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Higher education regulator cannot afford to be distracted by responsibility of giving grants, says Education Secretary

The government is not averse to extending the deadline for receiving feedback on the proposal to restructure UGC, but the ministry has already got many sincere responses from people, says higher education secretary R. Subrahmanyam

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: July 4, 2018 1:42:49 am
In picture: Higher Education secretary R. Subrahmanyam

Higher Education secretary R. Subrahmanyam speaks about the government’s plan to overhaul the University Grants Commission (UGC) and re-christen it as the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). Edited excerpts:

Why did the government drop its plan to establish an overarching, single regulator for higher education and opt for restructuring UGC instead?

India has to position itself in the global knowledge ecosystem and the existing regulatory system is very restrictive. Neither does it provide a level-playing field nor does it devote adequate attention to academic excellence. There is a need for reform.
As for why multiple regulators and not a single regulator for higher education, this was discussed in detail and it was felt that as long as each regulator has uniform vision, we don’t need to merge them. Merging organisations means merging cadres of AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) and UGC. This will lead to disputes among employees and the government will waste time resolving them. We only have a five-year window to reform higher education to reap our demographic dividend.

The move to let HRD Ministry take over the regulator’s funding role has been criticised. Wouldn’t this lead to direct political interference in educational institutions?

When funding and regulation are done by the same entity, it leads to conflict of interest. It also takes the focus away from regulation, because when you disburse grants, you have to monitor its utilization, retrieve unspent funds and initiate inquiry in case of misappropriation. For every rupee the UGC currently gives, there is ten rupees worth of administrative work generated. This leaves little time to look at academic matters. The Yash Pal Committee report and the Hari Gautam Committee report have said that these are two separate functions and should be kept separate. We stand by that.

Whether the grant-giving function will be taken over by the ministry or not is a matter of detail. It’s possible the ministry may do it or assign it to another entity. But one thing is clear that the funding function will be carried out in a transparent manner, through an online process that has least human interference. So the fear that the ministry is taking over and that (this is aimed at) politicisation (of higher education) is completely rubbish.

If not HRD ministry, then which entity could take over the regulator’s funding role?

For example, RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) has been disbursing a lot of infrastructure grants to state universities. RUSA has developed an online system through which it has allocated funds of about Rs 4,800 crore. This is completely based on merit. It’s possible that we ask RUSA to disburse the infrastructure grants that are being given by UGC. It’s possible that national scholarship portal will take care of all the UGC fellowships. In case of central universities, the government will disburse funds just like it currently does for IITs.  If IITs and NITs can be funded directly, I don’t see why the central universities can’t be.

Coordination and maintenance of standards is currently part of UGC’s mandate as well. So, aside from the funding role, UGC and HECI are not radically different from each other…

As far as the academic bit is concerned, the larger objectives are somewhat similar, but not the same. The draft law has a fair amount of detail. We are saying that HECI will set and monitor standards, mentor institutions — which was never in UGC’s mandate – train teachers and promote research. If an institution, after a few opportunities to improve, still proves to be substandard, then HECI will close it. If it refuses to wind up, then HECI will prosecute. In order to discharge this function, the Commission cannot afford to be distracted by the responsibility of disbursing grants.

The draft law provides state representation in HECI’s advisory council, but stops short of giving states a direct role in policy making. Shouldn’t states be part of HECI itself?

Firstly, the decisions of the advisory council are binding (on HECI). The advisory council is like a GST Council, where everybody sits together to take a decision and those decisions are applicable on the GST system. The HECI advisory council will be an influential body at the larger policy level. You cannot have 29 state representatives as members of the Commission.

There is a fear that the resource generation could be one of the performance outcomes that will be set by HECI for an institution and this would lead to fee hike for students. Your comment…

I have a feeling that this confusion has been deliberately created by either people who have not understood (the draft law) or those who have vested interests. We have never said anything about resource generation. We are only talking about academic standards. HECI will not interfere in organisational issues. Making education affordable is one of the defining objects of HECI.

The ministry has accused of rushing the consultation process. Are 10 days enough to take feedback from stakeholders on the new draft law?

The transformation of UGC has been debated several times by multiple committees for more than a decade. There was so much feedback and discussion, but everything was consigned to the dustbin at the end. We don’t want that kind of procrastination. A fair amount of debate has already happened. My problem is that people take positions based on ideological lines. If you close your mind, there is no way a discussion can take place. If you are sincere you can give us your opinion in good time. If there is a demand to extend the deadline, we are not averse to it. But the point is that people are participating and we have received sincere responses, not like the political statements made on some platforms.

Shouldn’t the ministry have waited for the observations of the parliamentary standing committee which has sought feedback on the working of UGC, before releasing the draft HECI Bill?

When the Bill is before the Parliament, I’m sure it will be debated by the Standing Committee members. We are open to suggestions and amending the Bill. This is not an ordinance. There will be a debate.

The Opposition parties have objected to the draft law. Can the government muster political support to get the HECI Bill passed in Parliament?

Our effort will be to achieve consensus. We are ready to sit across the table with anybody who is willing to discuss. We have already reached out to the state governments, apprised them of the law and sought their feedback. We are going in with an open mind.

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