The Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Act 2018 is likely to be presented in the Parliament in the upcoming monsoon session. This draft bill prepared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) will scrap the existing UGC Act and create a new commission. The new commission to be established through this Act will not have the grant-making authority and will focus more on the so-called quality outcome at universities and colleges.
While UGC, established under UGC Act 1956, served the purpose for nearly 62 years, the government’s plan to form a new commission rather than introducing corrective measures to improve the shortcomings of UGC is highly questionable. By desiccating the UGC’s grant-disbursal powers and locating them solely in the Central government hands, the proposed commission will become a means of ensuring political compliance from universities as the pre-condition for public funding. This produces the risk of a punitive disciplining of institutions through a deliberate withdrawal of funds by the government at will on the slightest pretext.
Moreover, 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 authorize, monitor, shut down, and recommend disinvestment from Higher Educational Institutions (henceforth HEIs), the draft bill will expose higher education in the country to political manipulation, loss of much-needed diversity as well as academic standards, fee hikes, and profiteering. It will also contribute to a greater marginalization and disadvantage of millions of students, mainly from the socially oppressed and economically backward sections.
Successive governments have failed to provide accessible, standardised and equal educational opportunities to a large mass of economically and socially deprived students. Students from poor and deprived backgrounds have continuously demanded equality among higher education institutions, but the new bill has failed to address the concerns of the masses. Instead, the new bill focuses more on ‘quality outcome’ of educational institutions, while the aspirations of equality of institutions, more HEIs, equal educational opportunities have been completely disregarded.
The HECI bill also comes under serious scrutiny considering the policies introduced by the government in recent years. Union Government, compared to the earlier period, has reduced education budget to 3.8% in 2017-18 which was 4.57% of the total budget in 2013-14. Moreover, education ministry under the BJP regime has actively promoted autonomy to premier universities and colleges. Top universities like JNU, BHU, DU and colleges like LSR, SRCC, and St Stephens that are funded by the centre could get full operational autonomy, even in financial matters. These institutions then would have to raise funds, the easiest way for which would be through imposing high fees on students. Thus, the proposed Act mandates the HECI to promote autonomy in higher education institutions, fulfilling the government’s agenda of privatisation.
The UGC currently serves the dual function of standardising higher education and giving grants to public-funded institutions. UGC is responsible for promoting and coordinating university education, determining and maintaining standards of teaching, examination, and research in universities and framing regulations on minimum standards of education. The proposed HECI will not have the responsibility of giving grants, which will be disbursed by the HRD ministry. The HECI will serve only as the academic regulator. Thus, the scrapping of UGC will allow an increased and direct interference by the Government. It will hold the ultimate authority over the regulation of grants and funding powers, which will now be in the hands of HRD ministry.
The control will be maintained by executive orders of the ministry, under the sole discretion and intention of the government. 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. Hence, the principle of non-intervention that was enshrined in the letter of the UGC Act, as an acknowledgement of the need for autonomy in educational policy-making, is completely discarded by the proposed HECI Bill. Most significantly, not only does the HECI Bill violate the very idea of autonomy that the UGC was modeled on, but it also goes a long way in insisting that universities and other higher education institutions be reduced to organs of the government. The presence of a government-controlled advisory organ in the Commission, headed by the HRD Minister, puts all pretensions of legislative autonomy to rest and structurally subordinates higher education to the political intentions of the government of the day.
Hence, the HRD ministry should immediately stop the process of implementation/discussion on HECI (Repeal of UGC Act) Bill, 2018 and take concrete steps towards establishing inclusive policies focused on the accessibility of education and equality among various state and central education institutions. Also, rather than dismantling the University Grants Commission, the attempt must be to strengthen its consultative and enabling architecture, in such a way that promotes access, diversity, and quality. And the focus of attention should be on taking necessary corrective measures by consultation with the stakeholders to improve the health of the UGC.