Revamp of university regulatory body faces oppositionmore autonomy faces opposition from parties in parliament and criticism that it would increase government control and politicisation of education.
The Congress Party, India’s main opposition party, opposes the bill that would replace the UGC with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) and could stall its passage through parliament. The party’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), said the proposals would increase political interference in academia and promote mediocrity not excellence in universities.
It says any moves to increase the autonomy of institutions under the bill will be undermined by increased central government control.
Currently the government cannot remove the UGC chairman, vice-chair or any of its 10 members, but the new draft bill will give the government the power remove HECI members on specific grounds.
The bill also proposes that an official of the federal or state government can become HECI chairperson. Government officers have previously not been allowed to chair the UGC in order to maintain its independence.
NSUI leader Ruchi Gupta, said: “The structure of the commission [HECI] will have a heavy presence of government functionaries and its advisory council will be headed by the minister of human resource development, which means the minister can give advice to the HECI chairman. There is no such advisory council in the UGC.”
Another major point of contention is the provision that HECI would focus solely on academic matters, while university grant funding would come under the ministry of human resource development. Currently the UGC disburses grants to universities.
One former minister of finance, Yashwant Sinha, who recently left the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said “distinguished vice-chancellors will be forced to sit outside the rooms of under secretaries and deputy secretaries” of the human resource development ministry in order to get a grant.
Opposition from regional parties
The centralisation of funding power under the ministry was also an assault on the remit of states to fund higher education, some parliamentarians have said.
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI-M, which has nine members in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, said: “We will form a coalition with all democratic secular parties to oppose the bill.” CPI-M is also part of the ruling alliances in the states of Kerala and West Bengal.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPI-M said the move to change the UGC would have far-reaching repercussions for higher education.
The party and other regional parties have said the replacement of the UGC would dry up funds for public institutions while private ones would be promoted. “The government wants to commercialise the education sector and restrict the role of states,” Vijayan said.
Yechury wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late July saying the proposed bill would “have a major adverse impact on higher education in the country in general and public-funded higher education in particular”.
He said that although the concern over “quality” is repeated several times by the government, “equity and access” do not even find a passing mention. “There is not even token representation of representatives from disadvantaged sections like women, dalits, adivasis (aborigines), backward castes, minorities or persons with disabilities in the composition of the commission, while the industry and commercial sector has been singled out as a stakeholder and included in the composition.”
Apart from the CPI-M and the Congress Party, some regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) in Northern India, and parties in South India, such as the centre-left Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), have come out against the proposals to replace the UGC.
MK Stalin, a senior DMK leader in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state said higher education institutions in states not ruled by the BJP fear discrimination by the BJP-led government at the Centre (central government) in allocation of higher education funds.
Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, however, insists the states' rights over higher education will not be infringed upon and in response to CPI-M concerns, ministry officials said a clause will be inserted to ensure HECI will work towards the advancement of socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
Javadekar has had to backtrack in other areas to pacify critics and has now said grant-awarding powers would be given to a body of experts “working in a transparent, merit-based approach through an” ICT (information and communications technology) enabled platform.
The ministry says it has amended the draft bill to address many of the concerns raised during the consultation period which ended on 20 July. According to a ministry statement, over 8,000 suggestions and comments were received by the July deadline from members of parliament, state governments, academics, teachers’ unions, chambers of commerce and students.
But the amendments have not fully convinced the academics. Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) President Rajib Ray said some changes had been made in the revised draft after the initial consultation response, but said it is “being done in a hasty way and a proper procedure has not been followed”.
Academics have said they need to be convinced on how the new body will be different from the UGC and why it is required when the current system can be improved.
According to reports, parliamentary opposition could stall the bill which was initially due to be presented during the current parliamentary session. It may not be presented to parliament before 2019, officials said.