Replacing the UGC won’t solve India’s problems

The decade-long uncertainty about the future of the University Grants Commission (UGC) may soon end. The Human Resource Development Ministry has released a draft bill to dissolve the UGC and set up the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) in its place.

Academicians, stakeholders and citizens were requested to give their views on the draft bill by 7 July. Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Prakash Javadekar has stated that the draft bill will be presented in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.

He reiterated that the dissolving of the UGC and establishment of HECI is an attempt by the Modi government to ensure good governance and is based on the philosophy of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’.

Through a press communiqué released by the HRD Ministry, it has been suggested that HECI will not have the power to distribute grants to universities. This task will instead be performed by the HRD Ministry. Setting up HECI is also expected to curb red tape and reinstate transparency in higher education.

In the proposed HECI draft bill it has been stated that the new regulatory body will be responsible for improving the quality of higher education. HECI has also been given the prerogative to declare the closure of fake and poor quality institutions.

HECI will prepare new regulations for the opening and closure of institutions. CEOs and management at institutions which fall foul of the regulations will be subject to legal action, and a penalty of three years’ imprisonment will be imposed as punishment for violation of HECI regulations.

Academics’ concerns

There is clear anxiety among academics in relation to the HECI draft act. Some valid concerns are:
  • • Will HECI really be able to fulfil the Modi government’s desire for ‘minimum government, maximum governance’?

  • • By increasing the power for penalising defaulting higher education institutions, could HECI not lead to the return of ‘Inspector Raj’ (a reference to a period of over-regulation or supervision by government in non-essential areas)?

  • • To date the UGC has had the authority to issue grants to institutions and universities that impart a good education. However, in the wake of this power being granted to the HRD Ministry as per the new draft act, will the UGC’s replacement be relegated to the status of being just a ‘knowledge dissemination’ body?

  • • Will the 350-odd staff and officers in the UGC be reinstated in HECI according to their present service terms? Will the changed name of the agency transform how they work overnight?

Changing demographics

India currently has 13 regulatory bodies that take care of the governance of the various types of educational institutions. Out of these 13, the UGC, the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Teacher Education are governed by the HRD Ministry.

Over the past two decades higher education in India has witnessed tremendous expansion. At a global level, after China, India now has the largest number of students pursuing higher education. India has become a force to be reckoned with in higher education and has seen annual enrolment of around 35 million students studying in 895 universities and 42,338 colleges.

Across the globe, India enrols more than a quarter of the world’s students. There is expected to be a meteoric rise in these figures over the next decade. As per current trends, there seems to be a strong probability that the present gross enrolment ratio, which is 25.2% this year, will rise to 50% by 2030.

Unfortunately, over the past decade the UGC has been mired in several controversies and has received a lot of flak for its decisions.

The UGC was constituted by an act of parliament in 1956 with the main aim of setting norms and standards for universities at a national level. The curators of the Indian constitution and its parliament as well as regulatory agencies like the UGC were highly influenced by the United Kingdom’s Westminster model and its institutions.

Based on the British model and its University Grants Committee, the UGC functioned under the aegis of the Ministry of Finance and was responsible for issuing funds or grants to community colleges and universities. Britain dissolved its University Grants Committee in 1989 and established two separate organisations named the Higher Education Funding Council and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

In 1956, when the UGC was established in India, only about 20 universities and 500 colleges existed, with approximately 15,000 professors and students.

The 62-year-old framework of the UGC seems to be inadequate to address the challenges for education in India in the 21st century.

Presently, approximately 25% of youth in the 18-24 year-old age group are enrolling in higher education. If we envision a doubling in the gross enrolment ratio by 2030, then India’s educational infrastructure will need to be able to support many millions of additional students. There is concern that HECI will not be able to achieve this by 2030.

The UGC is currently facing another paradoxical situation. The original framework was meant for funding government colleges and universities. However, in the current scenario it will be a huge challenge for HECI to ascertain quality norms in 895 universities and 42,338 colleges.

The mushrooming of regulatory agencies in India is one of the prime reasons for India’s problems in maintaining the quality of its higher education institutions. In the National Policy on Education of 1986 and Programme of Action of 1992, it was recommended that a National Higher Education Council should be established. Unfortunately, the recommendation was ignored.

Under the leadership of Sam Pitroda, the National Knowledge Commission was founded in 2007, which again raised the issue of having an autonomous regulatory body for higher education and it recommended the establishment of the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education.

In 2009, the Yash Pal Committee Report on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education also recommended the constitution of a national commission by merging the then more than a dozen higher education regulatory agencies.

In a way, the role and identity of the UGC has been questioned several times in recent decades. Over the last 30 years, it has been suggested that one strong regulatory body be set up to govern higher education in India.

The announcement that HECI will take over from the UGC on the eve of the general election in 2019 is certainly likely to improve the prospects of the current National Democratic Alliance government.

Crisis in higher education

In all likelihood, the HECI bill will be passed. However, higher education in India is in the grip of a deep-rooted crisis that has emerged due to a lack of infrastructure and the absence of full autonomy for higher education institutions.

Government support for higher education is less than 1.5% of gross domestic product. Another critical factor that contributes to the poor quality of higher education is that the management and owners of many higher education institutions are more influenced by politicians than academicians. There is too much interference by politicians in the day-to-day running of universities and colleges.

Higher education in India is in urgent need of a complete revamp and needs to be completely reimagined. It is like one of those heritage site temples that have crumbled over the years because of long-term neglect. These temples do not need cosmetic changes and beautification from the outside, but reconstruction and restoration from the inside out.

Only strong political will and effort can resolve the enormous crisis that is facing Indian higher education today.

Dr Harivansh Chaturvedi is executive president of the Education Promotion Society for India and director of the Birla Institute of Management Technology or BIMTECH. The Education Promotion Society for India is a pan-India body representing more than 300 universities and 700 plus colleges.