The Centre’s decision to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) and replace it with a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), has been met with a cocktail of emotions, from relief and hope to widespread resentment from the academic community. The move to form the HECI, which will not possess the grant-giving powers of the UGC, was marked by a lack of debate on the topic before the decision to introduce the bill in the Parliament. The Centre has clarified that the UGC’s grant-giving powers will be shifted to the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry.

The Potential for a Path-Breaking Legislation

The HECI bill has numerous path-breaking features that could potentially uplift higher education in India. The Bill gives HECI the power to create new universities via a set of transparent criteria and eliminates the need for legislation for this purpose. It also empowers the HECI to confer degree-granting powers on both universities and colleges, based on specified academic norms, which could pave the way for high quality education. Most critics have overlooked the student-friendly nature of the bill in the form of a provision for a credit based system for the award of degrees thereby ending the vicious practice of forcing student to repeat the entire year in case of failing even one subject. The HECI bill will enforce minimum educational quality standards by empowering the HECI to close low-performing higher educational institutions. The bill has removed all grant giving powers from the HECI, eliminating the alleged avenue to rampant corruption in its predecessor, the UGC. These are major desirable departures from the existing regulatory framework of higher education in India, with the potential to bring the nation closer to global best practices in education.

The HECI bill also opens the door to foreign degree-granting institutions to enter India, without legal challenges. The proposed credit system could provide institutions with the flexibility to align their curriculum to a three-year bachelor’s degree, following the UK model or a four-year bachelor’s degree as in the US. In the long run, the HECI would have the power to set up a national research foundation to make research a central feature of the leading universities of the country. With powers vested in individuals with unimpeachable integrity to HECI, the body would be in a position to transform India’s higher education system for the better.

Varied Grounds for Opposition

There has been opposition from all quarters against the hasty move, with the prime grounds for objection, ranging from the low proportion of professional academic representatives in the proposed “bureaucrat-heavy” HECI to the government seeking to consolidate the power to finance universities and in effect, monopolize the higher education space in India.  The All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations (AIFUCTO), present in 483 State universities, will protest the move at all State headquarters on July 19 and outside Parliament on August 3, when the monsoon session will be on.

Prof. Arun Kumar, AIFUCTO Secretary-General. Source: Meghalaya College Teacher’s Association

“The UGC is a body created by an Act of Parliament. The government should have first called for a debate among academicians and also in Parliament on how it should be improved, or to know whether the stakeholders supported its winding up. But instead of setting in motion a debate, they took the decision to scrap it and are now asking for suggestions. This hurried decision has to be questioned, keeping in mind that the Lok Sabha elections are less than a year away,” said Arun Kumar, AIFUCTO secretary-general.

The Section 12 of the UGC Act, 1956 mandated the inquiry into the financial needs of universities before allocation of funds. The new move of empowering the HRD ministry with grant-giving powers is a main point of concern since this would bring the universities under the direct financial control of the Government and pave the way for ideological and operational interference from the Government. While UGC has four teacher members out of total 10 members, the HECI has only two teacher members out of total 12 members thus ironically reducing the teachers’ representation in an educational body.  A primary function of HECI will be ‘taking measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment’ (sic). Many academics are treating this as a euphemism by the Government to push institutions to fend for themselves, and contend with the forces of the market.

It will be closely watched whether the repealing of the UGC Act and the formation of the new regulatory body HECI, will live up to its professed role in promoting quality higher education, due to its own evident lack of autonomy from the Government.

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Reporting by Team edInbox