'Proposed University Reform Will Lead to More Political Interference'

The move to replace the UGC with the HECI will "expose higher education in the country to ideological manipulation, loss of much needed diversity as well as academic standards, fee hikes, and profiteering," say critics.

New Delhi: Responses to the government’s contentious proposal to scrap the University Grants Commission have begun consolidating.

Last month, the Union human resources development ministry had announced that it was planning to float a new legislation which would replace the UGC with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI).

The minister in charge, Prakash Javadekar, tweeted that his ministry was welcoming comments and suggestions till 5 pm on July 7.

Currently, the UGC has been set up by an act of parliament. This would have to be repealed and this new legislation enacted, in order for the government’s proposal to take shape.

The new HECI will have financial powers to fund or de-fund educational institutions. It also claims to be looking at improving academic quality by focusing on learning outcomes, evaluating the academic performance of institutions and promoting educational technology. All institutions currently approved by the UGC will have three years to comply with new academic standards set out by the HECI.

Javadekar said that the new Act was based on the idea of minimum government, maximum governance.

A website called betteruniversities.in has been collating public responses to recent issues pertaining to the UGC. In February, they collected and sent responses to the UGC regarding changes to appointment and service conditions of various staff.

They have now collated responses to the proposal to replace the UGC with the HECI and formulated specific critiques of at least 20 sections of the new proposed legislation on a publically available Google document.

Their website says: “We believe that by withdrawing financial powers from the regulator and handing them over to the central government, and by giving the HECI unilateral and absolute powers to authorise, monitor, shut down, and recommend disinvestment from Higher Educational Institutions, the Draft Bill will expose higher education in the country to ideological manipulation, loss of much needed diversity as well as academic standards, fee hikes, and profiteering.”

They add that it will contribute to greater marginalisation of socially oppressed sections.

They say this issue is urgent and important because it could be the “end of affordable public higher education in India, affecting millions of students.” Their response reminds the government that India’s investments in education have been made through tax money over seven decades and thus cannot be meddled with for political gain.

They are asking stakeholders to send their responses to Javadekar in time for the 7 July deadline.

More political interference and less representation of the university community

An important criticism raised by betteruniversities.in is on Section 3.6 of the new draft Act. The new Act proposes that the chairperson of the HECI can be selected from among functionaries of Central and state governments. However, previously the chairman of the UGC was “chosen from among persons who are not officers of the government or any state government” in order to keep its independence. The new legislation even allows the chairperson to be an “overseas citizen of India.”

Section 12.1 says that the secretary to the commission will be an officer of the rank of joint secretary or above. “All policy-correspondence as well as issues of funding will be incumbent on the pleasures of the government. This corrodes the very ground of legislative autonomy that justified the existence of the University Grants Commission,” says betteruniversities.in.

Section 3.8 of the new draft act indicates that teachers are being pushed out of the new HECI. “The representation of teachers has been ominously reduced to just two,” says the response prepared by betteruniversities.in. This is even though the total number of members of the new commission has gone up from ten to 12. The UGC however has a minimum of four teachers in the ten-member council. “We find it shocking that university professors — the only group qualified to deliver in this respect — have been so purposely reduced to an ineffectual minority,” says their critique.

Quality and autonomy will take a hit

Betteruniversities.in also takes on Section 15.3(a) of the act which speaks about specifying “learning outcomes”.

“To argue that SC/ST/OBC students, with their histories of deprivation, must achieve the same “learning outcomes” as those coming from metropolitan contexts of privilege is to argue against the very logic of reservation in public institutions. This will eventually push the frontiers of higher education towards a standard quantum of ‘merit’ (measured as learning outcome), thus forcing those who cannot live up to it to either drop out of universities or fail miserably,” says their response to the government.

They also note a fine difference: The UGC was empowered to set “minimum” standards whereas the HECI has been empowered to lay down “standards”. The critique says that this too hits at the idea of institutional autonomy as “the substantive struggle of universities with the UGC has been in the last few years, to ensure that its minimum regulations do not achieve the status of maximality”.

They are also concerned with Section 15.3(d) which could make funding for research, beholden to political priorities of parties in power, and “subject to ideological manipulation.”

Section 15.3(g) and 15.4(f) grants the HECI the power to “order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards without affecting the student’s interest or fail to get accreditation within the specified period”. The critique cautions against this power, as there are only a limited number of higher education institutions in India and “arbitrary closure or threats” can deprive students of the limited education that they can access.

The critique says that the new Bill is being posed as one that will give autonomy to higher education institutions but its actual draft sections disclose a consolidation of extraordinary powers with the HECI and the Central government itself, and without any checks and balances.