The Death of UGC

Saurabh Singh
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Why India needs a new higher education regulator

LAST YEAR WHEN the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry proposed the names of three prospective candidates for the role of chairperson, University Grants Commission (UGC), Prime Minister Narendra Modi is understood to have rejected all three because he did not consider any of them weighty enough to head the apex regulator for higher education in India. Two months later, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), chaired by the Prime Minister, approved the appointment of DP Singh, the then National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) chairman, as UGC head. Six months down the line, the Modi Government is all set to overhaul the Commission.

The HRD Ministry’s proposal to scrap the UGC for a new body to be called the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), and to strip it of its funding role and turn its focus on setting academic standards, has sparked a heated debate. On one hand, the proposed Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018 (Repeal of the University Grants Commission Act) , is being hailed as a ‘landmark reform’ aimed at strengthening the apex body by separating—for the first time—its grant-related functions from its academic benchmarking-cum-mentoring role. Equally, however, there are concerns of possible political interference with the HRD Ministry’s appropriation of the role of funding universities.

When the UGC began working from a modest office in Mandi House in the heart of the capital over six decades ago, there were about 30 universities on its grants list. Today, the list is bursting at the seams, with nearly 900 universities and over 30,000 colleges. “Reforms have been on the cards for a long time. The UGC is burdened with too many tasks. As long as the process of the Government’s direct funding of universities is robust, the proposed reform is not a bad idea. The UGC may perhaps focus on suggesting benchmarks for quality education, assessing and maintaining standards of education,” says scientist Virander Singh Chauhan, a UGC member and acting chairperson of the regulator from April to December 2017. With the mushrooming of private colleges, which now account for 67 per cent of the total students pursuing higher education, the UGC’s workload has increased manifold.

Going by the Government’s draft Bill, the proposed HECI is ‘tasked with the mandate of improving academic standards with specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions, mentoring of institutions, training of teachers and promoting the use of educational technology, etc.’ Its functions will include specifying norms for the grant of authorisation to an institute, assessing the academic quality of universities for affiliation, grant of autonomy, incentivisation, fixing of fees and overseeing appointments to key posts in institutes. The Government note specifies that the grant functions would henceforth be undertaken by the Ministry and that the HECI would focus only on academic matters.

Dr Kavita A Sharma, president of South Asian University, Delhi, and author of Sixty Years of the University Grants Commission: Establishment, Growth and Evolution (2013), agrees that the UGC needs to focus on academic matters. “The move to delink the grant function of the UGC from the academic one of maintenance of standards in higher education is long overdue. The UGC in India was fashioned after the UGC in the UK. But in the UK, the two functions were separated long ago. It is time we did it too,” says Sharma.

Sharma’s book traces the evolution of higher education in India to 1854. ‘Higher education in India was so chaotic and had such poor standards that Lord Curzon had to turn his personal attention to its reform at the beginning of the 20th century. For this purpose, he appointed an Indian Universities Commission on January 27, 1902, to inquire into the conditions and prospects of the universities established in British India and to consider and report on proposals for improving their constitution and working,’ she writes.

The proposed regulator will have punitive powers to enforce compliance with benchmarked academic standards

It was only six years after India got Independence that the UGC was inaugurated by Abul Kalam Azad, then Minister of Education, Natural Resources and Scientific Research of the Congress Government. In 1956, it was formally established as a statutory body through an Act of Parliament. The UGC was tasked with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in university education in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had then noted that the establishment of the Commission marked a revolutionary step in the field of higher education in the country. He urged the UGC to keep pace with the changing times and to suggest major policy decisions to help produce qualified graduates.

AFTER SEVERAL COMMITTEES, recommendations and attempts by governments to redefine the role of the UGC over the past decades, it is finally taking a crucial turn. The proposed new body will only specify standards for the grant of authorisation to a university or higher educational institution, thereby deciding if it is fit to commence academic operations. As per the draft, the new regulator replacing UGC will have powers to enforce compliance with benchmarked academic standards, with non-compliance resulting in fines or even jail sentences.

Sharma argues that for the new system to work, academics would have to be given bigger roles and a greater say in the regulatory body than at present. “The UGC was too involved in day-to-day issues and tried to control them through the threat of withholding grants. This stifled innovation at universities and everything is in a straitjacket,” she says. “Academic administrators often do not assert the autonomy of the university and easily succumb to pressure. They will also have to find the spine,” she adds.

The HRD Ministry already directly funds technical institutes, like the IITs, NITs, IISERs and AICTE, indicating that there is already a well-oiled machinery in place to do so. However, it is likely minuscule in comparison to the numbers that the UGC deals with. In 2016-17, the UGC spent around Rs 10,350 crore on grants and subsidies. One academic, on condition of anonymity, claims the Ministry would need an entire department to take on the UGC’s ‘grants’ function.

The draft Bill was made public on June 27th, and HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar has appealed to all stakeholders to send in their suggestions by July 7th, 10 days before the Monsoon Session of the Parliament begins. Economist and former chairman of UGC Sukhadeo Thorat says that such an important proposal requires careful and wider consultation, involving more time and caution. “This being an important Act, it should be discussed with all stakeholders—Central, state and private universities, all state governments and others—because this is the first time that such a move is being proposed. It should be done carefully. Feedback cannot be taken online. The Ministry should talk to everyone concerned,” he says.

In Thorat’s tenure as UGC Chairman (2006-2011), the UPA Government mulled scrapping multiple councils and replacing them with a single authority, following the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission. According to sources, there were plans to scrap the UGC and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and to create an independent National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) to take over the academic, accreditation and financial functions of the regulators. Simultaneously, the HRD Ministry set up a panel which recommended doing away with 17 councils on the grounds that their roles had become fragmented. The Ministry proposed a single authority, but the Bill never came up in Parliament.

Over the years, the UGC’s responsibilities have spiralled out of control and the rising burden cut into the regulator’s time to carry out its key function: ensuring better academic standards. In 1947, there were just 120,000 students in Indian colleges; the number now stands at 34 million.

India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which denotes the number of college students between 18 and 23 years of age as a proportion of youth in that age group, stands at 24, as against 80-85 in advanced countries. According to a report on the state of the National Higher Education Mission, published in 2013 by the HRD Ministry, ‘there are also differences in the quality of institutions and enrolments between rural and urban areas and between developed states and not-so-developed ones. Given these myriad challenges, a drastic change is required in the approach that has traditionally been adopted for the development of higher education in the country.’ Educationists admit that a push, in the form of new universities, high-calibre leadership and streamlined funding, is required to take India’s GER to 35 or more.

Allaying fear, however, Virander Singh Chauhan claims, “The much-maligned Indian higher education system has in fact done reasonably well and this is often not recognised.” Fifty per cent of all enrolments in higher education are those of women, he points out. Meanwhile, the stakeholders are a worried lot and are waiting to see the fine print of how the Government will go about disbursing funds, its implications for recruitment of academics, and the extent of the powers of the new regulatory body.

Everyone, though, agrees it is time for reform. But the draft Bill may not be the last word on the future of the UGC.