Draft Higher Education Bill: Destroying autonomy, mandating interference from governments

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By Anil Chaudhary*

In response to the public notice issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development seeking feedback on the Draft Higher Education Commission of India Bill 2018 from “educationists, stakeholders and general public”, I would like to strongly oppose this move to centralise, bureaucratise, and establish absolute government control on higher education in the country.

In its Press Release, the government has cited the bill as “downsizing the scope of the Regulator”, “removing interference in the management issues of the educational institutions”, and improving academic standards, but a reading of the Bill, actually reveals the opposite intention, that will have a disastrous effect on the access that India’s young people will have to higher education, as well as the creation of jobs in the education sector.

By withdrawing financial powers from the regulator and handing them over to the central government, and by giving the HECI unilateral and absolute powers to authorise, monitor, shut down, and recommend disinvestment from Higher Educational Institutions (henceforth HEIs), the Draft Bill will expose higher education in the country to ideological manipulation, loss of much needed diversity as well as academic standards, fee hikes, and profiteering.

It will also contribute to greater marginalisation and disadvantage of millions of students, particularly from the socially oppressed sections, and imperil many educational institutions. In my opinion, rather than dismantling the University Grants Commission, the attempt must be to strengthen its consultative and enabling architecture, in such a way that promotes access, diversity, and quality.

I would like to place on record my objections to the clauses to the Draft HECI Bill, as below. I urge the government to withdraw this Bill, and initiate a discussion with teachers and students organisations and other stakeholders for suggestions as to how the UGC and its functioning may be improved.

Section 3.6: While the UGC Act 1956 clearly mandated that the Chairman of the Commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the Government or any State Government” – precisely with a purpose to maintaining the autonomy of the Commission from any form of direct interference by governments – Section 3.6 of the Draft HECI Bill drops this necessary condition for the Chairperson’s appointment.

The Chairperson of the proposed Higher Education Commission can now be selected from among functionaries of the Central or State governments, provided he/she satisfies either of two conditions listed under Section 3.6 – none of which comes into conflict with his/her holding an office of the government at the time of appointment.

Not only that, the same Section 3.6 makes the appointment of the Chairperson of HEC incumbent on the decision of a Search-Cum-Selection-Committee (ScSc), headed by Cabinet Secretary and flanked by the Secretary of Higher Education (both GoI employees). The principle of non-intervention that was enshrined in the letter of the UGC Act, as an acknowledgment of the need for autonomy in educational policy-making, is discarded by the proposed HECI Bill with regard to the very setting up of the Commission.

Section 3.6(b) of the Draft Bill maintains that the Chairperson of the proposed Higher Education Commission of India may be “an Overseas citizen of India”. We find this unacceptable, as the Chairperson of such a Commission must be someone who is a resident citizen of India, bound by its Constitution, with the requisite experience of teaching/administration in the Indian Higher Education sector.

Section 3.8: It is apparent from Section 3 of the Draft Bill that teachers have been pushed out of the Commission, almost entirely. Though the total number of members of the Commission has gone up from ten to twelve, the representation of teachers has been ominously reduced to just two. Whereas the earlier UGC Act ensured a minimum of four teachers in the 10-member Council and that at least 6 were not officers of State/Central governments (Section 5.3, UGC Act 1956), the HECI is proposed to be packed with government nominees, chairpersons of regulatory bodies, university administrators, but no teachers.

In a body that is purportedly responsible for determining quality of education, learning outcomes, and other functions of academic content, we find it shocking that university professors — the only group qualified to deliver in this respect — have been so purposely reduced to an ineffectual minority.

The UGC Act provision that not less than one-half of the members of the commission must not be officers of the Central Government or of any State Government has been omitted, leaving the door open for a commission comprising an overwhelming majority of government officers. Further, inclusion of a “doyen of industry”, where there are no definitions of who so qualifies to be termed as such, is highly inadvisable.

Sections 8 and 9: The Draft HECI Bill 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.” (Section 9.1) We find that the measures to address conflict of interest in the Draft Bill to be highly inadequate — mere publicity on the HECI website and self-recusal from participation in relevant decisions can be no deterrent to attempts to mould national educational policy for self-interest.

Section 12.1: The Bill provides for appointment of the Secretary to the Commission, “who shall be an officer in the rank of Joint Secretary and above to the Government of India”. Since as Section 14 goes on to state, all “instruments” – barring “orders and decisions of the Commission” – shall be “authenticated by the signature of the Secretary or any other officer of the Commission authorised in like manner”, it is amply clear that all policy-correspondence as well as issues of funding will be incumbent on the pleasures of the government. This corrodes the very ground of legislative autonomy that justified the existence of the University Grants Commission.

Section 15: Although the HECI Act is being touted as a means of ensuring both quality of education as well as greater autonomy to universities, Section 15.3 of the Draft Bill empowers the HECI to lead to a further degradation of both.

15.3(a): The HECI is empowered to specify “learning outcomes”, which invokes formulaic expectations of what university education must be oriented towards. Even the UGC’s efforts towards framing model syllabi as guides for all colleges/universities across the country – under the guise of a Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) – have been severally pointed out as inadequate, given the disparate conditions and infrastructures of learning in widely divergent local contexts.

To say that students must learn X and Y by the first year, for example, is to void the classroom situation of material references to or historical indices of privilege and discrimination. To argue that SC/ST/OBC students, with their histories of deprivation, must achieve the same “learning outcomes” as those coming from metropolitan contexts of privilege is to argue against the very logic of reservation in public institutions.

This will eventually push the frontiers of higher education towards a standard quantum of ‘merit’ (measured as learning outcome), thus forcing those who cannot live up to it to either drop out of universities or fail miserably. While very general directions as what should be the curricular design of what, say, an undergraduate programme should guarantee its learners are desirable, any measure that stamps out diversity as well as innovation is unwelcome.

15.3(b): The HECI is also empowered, like the UGC was, to “lay down standards of teaching / assessment / research”. It should be noted that the UGC could, correctly, only set minimum standards, so the proposed HECI has been given extraordinary powers of undermining institutional autonomy. The substantive struggle of universities with the UGC has been in the last few years, to ensure that its minimum regulations do not achieve the status of maximality. It is imperative to maintain institutional autonomy if quality is to be ensured, and an enabling framework that allows universities to harmonise their standards with the regulator’s expectations must be created.

15.3(c): The HECI has been given the power to carry out a yearly academic performance evaluation of universities. We find this bureaucratisation unacceptable and completely unfeasible. To audit the performance of public institutions and ascertain their fitness to function is to also come up with differential funding parameters for different orders of ‘performance’. This kind of graded financial liability (on the part of the government) towards grossly disparate contexts of performance across HEIs will not only create a few centres for excellence at the cost of all others, but will also strengthen existing hierarchies between regional and metropolitan institutions.

Further, it is highly unlikely that the Commission will be able to do any kind of meaningful yearly evaluation of the 789 universities that the UGC website says are in existence today. All that will result from this power is a highly partial process that will disrupt the functioning of universities, and convert ‘performance’ into a punitive category.

15.3(d): The Draft Bill makes the HECI inherit the UGC’s function of promoting research, except that the divestment of its financial powers means that it will only be able to “coordinate with Government for provision of adequate funding for research”: This will make all HEIs subject to the interests of the political parties in power, and subject directly to their ideological manipulation. Compared to the UGC, which had  financial powers, and because it was composed of academics and was tasked with making decisions after consultation with universities, this will make funding for research contingent on political considerations rather than those attendant on international standards of knowledge creation.

This will have an adverse effect on the standards of research carried out in Indian universities. Furthermore, it also appears that the HECI will no longer have funds of its own to promote research like the UGC did, so that the Commission’s role in furthering research (through fellowships, research projects, travel grants) will be non-existent.

15.3(e): The HECI is supposed to evolve a robust accreditation system for evaluation of academic outcomes by various HEIs, thereby subsuming the role of the National Accreditation and Assessment Council. This proposal is to tie in NAAC scores to funding allocation, at the very least (as well as performance targets), in a manner that will only prove detrimental to the development of teaching and research in newer and less privileged institutions.

One presumes that the metric that will be employed is that the lower the NAAC grade, the lower the government funding and the more impossible the improvement. Such policy direction has already been hinted at in the recommendations of the Subramanian Committee Report for New Education Policy 2016. This will only institute a terrible vicious cycle, which makes performance the policy-basis for funding – rather than the other way round.

15.3(g) and 15.4.(f): The HECI is empowered to “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”.  This power to close down institutions in a country that fails to provide enough HEIs has to be wielded with great caution, and with checks and balances, and a clear and detailed specification of what protecting the student’s interest must entail.

While there is no question of granting impunity to incidents of fraud being perpetrated on students and their families — and it should be noted that this is a penal offence which can easily be prosecuted — the non-availability of enough publicly funded HEIs is the major reason why students flock to such institutions at exorbitant costs. Arbitrary closure, or threats thereof, shall not only deprive students of the only education that they can access, it will also put the livelihood of teachers and staff employed in these institutions in peril. Finally, such unbridled power shall in all likelihood fuel corruption.

15.4(c) and 15.4(d): The HECI is empowered to specify standards for grant of autonomy and Graded Autonomy.  The proposed move, which has in fact already been initiated by the UGC, is intended to divest the state’s investment in HEIs that perform according to standards it sets. This will entail a marketisation of HEIs, fuelling fee hikes and greater job insecurity, and will invariably lead to a complete constriction of access to the better performing institutions to poor and disadvantaged students (who constitute the bulk of the population entering higher education).

15.4(g): The HECI is also tasked with the development of “norms and mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programmes and employability of the graduates”. The criteria used to determine “employability” do not come from within the educational domain, as the availability of employment in the country has to do with macro-economic factors. To transfer the burden of employability onto the HEIs, in the form of a conditionality for funding or as a performance index, is unfair.

15.4(l): The HECI is empowered to “specify norms and processes for fixing of fee” and to advise governments on “steps to be taken to make education affordable for all”. While The UGC Act had a very detailed section on fees (as well as subsequent regulations) on fees and a prohibition on donations, the HECI Bill makes this singularly most important provision mere matters of advice. This also signals the move from a state subsidy model to a loan-assistance policy for select private individuals – thus making way for a general user-pay principle in the funding of public education.

15.7: 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.” With the HECI’s forfeiture of minimum structural autonomy from the government of the day, it is now perfectly possible for the latter to dictate the terms and conditions of enrolment as well as content of academic courses in the name of ensuring uniformity.

Although the HECI Act is being publicised as giving autonomy to HEIs, the provisions of the Draft Bill actually invest the HECI and the Central Government with extraordinary powers, without any checks and balances. Individual HEIs have no power to demand consultation, inquiry, or even appeal against any of its decisions.  The 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. Compliance will demand from HEIs absolute obedience, to an authority that is ruled by political expediency and with very little expertise in education.

Section 16.1: By this provision, no HEI established after this Bill is passed can start awarding degrees unless it is authorised, and Universities established before it will be considered authorised for three years only, after which it may be revoked. This will create grave uncertainty in well-established institutions, and will certainly harm students’ interests, who may be enrolled in courses for longer than three year duration.

As the section makes authorisation contingent on achieving a set of goals over a decade, this will lead to reorientations in HEI policies based not on academic considerations, but severe pressure on administrators and teaching communities. The provision for imposition of penalties contained in Section 23 may be useful for a political party wishing to enforce instant obedience, but are of no value to those actually working in the education sector, where a culture of reasoned argument and careful consideration must be the norm.

Section 24: Sections 12(e)-(g) of the UGC Act 1956 prescribed an advisory role for the Commission, with regard to information necessary or sought by the Central or State Governments. The Draft HECI Bill 2018 performs a complete inversion of this. It mandates the setting up of an Advisory Council within the Commission, chaired by the “Union Minister for Human Resources Development” and with “Chairpersons/Vice-Chairpersons of all State Councils for Higher Education as members”. (Section 24.1)

The presence of a government-controlled advisory organ in the Commission, headed by the HRD Minister, puts all pretensions of legislative autonomy to rest and structurally subordinates higher education to the political intentions of the government of the day.

Section 26: The provision that the HECI Act will have an overriding effect is extremely disturbing, as this will effectively nullify the various Acts of Parliament that have constituted existing universities. These acts have promoted a diversity of orientation in institutions, suited to the plural needs of our diverse country, and have maintained the distinctiveness and relevance of our institutions to their local and national milieu.

Reducing all HEIs to a dull uniformity will not produce a responsive higher education. Since HECI’s “Regulations relating to promoting quality and setting standards shall have prior approval of Central Government” (Section 29), it is the government who will effectively run every single HEI in the country.

The Draft HECI Bill will entrench a regulatory system that will just liquidate otherwise all the investments in education that the Indian people have made through the taxes they have paid for the last seven decades. The “changing priorities of higher education” – as the Draft Bill 2018 claims to address – do not warrant the setting up of a Commission that delinks regulatory functions from funding commitments.

By desiccating the UGC’s grant-disbursal powers and locating them solely in the Central government, the proposed Commission will become a means to ensuring ideological compliance from universities as the precondition for public funding. This further produces the risk of a punitive disciplining of institutions, through a deliberate withdrawal of funds by the government at will, on the slightest pretext.

Most significantly, not only does the Draft HECI Bill violate the very idea of autonomy that the UGC was modelled on, but it also goes a long way in insisting that universities and other higher education institutions be reduced to organs of the government.
I believe that the HECI Act 2018 has the potential for adversely affecting the future of all HEIs in the country by destroying the ground for their autonomous functioning and mandating a compulsory interference from governments. It would be best therefore to withdraw this proposed Act, in the independent interests of a “scientific temper” and “spirit of inquiry” that the Indian Constitution enjoins us to.

*Coordinator, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) 

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