Dismantling the UGC with impunity

Written by Ayesha Kidwai | Published on: June 29, 2018

Ayesha Kidwai lists what will happen if the UGC is dismantled in the way it’s currently being done after reading the HECI draft.



Image Courtesy: The Hindu

In June 2017, it was reported that the government is planning to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and replace them with a common regulator which is being called Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA).

On June 27, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that The Centre is set to replace the apex higher education regulator body University Grants Commission (UGC) with Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) by repealing the UGC Act, 1951.
“The proposed Higher Education Commission of India would focus solely on academic matters and monetary grants would be under the purview of the ministry, according to the draft. Presently, the University Grants Commission (UGC), which came into existence in 1953, provides financial assistance to eligible colleges. The new Act will be called the Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018 (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act).

The HRD Ministry has asked educationists, general public and other stakeholders to give comments and suggestions before 5 pm on July 7 on the draft, which has been released on its website,” reported the Quint.
Ayesha Kidwai, a theoretical linguist and professor at JNU criticised the draft of Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Draft Act, through a post on Facebook. It reads as follows:
1. Not only have teachers been given less than ten days to comment, teachers have been pushed out of the Commission entirely. Whereas the earlier UGC Act ensured a minimum of 4 teachers in the 12 member Council and that at least 6 were not officers of State/Central govts, the HEC is packed with:
a) 3 Secretaries of Government of India departments
b) 2 chairs of Councils — AICTE and NCTE
c) 2 chairs of accreditation bodies (must be NAAC and NIRF, but could it eventually become Times and QS?)
d) 2 VCs
e) One “doyen of industry” (doyen has been left undefined, but what is meant is, of course, crony capitalist extraordinaire.)
Only TWO professors in the 12. Whereas under the UGC Act, this could in principle have been up to 10, now it can only be maximum two. Keeping teachers out, keeps students out, as only teachers care about students, not administrators.
2. The Chairperson of the commission shall be a citizen “or an Overseas citizen of India”. Wow! Pardesi Chairs of a sufficiently saffron hue?
3. The HEC Act provides for Chairpersons and Members to declare the extent of their interest, “whether direct or indirect and whether pecuniary or otherwise, in any institution of research or higher educational institution or in any other professional or financial activity.” This information to be put on the website, upon entering the office, and self-recusal from meetings discussing that activity.
There is no disqualification for members who have a vested interest in moulding national educational policy for their own interests.
Yes, yes, this is a continuation of Messrs. Birla and Ambani writing reports on education, but it doesn’t make it right, does it? But it’s different too— it elevates conflict of interest to the status of a virtue. And brings every aspect of higher education under direct government control.
1. HECI shall do much more, and worse than UGC could:
a. Specify learning outcomes — UGC couldn’t. University education cannot be oriented to some specified outcomes. UGC made some model syllabi as guides which was okay, but to say that students must learn X and Y by the first year is ridiculous, starting from BA is just rubbish.
b. Lay down standards of teaching/ assessment/research — UGC could, but it could only set MINIMUM standards. Now HECI gets to decide the whole caboodle. This has been JNU’s fight these last two years, namely that minimum isn’t maximum, and that institutional autonomy entails that we have to harmonise with UGC Regulations rather than adopt without modification.
c. Evaluate yearly academic performance of universities: UGC couldn’t. I just shudder to think what this evaluation will entail. Aadhar cards? Moral values?
d. Promote research “and coordinate with Government for the provision of adequate funding for research”: UGC also promoted research but because it had financial powers, a case could be made directly to the UGC. One more hurdle for funding has been created.
It’s also quite likely that the HECI won’t have funds of its own to promote research any more — so no major/minor research projects, post docs etc.
e. Put in place a robust accreditation system for evaluation of academic outcomes by various HEIs: UGC had no such role, and that’s why we had NAAC. This HECI measure is going to bring the NAAC into the UGC and allow the govt to tie up funding with NAAC scores. One can only imagine what a funding scarcity this will result in — the lower the NAAC grade, the lower the government funding and the more impossible the improvement. A terrible vicious cycle!
f. “Order 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” — UGC had no such power and could at maximum withhold the grant. And here is the rub of accreditation, which is held to be an equal offence as not meeting standards.
g. Standards for grant of autonomy and Graded Autonomy— The UGC Act does not envisage a situation in which a state-funded HEI will be free of its overall guidance and financial control, and hence the need for this new HECI Act, which gives the UGC these powers.
h. Norms and processes for the establishment and winding up of a Higher Educational Institution — UGC could only advise on establishment if such advice was asked for. It could not order closure.
i. Norms and mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programmes and employability of the graduates — UGC could not do any such thing. What criteria are to determine “effectiveness” and “employability”? There have to be jobs in the country for people to get employed, no?
j. Norms and processes for fixing of fees to make “education affordable for all” — The UGC Act had a very detailed section on fees (as well as subsequent regulations) on fees and a probation on donations, but all that is gone now and we are left with the vague quote above. Donations are no longer prohibited it seems.
k. The HECI shall also “discharge such other functions in relation to the promotion, coordination and maintenance of standards in higher education and research as the Central Government may subject to the provisions of this Act, prescribe.” The Central Government is directly going to tell us whether we can have PhDs or not, and what the content of our BAs and MAs will be!
The HECI has extraordinary powers, without any checks and balances, as it’s only a bunch of government appointees who will just be telling the government what it wants done. Individual universities have no power to demand consultation, inquiry, or even appeal against any of its decisions. The earlier UGC Act recognised that educational institutions are instituted for a number of social (incl. charitable) reasons and can, therefore, have many histories, shapes and forms, and all were needed in a country as under-educated as India and saw the job of the regulator as one of nudging them all through an ongoing process of consultation and fair opportunity for representation and correction. But this HECI Act sets up the regulator as a gatekeeper who manages the market and the tractability of the workforce it produces — the goal is to create an authority that has total control over the market, including the power to expel those that exact continued subsidy from the state. It guarantees the students and taxpayers NOTHING in terms of regulation of fees or quality of education. Compliance will demand being absolutely pliant.
The HECI Act states that no university established after this Act is passed can start awarding degrees unless it is authorised. Universities established before this will be considered authorised for THREE YEARS only. What these norms are to be will be notified by HECI from time to time, and failure to meet them can lead to authorisation being revoked. It’s also clear that authorisation is going to be given and maintained not only on the basis of what the university has at that particular point of time but contingent on achieving a set of goals over a decade. We can expect these goals to be about resource-generation etc., a burden that will surely be passed on as fees and a cutback in recruitment, and most likely all kinds of rubbishy short-term courses.
This means that compliance with the Central govt diktats will be essential from the word go, for both older and newer universities. Non-compliance will rest in at the very least financial penalties, and failure to pay up will lead to prosecution and possible imprisonment for the executive officers of the HEI!
Just in case anyone is labouring under the apprehension that the real autonomy that individual university acts gives us will provide some protection, think again! The HECI Act will have an overriding effect. The UGC Act, the Architects and the Advocates Act will be repealed, although any regulations made under these Acts will continue to have an effect until new ones are notified by HECI. While the Bar Council and Architects Councils can at least set higher standards than HECI, Universities cannot do anything else other than what HECI dictates. And since HECI’s regulations “regulations relating to promoting quality and setting standards shall have prior approval of Central Government”, it’s the govt who will effectively run every single university in the country. (Wonder when the regulation removing reservations is being planned for—2020?)
Individual university acts have made our institutions distinctive and responsive to the needs of the areas they serve. For example, JNU’s admission policy, which gives grace marks to candidates disadvantaged in terms of caste, regional, and gender backwardness, flows from its Act. If the JNU Act is to effectively be finished off, fighting for these deprivation points is going to be impossible.
All in all, the HECI Act will just sink higher education in this country. It’s really fitting that we should get this tohfa on the day that we commemorate the resistance against the Emergency because it shows us what the RSS was doing all along — watching and learning! Enforcing obedience in universities is just one of the effects of this Act, it will entrench a regulatory system that will just liquidate otherwise all the investments in education that the Indian people have made through their taxes. The HECI Act must be opposed tooth and nail — time for huge mobilisations if we want to survive this hell.

More pieces by unions are expected soon.