Scrapping of UGC: Whose autonomy, whose freedom?


  • July 4, 2018
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Last week, before going off on a spree of tweets about his Australia trip he expects would save the future of Indian education system, Minister of HRD of India, Prakash Javadekar announced scrapping of the University Grants Commission, and declared what he called the Higher Education Commission of India as it’s ‘replacement’. The HECI is advertised as a move to “take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all”. Once we unwrap the glossy package of catchphrases such as ‘Minimum government & Maximum governance’, ‘Separation of grant functions’, ‘End of inspection raj’, ‘Focus on academic quality’, ‘Powers to enforce’, we reach the core question of this supposed “autonomy of higher educational institutions”. This groundXero report tries to unravel the HECI Draft Act – the Government’s gift of ‘autonomy’ to this country’s education system.

Let’s take a quick glance through the new HECI Act, in comparison with the now old UGC Act. The analysis can be broadly categorized into the following three dimensions:

(1) Structure and autonomy of the Commission vis-a-vis Central Government

Let’s begin with setting up of the Commission itself. Section 3.6 of the HECI Act says that

“… the Chairperson shall be selected by a Search-Cum-Selection Committee(ScSc), consisting of Cabinet Secretary (Chairperson), Secretary Higher Education, and three other eminent academicians to be co-opted as members”.

It further goes on to say that the Committee shall submit a panel of names for each post,

“who … should have been a Professor for at least 10 years … OR an eminent academician and educational administrator with credentials in the relevant field and proven capacity for institution building and governance of institutions of higher learning”

It also says that the Chairperson can be “a citizen or an Overseas Citizen of India”. There are various things that need to be gleaned from this. The fact that the Chairperson herself/himself is to be selected by the Cabinet Secretary, immediately makes the Commission an extension of the Government itself. The fact that the Chairperson does not have to be necessarily a professor or a teacher, and could be someone who is an “eminent academician” and “educational administrator” in the opinion of the Cabinet Secretary, could mean anything. We know several examples of “academicians” who the current Government considers “eminent”. For example, this is what former BJP (RSS)-appointed Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Mr. Y V Sudershan Rao had to say about “#Guruji” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, convicted subsequently on charges of rape:

Moving on, the fact that even OCIs are now allowed to be Chairpersons of the “new UGC” is perhaps even more ominous. We should recall that OCIs are non-resident Indians who do not have the right to vote, the right to hold public offices such as that of President, Vice-President, Judges, Legislative body members, etc., and do not have the right to be appointed to Government Services. The question then is, what kind of public accountability can be expected of such a Chairperson?

Section 4.2 of the Act mentions

“The Government may remove from office the Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson or any Member, who” among other things, “has acquired such financial or other interest as is likely to affect prejudicially the exercise of his functions” or “has abused his position” or “has been guilty of proved misbehaviour”.

Thus, the Government will not just appoint the Committee, but would also reserve the right to fire the Committee – on grounds of what the Government thinks of as “prejudicial exercise of functions” or “misbehaviour”.

Going forward, Section 24 mentions the setting up of what is being called an “Advisory Council” to the HECI, chaired by the Union Minister for Human Resources Development herself/himself. This section further states that “the Commission shall take steps to implement the advice rendered by the Advisory Council”. It should be noted that the UGC Act, in this regard, was completely the other way round. Nowhere in the Act it mentioned that the Commission would be “advised” in any way by the Ministry. But we’ll come back to that later on in the piece. Another crucial departure of the HECI from the UGC Act is in the fact that the UGC act clearly mentions that

“The Chairman shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the Central Government or of any State Governments” or that “not less than one-half of the (members) chosen shall be from among persons who are not officers of the Central Government or of any State Government”.

No such mention seems to be there in the HECI, which means only one thing: it is likely that the Chairperson, or in fact the entire Commission now could very well be filled with people from inside the Government. This in addition to the fact that anyway the earlier stipulated 2-member representation of the Government in the UGC has been inflated to 3 members in the HECI. These are some of the pointers to the kind of Government control that one should expect over this so-called Higher Education Council.

It is perhaps important to mention here that the question of autonomy of bodies like the Planning Commission or the UGC from the Government, is not because these organisations or commissions are some kind of holy apolitical cows. But given a context where the economy, and the education sector, in reality are completely under the clutches of private interests – be it that of political parties or big businesses – autonomous bodies like the Planning Commission or the UGC in the current structure are possibly the people’s only hope of maintaining certain amount of fairness and justice when it comes to the questions of economy or education respectively.

(2) Control over curriculum vis-a-vis autonomy of individual institutions

Section 15.3 of the HECI Act draft mentions the role of the Commission in “maintenance of academic standards in the Higher Education system in the country”. To this effect, the Commission is being given the powers to

“Specify learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education, lay down standards of teaching/assessment/research … in higher educational institutions, evaluate the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions, etc”, and the power to “Order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards”.

In comparison, here is an example of what the Rules under the UGC Act had to say with respect to deciding academic matters at the higher educational institutions:

“the university has powers to provide instruction through correspondence courses and to declare a college, department, centre or campus as an autonomous college, department, centre – or campus, respectively.

The University shall not only lay down the syllabus for each course but also the manner of its implementation, namely, through number of lectures, tutorials, laboratory sessions, seminars, field work, projects etc.”

and so on.

(3) Role of such Commissions in funding and supporting higher education as a public service

On the question of funding, the HECI Act is perhaps the biggest point of paradigm shift in the history of higher education in India. While one of the main purposes or tasks of the UGC was to fund higher education in India, the HECI Draft Act takes away the funding role of such a Commission completely, and vests it with the Government ministries. The UGC Act made provisions of creating a Fund to be controlled by the UGC, stipulating Government fund supply for the same, and then disbursing these funds across higher educational institutions based on their requirements. It is a different thing as to what the UGC actually made of these rules in practice, but we will come back to that in a while. The point is, the HECI structurally has been stripped off any kind of funding responsibilities, raising the biggest ever question mark over the future of higher education in India. The only time any mention of “funding” education can be found in the new draft, is a one-liner in Section 15.3 which says the Commission will “coordinate” with the Government for provision of adequate funding for research. 

Here is an ongoing campaign to send feedback to the MHRD on the HEC Draft: 

For better Universities! HECI Act Draft Feedback

Here is the HEC Act Draft. The Minister set deadline for comments on the draft at 7th July, 5 pm.
Also it is not just about funding education. The UGC Act contained clauses that authorised the Commission to regulate fee structures across Universities and colleges. There were clauses against unethical donations or contributions to individual colleges that would stand in the way of fair access to education for all. Again, it is not to say that the UGC played much of it’s stated goals of regulating fees, etc., particularly in recent times when the whole country saw anti-fee hike struggles erupt all across, when we saw movements like Occupy UGC. But zero mention of any role like that even on paper in the new draft, clearly indicates the seal on such policies pertaining to an unregulated market of higher education.

The only place in the new draft, that mentions tuition fees is in Section 15.4, where it states the Commission will

“Specify norms and processes for fixing of fee chargeable by Higher Educational Institutions and advise Central Government or State Governments as the case may be”.

But this then, and other such clauses where the Commission is supposed to be “advising” the Government on things, should be read together with Section 25.2 of the same Act which says,

“In case of a disagreement arises between the Central Government and the Commission as to whether a question is or is not a question of policy relating to national purposes, the decision of the Central Government shall be final”.

In a way this is self-explanatory as to how any such “advise” that does not fall in line with the Government’s aims and policies are going to be treated.

Getting back to the question of ‘autonomy’

The above is a summary of comparisons between the UGC Act and HECI Act Draft. Let us now come to the core issue – the stated goal of the HECI: “take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions …”. The buzzword of “autonomy” is sprinkled throughout the draft of the Act. And in recent times news such as “so and so Institution becomes ‘autonomous’ or ‘eminent’ from today” have frequented headlines quite regularly. Let us take a step back and recall what ‘autonomy’ is supposed to mean. The Oxford dictionary defines autonomy as “The right or condition of self-government”, as “Freedom from external control or influence”. But just a cursory recollection of praxis across any of these ‘autonomous’ or ‘eminent’ institutions in the recent past throws up regular, almost day to day, bombardments of University administrations through Central Government circulars enforcing compulsory Yoga day ‘celebrations’, compulsory audience to the PM’s long monologues, demanding erections of gigantic national flags across all campuses, coercing institutions into introducing courses such as astrology, seminars on “zero”, compulsory essay-elocution events in Hindi, teaching everyone in every institution “one Hindi word a day” across every linguistic region, etc etc. In all these cases the UGC merely operates as a forwarding agency. Only recently we saw in the case of dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s death, the direct role played by the ruling party, it’s mother organisation RSS, and it’s cabinet ministers, in dictating terms to the University administration, in threatening the entire University community. We have seen how every student protest, every student meeting, across all Universities – be it JNU, or FTII, or IIT, or TISS, or BHU, or AMU, or Ramjas College – drew coercive words and actions from almost every other cabinet minister. We saw how Pakistani scholars were, completely illegally, barred from participating in a recent meeting at Ashoka University, even when the local organisers and the funding agency had invited them. Just a few days back, the HRD Minister himself tweets, “the RSS is the highest school of nationalism”

Such examples of complete partisanship and attempts to establish hegemonic control when it comes to higher education, are way too many to count as of today. Autonomy is a right that must be fought for, and is never handed over as a gift. In particular, such gifts of ‘autonomy’, or ‘self-governance’, or ‘freedom from external control or influence’ – when they come from ruling structures with such established practices – raise serious suspicions regarding what such ‘autonomy’ would even mean or look like.

Source: www.indiabudget.gov.in

One way to understand what therefore lies in future would be to look into the state and role of the UGC, at least in the recent past, and the precursory attempts of the current regime before coming up with the HECI. For a long time now, the UGC, even with the paper ‘protection’ of it’s ‘autonomy’ from Government, as mentioned earlier, has been controlled by the various political forces and big businesses that have controlled the country. In spite of it’s stipulated role of controlling fee structures and enabling public funding for higher education, there have been exorbitant fee hikes on a regular basis across educational institutions. Students have repeatedly risen up in protests across the country in recent memory. Even in Central Universities, students have been facing severe delays and irregularities in getting their UGC fellowships. This is in spite of the fact that the UGC had anyway reduced it’s role to mostly a funding agency, and paid almost no attention to the quality of education, or to putting in efforts required to chart out a vision for higher education in this country. Several departments, institutions and disciplines altogether – such as Gender Studies, or Ambedkar Studies – have faced serious fund cuts over the years, be it during the UPA governments, or the current NDA Government. In parallel we have heard battle cries across institutions to “raise your own funds” and become “autonomous”, by getting your research paid for by the industry (which of course means aligning your research with the market in the first place), by introducing paid courses, fee hikes, etc etc. These efforts are not new, and have been happening in tandem with the World Bank and WTO policies of marketisation of education, converting education from a public service to a saleable commodity (about which we have reported earlier). The first blood was drawn perhaps by Kapil Sibal’s so called “New Education Policy”. The spirit of the Sibal framework was championed by the current Government, which effected successive budget cuts over the past 4 years in spending for education over all, and higher education in particular.

Under the present Government, in 2016, then HRD Minister Smriti Irani constituted the TSR Subramaniam committee to write a report on “new visions” regarding higher education. This committee incidentally had no official academicians, and was essentially a part of the bureaucracy. But for some reason, their 200-page long detailed report was never published by the MHRD. In fact, in June 2016, TSR Subramaniam himself wrote to Irani “Make our report public, or I will”. But for some reason he went silent after that. After this came the Kasturirangan committee – there has been no updates on their findings as well, as of today. Not surprisingly therefore, we also don’t know what kind of policy or education-related research or vision-seraching went on behind the HECI draft.

The first such committee to be constituted by this Government however, was the Hari Gautam Committee. Prof. Hari Gautam was himself an ex-UGC Chairperson, and has been on the Governing Board of the Neotia University – one of the private universities that have mushroomed in the recent years. Hari Gautam Committee had outrightly recommended scrapping off the UGC, though the Government did not know what to do with the report then, and put in the the cold freezer. Given such a consistent history of attempts towards gutting the UGC – both by the UPA and the NDA Governments – this move to ‘replace’ it with the HECI clearly has no element of surprise. History also makes it clear what ‘autonomy’ really means – merely ‘autonomy’ from state funding, and capitulation to market forces. In fact, it is basically ‘autonomy’ or ‘freedom’ of the government that has been instituted here: freedom from funding public education, autonomy of education from public accountability and control. How else are we to make sense of why a Government which seems to care this much about ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’, has given only an 11 days notice period to collect “public feedback” of something as important as this major policy shift from the UGC to the HECI.

But an interesting question that still remains is – Why now? The same Government, which was not sure as to how to handle the Hari Gautam Committee report that said essentially the same thing, has opted to go for it now, towards the end of it’s term. This falls straight in line with the recent “muscular” moves the Government has made – illegal arbitrary arrests of democratic rights activists, and establishing Governor’s rule over Jammu and Kashmir. This string of muscle flexing right after the shock the current regime received after losing the Kairana by-poll elections, and a series of other such elections across the country, including the Karnataka elections – is in league with it’s earlier hey-day stunts like demonetisation or GST. Clearly there is a signaling being made to the business bosses and the Sangh. We have to now see what such signals amount to.

Coming back to the Higher Education Commission of India, we have seen over the past 4 years what the National Institution for Transforming India, so-called NITI –  essentially a government think tank – has meant as a replacement of the Planning Commission. If that is any marker to go by, we could only hazard a guess to what the HECI is going to achieve in the years to come. But for today the Minister himself, promptly enough, has launched a barrage of tweets filled with promises of Ministry-approved funding for education across the country.

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