An interventionist exercise

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An interventionist exercise

The Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill is poorly conceived. A rethink is needed before putting it up to the Parliament for debate

The Government of India plans to bring a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill repealing the UGC Act, 1956. The Ministry of Human Resource  (MHRD) has come up with a draft Bill which has been put on public platform for feedback. The very first paragraph says, “…there is a need for a body that lays down uniform standards and ensures maintenance of the same through systematic monitoring and promotion.” Does the Government intend to monitor universities through HECI? Universities are expected to be autonomous and there are internal bodies like the Academic Council and the Senate Syndicate/Executive Board/Board of Management to monitor and ensure maintenance of quality and standards. The UGC Council had more academic members than the proposed HECI Council. So, how can we believe the intention is to monitor standards. Or is the intent  to usurp the autonomy traditionally and globally given to universities?

Besides, all universities do not have the same standards. Never will all graduates of the country be of identical levels. A university placed in a remote area will have obvious handicaps. The University of Delhi will always be better supplied than a Central University in north Bihar. Statutory bodies of different universities look into these issues and they must be allowed to do that instead a Central national body undertaking this role.

The Bill proposes to change the constitution of the search-cum-selection committee of the HECI chairperson. Till now, an eminent person held the post which will now be vetted by a panel chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. This is a retrograde step and reflects poor understanding of the HECI as an apex academic body. It has been proposed that the Secretary, MHRD, would be another member of the vetting commitee. The chairperson of UGC is considered equivalent to the Minister of State (MoS). Then how can secretaries of the Government figure in the search committee of the HECI?

Also, it appears the Government  intends to bring HECI under the MHRD. This will damage the prestige and autonomy given to the highest academic body. The proposed Government control over HECI is evident from the Bill that has substituted the word “academics” with “educational administrators” all through. It appears the Government believes that academic experience, ie teaching and learning, is equivalent to being an official at the MHRD. We do not find any instance of such a body for higher education anywhere in the world. This will be disastrous. Higher education is not about skilling. Let us not trivialise it by making such committees.

Section 12(1) defines the process of appointing the Secretary, HECI. The first condition prescribed is that any person of the rank of “joint secretary and above” can be appointed. This again reveals the intention of the Government to tighten its control over HECI. It should be made explicit that only academics be selected as chairperson, vice-chairperson and secretary of the HECI. Surprisingly, Section 15(2) mentions one of the functions of HECI as “promoting the autonomy of higher educational institutions.” Section 15 (4) (d) says: “Specify norms and standards for Graded Autonomy to Universities and Higher Educational (sic) Institutions and the Universities.” A common question that arises is: Who is the HECI to give autonomy?

Section 31(3) repealed powers and functions given to the Indira Gandhi national Open University through its Act (no. 50 of 1985) of determination, preservation and promotion of distance education in the country. The IGNOU had been performing this function through the Distance Education Council (DEC), an autonomous body within IGNOU. In violation of the IGNOU Act, the DEC was transferred to UGC and named Distance Education Bureau (DEB). It was envisaged that distance education would bear at least 50 per cent of the higher education load and at one point 30 per cent of participants were  pursuing higher studies through distance education. However, since the DEC was shifted to UGC, the performance and popularity of distance education has fallen. Why is the Government not reversing the decision of shifting DEC to UGC and in future make DEC, a full-fledged independent body, parallel to the HECI, coordinating distance mode education?

A new advisory council, which will be chaired by the HRD Minister, has been proposed. The Minister had no direct involvement with the UGC in the present set-up. The Minister has been chairing the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), the apex national policy-making body. Why the Minister wants to chair the HECI advisory committee is, therefore, not clear.

More than 50 per cent learners are pursuing higher education through private institutions, which belong to the who’s who of the country. It would be more relevant to regulate and streamline the private education sector rather than diluting the UGC. On the whole, it is a poorly conceived Bill and the Government should rethink before putting it up to the Parliament for debate.

(The writer is Professor of Education at Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Views are personal)

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