A Surgical Strike at the UGC's Independence?

Education should serve society and all those who belong to it. The question is only about whether this is best done through explicit instructions regarding “questions of policy relating to national purposes” or by other means.

Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) directed universities and higher education institutions it oversees to observe September 29 as ‘Surgical Strike Day’. The UGC notice provides some guidelines for how this day should be celebrated. It suggests that talks by ex-servicemen, special parades, visits to exhibitions and the mailing of greeting cards be organised to pledge support to the armed forces. It adds that these activities “will also provide photo-ops for the students.”

Although the letter does not say that any of these activities are compulsory, it does mention that “the activities undertaken may be uploaded on the University Activity Monitoring Portal on UGC website”. The fact that these instructions are purely advisory has been stressed by Prakash Javadekar, the Union minister for human resource development. His clarification followed some public criticism after the UGC notice was covered in the press.

Javadekar went on to say, “This is not politics but patriotism.”

Putting the issue of politics versus patriotism aside, the following question arises: Why should a governmental commission, a regulator of higher education with the fundamental responsibility to fund and oversee the operations of universities in India, reduce itself to suggesting “photo-ops for students”?

The UGC Act 1956 sets out the general principles of the body’s functioning. This act stipulates that “the general duty of the Commission is to take, in consultation with the Universities or other bodies concerned, all such steps as it may think fit for the promotion and co-ordination of University education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities.” As its own website puts it, the UGC “… has the unique distinction of being the only grant-giving agency in the country which has been vested with two responsibilities: that of providing funds and that of coordination, determination and maintenance of standards in institutions of higher education”.

Directing, or even advising, universities and higher education institutions across the country to observe a ‘Surgical Strike Day’ is certainly not part of the UGC’s original mandate. However, a specific point where the UGC Act deviates from defining the responsibility of the UGC as a pure regulator and funder of higher education is in chapter 4 (miscellaneous) of the UGC Act. To quote: ”In the discharge of its functions under this Act, the Commission shall be guided by such directions on questions of policy relating to national purposes as may be given to it by the Central Government”.

This clause is followed by the statement that “If any dispute arises between the Central Government and the Commission as to whether a question is or is not a question of policy relating to national purposes, the decision of the Central Government shall be final.” This effectively circumscribes the UGC in its ability to push back against government instructions it receives.

Whether commemorating a day of cross-border military strikes should be part of national policy in the first place is another matter.

This is important because higher education in India is not in good shape. A large fraction of our population has never entered an institution of higher learning.  Those who do often receive education of indifferent quality, leaving them essentially unemployable. Many of our universities have the added responsibility of certifying and monitoring the performance of a large number of affiliated colleges, leading to an increasing administrative burden. Corruption in appointments, the leakage of examination papers, misconduct in assessments and malpractice in admissions are regularly reported.

What appears in the news is likely only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) recently invited suggestions and comments from stakeholders on the Repeal of UGC Act, or The Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act, 2018. The new law is intended to replace the UGC Act 1956, shifting its powers to distribute grants to the MHRD. The proposed HECI act has some positives: it allows for learning-outcome-based standards, stresses employability, mentions accreditation systems, mandates the promotion of research, allows performance-based incentives, provides for autonomy at various levels and encourages self-regulation.

But these come at a price: that of more centralised control. Indeed, the wording of article 25 of the draft HECI Act, which speaks of the Commission being “… guided by such directions on questions of policy relating to national purposes as may be given to it by the Central Government”, is practically identical to the wording in chapter 4 (miscellaneous) of the UGC Act of 1956.

What do other nations do to regulate higher education? The US, in contrast to most countries around the world, performs its regulatory function with a light touch. Higher education in the US has been moving actively towards reducing existing regulations. In a 2015 report, the bipartisan Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education concluded, “many rules are unnecessarily voluminous and too often ambiguous… the cost of compliance has become unreasonable.” Among the guiding principles formulated by the task force is that “Regulations should be related to education, student safety, and stewardship of federal funds”.

Despite this relatively low level of government control, as a recent report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine notes, the “US graduate education system has served the nation extremely well”.

The regulatory framework for higher education in the UK is managed by the Office for Students (OfS) set up by the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017. The OfS lists a few primary objectives for its primary stakeholders. They ensure that students are supported to access, succeed in and progress from, higher education; that they receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure; that they are able to progress into employment or further study, and that their qualifications hold their value over time, and receive value for money. Crucially, the OfS is independent from government and from providers.

As a measure of the success of limiting the role for government interference in higher education, it can be noted that the US and the UK share between them nine of the first ten places in the QS World University Rankings 2019.

The federal government of Brazil regulates higher education through its Ministry of Education. Large-scale educational reforms within the past two decades have considerably increased government investment in higher education, to provide funding for places in private and public universities, including for both face-to-face and vocational education. But there is almost no direct intrusion of politics into the Brazilian higher educational system, although there is a sense that increased privatisation, a push towards internationalisation and a more managerial approach are favoured while gross inequality of opportunity remains to be addressed, much as in India.

Thus, whether in the US, the UK or in major parts of the developing world, it would seem governments understand that political interference in higher education is simply not good policy.

These global trends underline that for higher education regulation to be at all effective, it  should reflect broad societal goals rather than specific political ends. Education should serve society and all those who belong to it. The question is only about whether this is best done through explicit instructions regarding “questions of policy relating to national purposes” or by other means.

The independence of higher education regulators to decide, among other things, whether considerations of patriotism should at all enter their decision-making lies at the heart of this question.

Gautam I. Menon is a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The views expressed are his own.