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If the Modi Government’s first year of its rule was marked by the burial of an important institution of national importance—the Planning Commission of India—with the launching of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), its last year in office is likely to witness another interment of a Statutory body of national importance—the University Grants Commission (UGC)—with the notification issued by the Union Ministry for Human Resources Development (MHRD) for setting up Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The notification says that Government “has embarked on a process of reform of the regulatory agencies for better administration of the higher education sector.” It further notified that “several reform measures” have already been put in place such as the “reform of NAAC, Regulation for grant of Graded Autonomy to Universities, granting of Autonomous status to colleges, the Regulation for Open Distance Learning, Regulation for Online degrees etc (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2018a). The Draft Act notified (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2018b) “is in accordance with the commitment of Government for reforming the regulatory systems that provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth of the education system and which provides greater opportunities to the Indian students at more affordable cost.”

However, the Government does not have any inhibition in declaring that the ‘transformation’ of the regulatory body is in tune with a typical neoliberal motto—‘Less Government and more Governance’ (Modi’s ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ rhetoric may be kept in mind). The notification says that the one of the underlying principles of this change is “downsizing the scope of the regulation,” ensuring “no more interference in the management issues of the educational institutions.” What does this mean? Obviously, it is nothing short of a roll back of commitments on the part of the Union Government. On the other side, it amounts to appropriating an important function of the regulatory body in place (or in the making) by declaring that “the grant functions would be done by the Ministry (MHRD), and the HECI would focus only on academic matters.” The new legislation thus enables the Union Government to centralize and control the universities and colleges across the country by monopolizing the grant distribution function. The draft legislation is also envisaging an “end of inspection raj” stating that “regulation is done through transparent public disclosures, merit-based decision making on matters regarding standards and quality in higher education.” How can the new body ensure ‘standards and quality’ without proper academic auditing and inspection?  If the HECI is entrusted 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, promote use of educational technology etc..,” what mechanisms are in place to offer ‘merit-based decision making’? If the whole purpose of the new system is to ensure these objectives, the regulatory body already in place, too, has these objectives and it has its own mechanisms of monitoring and control, howsoever limitations and drawbacks there are. Then, the whole purpose of the scrapping the UGC is palpable enough—downsize the financial commitments for higher education and keep the door wide open for corporate/private sector to reap the windfall of the ’knowledge economy.’

It may be noted that the new body (HECI) under consideration would have ‘a doyen of industry’ as one of the12 members (see section 3-6(b) of the Draft Act, India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2018b). The HECI would be completely dominated by the representatives of the Union Government and its yes-men. Interestingly, the draft legislation also talks about a provision for “temporary association of persons” with the Commission. As per Section 13 (1), the Commission may associate with itself, in such manner and for such purposes as may be determined by regulations made under this Act, any person whose assistance or advice it may desire in carrying out any of the provisions of this Act.” Though such ‘persons’ shall not have a right to vote at Commission meetings, they will “have right to take part in the discussions relevant to that purpose…”  Who are these people likely to be invited by the Commission and what purpose they are expected to serve in a statutory body like this?  If we go by the logic of “merit-based decision making,” it purportedly sets a red carpet for corporatism. If we read the functions of the Commission, as envisaged under Section 15 of the Draft Act, we can find the resonance of corporate-friendly construct in every sentence.  For instance, Section 15 (2) says that the Commission shall “take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment” (emphasis added) (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2018b).

The ‘autonomy’ is a pet word frequently (and liberally) used by successive governments to denote the retreat of the State—from an interventionist role to the emerging role of a facilitator. This has been the practice of all governments in India since 1980s. The National Education Policy, 1986 and the 1992 Programme of Action were the harbingers of such a new regime of education (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 1992).

Thus, the present move—amounting to rolling back the State from higher education—can be seen as the culmination of a series of moves underway since 1980s. And higher education had already become an inevitable prey to the structural adjustment programme (SAP) and the new economic policy (NEP) regime since then—with a renewed commitment to the global trade in services (Seethi 1992; Seethi 1993).  Correspondingly, many neoliberal educational reform measures have been put in place such as the Private University’s Act,1995, Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010, Prevention of Malpractices Bill and the Education Tribunal Bill 2010, National Accreditation Regulatory Authority Bill 2010 and Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 (HE & R) etc. However, due to several reasons, the Congress-led UPA Government could not fully realise the goals of SAP-NEP induced reforms.  Having understood several challenges, the Government had set up a UGC Review Committee also, in 2014, to revisit the Commission’s regulatory role and functions.

Earlier a theoretical setting was provided by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) which, in its Report (submitted during the UPA government) sought to justify the changing role of education. It underlined that “knowledge has been recognised as the key driving force in the 21st century and India’s ability to emerge as a globally competitive player will substantially depend on its knowledge resources. To foster generational change, a systemic transformation is required that seeks to address the concerns of the entire knowledge spectrum. This massive endeavour involves creating a roadmap for reform of the knowledge sector that focuses on enhancing access to knowledge, fundamentally improving education systems and their delivery, re-shaping the research, development and innovation structures, and harnessing knowledge applications for generating better services. Such a knowledge revolution that seeks to build capacity and generate quality will enable our country to empower its human capital – including the 550 million below the age of 25. Our unique demographic dividend offers a tremendous opportunity as well as a daunting challenge which requires creative strategies for a new knowledge oriented paradigm” (India, National Knowledge Commission 2009).

The NKC also noted that the “higher education system needs a massive expansion of opportunities, to around 1500 universities nationwide, that would enable India to attain a gross enrolment ratio of at least 15 per cent by 2015. The focus would have to be on new universities, but some clusters of affiliated colleges could also become universities. Such expansion would require major changes in the structure of regulation (61).  There is a multiplicity of regulatory agencies where mandates are both confusing and overlapping. The system, as a whole, is over-regulated but under-governed. NKC perceives a clear need to establish an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE). The IRAHE must be at an arm’s length from the Government and independent of all stakeholders including the concerned Ministries of the Government” (Ibid).

It was almost at this time that the Yashpal Committee brought forth its Interim Report in 2009 and subsequently its final Report on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Universities. One of the major recommendations of the Committee was the winding up of UGC and all other regulatory bodies (such as AICTE) under a Commission of Higher Education (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2013).  The T.S.R. Subramanian Committee, entrusted with preparing a new education policy for India,   had also recommended (in its National Education Policy) that the UGC Act should be allowed to lapse and replaced by a new National Higher Education Act (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2016a). The Chairman, T.S.R. Subramanian was a former Cabinet Secretary and the Commission, overloaded with bureaucrats, naturally brought forth a report appropriate to the Union Government. The role of academics in such committees has been progressively reduced, over years, to cater to the needs and demands of the corporates and the neoliberal raj.

Rajan Gurukkal, currently Vice Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, had written sometime back that “the UGC has many limitations such as red tape, bureaucratic delay and distributive injustice, most of which are inherent in its secretarial structure. “ But he agreed that “it is a relatively democratic consortium of experts in diverse disciplines, which discharges its regulatory and distributive responsibilities over universities and colleges of general subjects in a remarkable way.” Gurukkal says that how “to make the UGC more democratic, open and predictably error free is not the concern for the ‘experts’ who want to scrap the institution, for their criticisms hardly mean anything beyond a justificatory rhetoric. Most of their allegations are ironical and self-contradictory as exemplified by the one accusing the UGC for not regulating “private, not-for-profit entities in higher education and for not suggesting any measures to curb commercialisation!” According to him, “what irritates the neo-liberal reformers in the committee is the UGC’s regulatory intervention in the privatization and commercialisation of higher education.” Hence the “UGC is an institution of nuisance for them and hence its de facto removal their main target” (Gurukkal 2015:26).

The UGC has indeed become a ‘burden’ for the Union Government in terms of holding financial commitments vis-à-vis universities, colleges and research institutions. Even the UGC Pay Commission recommendations for teachers have now been attuned to realise this objective of downsizing commitment. The latest Pay Commission package is a clear indication of ‘no more burden-sharing’ on the part of the Union Government, on a long-term basis. Over years, the UGC has been changing regulations of ‘minimum standards,’ reducing research grants, fellowships etc even as new innovative schemes have been put in place (Seethi 2000). By arbitrarily fixing ceiling for research supervision, the UGC had already put a seal on commitments. This has considerably reduced the intake of researchers in universities across the country. Less researchers means less financial burden.

With the winding up of the UGC, the entire monitoring-control matrix of higher education will be taken over by the Union Government. It will result in a situation of the new body having only advisory and recommendatory functions, particularly on financial matters. This will have very deleterious impact on the functioning of universities and colleges across the country. And they would be forced to generate finances to run programmes/courses and provide salary for teachers. The concept of ‘autonomy’ (and the ‘graded autonomy’) is a strategic tool to contract out this power and responsibility—notably in the name of establishing ‘world class’ institutions (India, Ministry of Human Resource Development 2016b). This will again result in a mushrooming of private universities and a surfeit of contract-teacher system—having a decisive impact on the quality and standards of higher education. The death of a regulatory body like UGC means a blot on the very fabric of ‘inclusive and democratic’ education.

In fact, the first Commission for reforms in education, after independence, was set up in 1948 under the chairmanship of S. Radhakrishnan, a noted educationist and later the President of India, which submitted its report in August 1949.  The Radhakrishnan Commission had noted that there was a University Grants Committee even before independence though it was meant for the Central Universities. The Committee was formed in 1945 to deal exclusively with the three Central Universities, Aligarh, Banaras and Delhi. The Report, however, noted that “A Committee or Commission for  allocating both recurrent and capital grants to universities from the Centre is so fundamental to our proposals for improving and developing our universities that if it were not in existence we would have had to invent it” (India, the Ministry of Education 1962: 356).  The Union Government, then, resolved that all matters relating to the allocation of grants-in-aid from public funds to the Central Universities and other Universities and Institutions of higher learning might be referred to the University Grants Commission. Accordingly, the UGC was formally put in place by the then Minister of Education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, on 28 December 1953. But it was formally institutionalised only in November 1956 as a statutory body of the Government of India through an Act of Parliament “for the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of university education in India” (University Grants Commission 2002).  With a view to ensuring an “effective region-wise coverage” across the country, the UGC even decentralised its operations by establishing six regional centres at Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bhopal, Guwahati and Bangalore (University Grants Commission 2018). Now that the Union Government is set to dismantle the UGC, the role of the new agency will be different—a totally centralized mechanism without any regional operating structures.

The MHRD notification for repealing the UGC Act has come at a critical juncture in the contemporary Indian history. Many institutions of higher learning in India are under threat of saffronisation and appropriation by communal/fascist forces. As Nandini Sundar writes, academic freedom is increasingly under attack from authoritarian regimes across the world. India is no exception. She says that though “academic freedom was critical to earlier visions of the Indian university,” it has become “increasingly devalued in favour of administrative centralisation and standardisation. Privatisation and the increase in precarious employment also contribute to the shrinking of academic freedom” (Sundar 2018). Kothari Commission had noted that in the realm of university education, the “pursuit of truth and excellence in all its diversity” needs “courage and fearlessness” (India, Ministry of Education 1966: 274). It is this “courage and fearlessness” that the higher education sector in India is now missing with increasing centralisation and gross interference. The new Act will only add irreparable insult to a festering injury.

References

Gurukkal, Rajan (2015): “Scrapping the UGC: Corporate Agenda under Knowledge Economy,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. L (18), 2 May: 26-31

Gurukkal, Rajan (2011): “Foreign Educational Institutions Bill: The Rhetoric and the Real,” Economic and Political Weekly, 9 July, Vol XLVI (28).

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (2018a): The Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of UGC Act) Act 2018, http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/PN_HECI.pdf

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (2018b): Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Act 2018, Draft, http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/HE_CoI_India_2018_act.pdf

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (2013): Renovation and Rejuvenation of Universities:  Report of ‘The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India,’  28 October,http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/document-reports/YPC-Report.pdf(Yashpal  Committee Report).

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (2016a): National Policy on Education 2016, Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy, http://www.nuepa.org/New/download/NEP2016/ReportNEP.pdf (T.S.R. Subramanian committee Report)

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (2016b): UGC (Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as World Class Institutions) Guidelines, 2016 (for providing regulatory structure for enabling higher educational institutions to become world class teaching & research institutions), http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/ugc_guidelines.pdf

India, Ministry of Human Resource Development (1992): National Policy on Education1986:Programme on Action 1992, http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/npe.pdf

India, National Knowledge Commission (2009): National Knowledge Commission: Report to the Nation 2006 – 2009, https://www.aicte-india.org/downloads/nkc.pdf

India, The Ministry of Education (1962): The Report of the University Education Commission (December 1948–August 1949), volume I, First Reprint Edition, http://www.educationforallinindia.com/1949%20Report%20of%20the%20University%20Education%20Commission.pdf

India, Ministry of Education (1966): Report of the Educational Commission (1964–66): Education and National Development, chaired by D S Kothari, Ministry of Education, Government of India, New Delhi.

Seethi, K.M (1992): “Education: On the Threshold of Change,” The Hindu, 1 December.

Seethi, K.M (1993): “Universities in a Melting Pot,” Mainstream, 23 October.

Seethi, K.M (2000):  “UGC’s Disincentives for PhD,” Economic and Political Weekly, June 3.

Sundar, Nandini (2018): “Academic Freedom and Indian Universities,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53(24), 16 June.

University Grants Commission (UGC) (2018): “Genesis,” https://www.ugc.ac.in/page/Genesis.aspx

University Grants Commission (UGC) (2002): “The University Grants Commission Act, 1956 (As modified up to the 20th December, 1985) And Rules & Regulations, under the Act,” https://www.ugc.ac.in/oldpdf/ugc_act.pdf

The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at kmseethimgu@gmail.com

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Red News | Protestation

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The present government is trying to ‘control ‘ educational institutions by taking away autonomy and systematic saffronization to serve its political agenda. This is a cause of concern