process of the UGC is based on meeting infrastructure requirements and does not necessarily measure the quality of the programmes.
The basic intention of this move was, with an aim of eliminating overlaps in jurisdiction between AICTE and UGC, to remove irrelevant regulatory provisions and bring transparency and uniformity in higher education.
It was proposed to introduce the bill for HEERA in July 2017 session of Parliament to get its nod, but then the unusual happened.
Taking a diverging stand on the issue in August 2017, the Rajya Sabha was informed by M N Pandey, Minister of State for HRD that the government is not considering any merger of the UGC and the AICTE into a single higher education regulator.
Array of Confusions
From a direct contravention to the stand taken by Irani in 2014 of not scrapping the UGC and also in contradiction to the budget announcement in 2017 of subsuming all higher education bodies including AICTE and UGC under one authority, the government has decided to go ahead with scrapping the UGC and this time but without subsuming the AICTE and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) as was originally envisaged.
Though the HCEI aims at downsizing over governance of institutions as it is being said, it not understandable as to why the Bar Council of India and Council of Architecture have been kept out of the purview of HECI when surprisingly it is said that the HECI will override the Architects Act.
It is proposed that the HECI will set standards for opening and closure of institutes, provide greater flexibility and autonomy to institutes and lay standards for appointments to critical leadership positions at institutions across spectrums and even for those falling under state laws.
This is no new change any way. All this was already within the ambit of UGC powers.
Further, the current UGC statutes are also applicable across various states as the state governments have almost no mandate to restrict and contain these laid standards as per the recent ruling of the Supreme Court.
It is also not understood as to how the new HCEI will offer better flexibility over the existing system. Further, the proposal of the financial grant to be taken over by the MHRD itself is also seen with a lens of skeptism by teacher’s bodies over the country.
The draft HECI Act is now expected to be piloted in Parliament in the monsoon session and will probably pave the way for the government to follow reforms in AICTE and NCTE.
Considering that the Modi government’s term is coming to an end within a year, it would be intriguing to see how all of these expectations would come true.
(The author is PhD in Economics and works as associate professor at Goa Multi-Faculty College, Dharbandora)