It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that India’s higher education sector is in desperate need of reform. A number of indicators, including the consistently poor performance of Indian universities at the World University Rankings, testify to the fact that the country’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), has not lived up to its mandate of “maintaining standards of teaching, examination and research in universities”. A new draft law, the Higher Education Commission of India Bill, that proposes to revamp the governance of higher education in India, could, then, signal better days for the country’s universities. But the draft that was put up for public comments on Wednesday could, instead, aggravate the failings of the UGC, particularly its propensity to over-regulate.
The Bill proposes to replace the UGC Act, 1956, and rechristen the UGC as the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The regulator, in its new avatar, will focus on setting, maintaining and improving academic standards in universities. The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development will take over the grant-giving functions. The separation between the regulator and the funder is in tune with the first principles of regulatory governance. The professed goal of the draft law, “autonomy for universities,” is also welcome. However, making the HRD ministry the fund dispersal agency strikes against this objective. It is true that academic institutions in the country have never been completely free from government interference. But with the HRD ministry controlling university funding directly, the dangers of political interference in the running of these institutions increase manifold. The provision goes against the credo of universities as self-regulating spaces where decisions are shaped by intellectual debates — not funding or political pressures.
The UGC, a body of academics and experts, was envisioned as a “buffer” between the government and higher education institutions. However, interference by successive governments stood in the way of the agency fulfilling this objective. At the same time, the regulator remained a spectator to the falling standards of university education. The proposed new regulator, the HECI, intends to bridge this lacuna. However, its mandate of “improving academic standards with a specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions and training of teachers,” is bound to raise fears about the regulator micro-managing universities. And the fact that the proposed law empowers the Centre to remove the HECI’s chairman and vice-chairman for reasons that include “moral turpitude” — the UGC act did not have such a provision — will raise questions about the government’s sincerity on giving autonomy to universities. The draft is up for public comments till July 7. Enforcing this deadline might enable the government to place the Bill before the Parliament in its monsoon session. But it will be well-advised not to rush through a piece of legislation that aims to fundamentally restructure higher education.