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HECI: Gateway to meddling

Date: 28 June 2018: The Government of India announces a draft Bill titled “Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Act 2018.”
Implication: It is a blatant attempt at depriving the States of their role in higher education. Mark it; before 1976, Higher Education was a state subject. That year by the 42nd amendment to our Constitution, it was made a concurrent subject. And now, in 2018, the NDA Government is trying to make it a Central matter without a semblance of constitutional amendment.

The Commission shall consist of a Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and twelve other Members to be appointed by the Central government. The Chairperson shall be selected by a Search-Cum-Selection Committee, consisting of Cabinet Secretary (Chairperson), Secretary Higher Education and three other eminent academicians to be co-opted as members. A look at the composition of the twelve members of the commission shows that HECI will have only five members outside the official system.

The Commission shall ensure maintenance of academic standards in the higher education system in the country by
• Specifying learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education
• Laying down standards of teaching /assessment/research or any aspect that has a bearing on outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development
• Evaluating the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions, by monitoring the performance on criteria laid down
• Promoting research in HEIs and coordinate with government for the provision of adequate funding for research
• Putting in place a robust accreditation system or evaluation of academic outcomes by various HEIs
• Providing for the mentoring of institutions found to be failing in maintaining the required academic standards
• Ordering 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 bill proposes a performance evaluation of the HEIs and severe penalties for non-performance. Past experiences with performance evaluation for accreditation or affiliations show that there are inherent tendencies on manipulation of data. It would require extraordinary efforts to put in place a credible system of assessment before the prescribed punishments can be implemented.

The Minister HRD stated that the HECI s based on the principles of minimum government and maximum governance, separation of grant functions and the end of inspection raj. The structure and composition of the governing body of the HECI show that there is bound to be more bureaucrats in decision-making processes than academics. The powers and functions of the HECI trivialize the concept of autonomy.

SCOPE FOR INSPECTION RAJ

The draft bill vests the power to create new universities in the HECI by a set of criteria and eliminates the need for legislation. In early July, Tamil Nadu government created two private universities, SSN University and Sai University, by separate acts of the state legislature. Such liberties will no longer be possible if the HECI becomes a reality. The Bill empowers the HECI to confer degree-giving power on both universities and colleges based on specified norms thereby paving the way for the emergence of degree-granting colleges. This will result in the proliferation of degrees.

By this bill, HECI can bestow affiliating power on both public and private universities. This is new. Private universities will start affiliating colleges with questionable credentials. There is a provision in the bill for enforcing the rules by transparent self-disclosure by higher education institutions (HEIs). Any falsification will attract punitive action. Considering those are nearly 800 university-level institutions and another 40,000 colleges, it will be a herculean task to keep track of adherence to self-disclosures.

Also, under the new terms of engagement, universities will have to take the concurrence of the HECI before offering a course. This restricts the freedom of a university’s Board of Studies. The draft Bill states: “If any university grants affiliation in respect of any course of study to any institution in contravention of the provisions of the regulation/rule/recommendation, the Commission may impose a penalty on such university and/ or on such Institution which may include fine, or withdrawal of power to grant degrees/diplomas or direction to cease operations.” This is a clear case of academic functions being usurped through legislation.
With its mandate of improving academic standards with a specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions, and training of teachers, the HECI is likely to overregulate and micromanage universities.

UNCERTAIN FUNDING

The issues concerning the financing of the HEIs remain murky. In the initial version of the bill, there was no indication about funding aspects. Later during discussions on 23 July 2018, in the Lok Sabha MHRD Minister Javadekar, said that two commissions will soon replace the UGC – one for providing grants and the other for carrying out regulatory functions.

It is still not clear as what kind of grants will be given. The initial fear expressed by many educationists was that the funding functions of UGC would be taken over by the MHRD leading to bureaucratic and political control over HEIs. Yet another uncertainty is the relationship of this body with the Higher Education Funding Agency. HEFA as non-banking financial institution is expected to mobilize 1-lakh crore rupees through banks and CSRs and private subscriptions thus leading to private interference in university affairs. The funds from HEPA will be available to HEIs as loans for development activities. The interest will be borne by the MHRD while the loans will have to be repaid in installments by the HEIs. How will the institutions earn money to repay the loan is an open question. The state institutions will be in a peculiar position since they cannot borrow from HEFA without the approval of the state governments, which is not easy to come by.

INEFFECTIVE REPRESENTATION OF STATES

The representation of the states in the HECI is perfunctory. The Bill gives a direct voice to the representatives of the states through the Advisory Council. This is a joke. The HRD Minister chairs the Advisory Council with the representatives of State Councils for Higher Education (SCHEs) as its members. This body will meet once in six months, identify issues for coordination. In case of disagreement, the decision of the Central government is final. It is not difficult to see the worthlessness of this arrangement for giving voice to the states in a matter relating to higher education.

MILD PROTESTS FROM STATES

Amazingly state governments and the opposition parties have not protested against the erosion of the rights of the states. For instance, a mild letter has gone from the chief minister of Tamil Nadu on 14 July expressing ‘strong’ opposition to the draft Bill on HECI. Addressing Prime Minister, the letter said that the existing institutional arrangement of the University Grants Commission (UGC) with regulatory and financial powers is functioning well and that there is no need to disband the UGC and replace it with a Higher Education Commission, with only regulatory powers. The letter also mentions that based on the Tamil Nadu experiences on sanctions of funds by the various Central ministries, there is a firm reservation and apprehensions regarding the transfer of funding powers to MHRD.

AN UNCLEAR RATIONALE FOR ABOLISHING UGC

Since independence, the nation has proceeded on the belief that the state must support higher learning and the universities require autonomy from external pressures. The proposed HECI fails to address the reasons for the ineffectiveness of UGC. On the other hand, it incorporates many of the functions of the UGC other than the financial. Besides, it adds many draconian powers. The Bill is in favour of greater direct external control over universities. It dispenses with even the semblance of financial autonomy for universities and HEIs. It is well known that the MHRD could not dominate the UGC under the present structure. UGC has maintained its stature under eminent chairmen. The only way to take over its role by MHRD is to abolish it.

It is somewhat amusing that the committee established MHRD for preparing new education policy is about to submit its report, the ministry has gone ahead and brought out this bill.

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