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August 03, 2018 Friday 03:35:22 PM IST

‘AUTONOMY COMES WITHOUT STRINGS’

Cover Story

The draft Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill, 2018 (HECI) has created the fear of over centralisation of regulatory powers at the Centre and that too in the hands of a body which would be, if the bill is turned into an Act and law, totally subservient to the government of the day. The committee meant to select the chief of this body would be the Cabinet Secretary and there would be other government representatives as well.

It leaves no one in doubt that the person selected through this process cannot act independently of the government. There is another “advisory council” proposed in the bill to be chaired by the Union Minister for Human Resources Development. This is the first time the Ministry of Human Resources Development(MHRD) has sought a direct role in the functioning of the apex body looking after higher education of India.

The composition of the governing body of the commission makes it too government heavy with little space for academicians. It also does not have any representation from the private higher education sector which is growing at an unprecedented rate. It, thus, totally ignores the ground reality of the higher education sector.


The bill seeks to micromanage universities. For example, it takes upon itself the task of deciding the learning outcomes of each and every academic course. 



The bill also seeks to review the progress of universities annually. What mechanism and resources would it have to do it? Given the expanding nature of the higher education sector of India this is an audacious task the bill sets for the proposed apex body. Besides, it denies States the right to establish universities in complete violation of the Indian Union’s federal principle.


However, what must be of principal concern to all of us is the perfunctory statement regarding the aims and objectives of the proposed body. It claims that its aim is to enhance the autonomy of universities and lessen interference in the governance of higher education institutions. As of now the universities are supposed to be governed by their Acts which give them sufficient freedom. It is not clear what more value addition is being offered in the Act.



Moreover, as there are no new philosophical underpinningsfor the bill, one is forced to conclude that it is merely a change in name and, worse, a body subordinate to the government.


The issue of funding has long been discussed. But to take away the function of funding from it and hand it to MHRD makes a mockery of the claim of keeping institutions autonomous. More importantly, it does not understand that funding of educational institutions is a very complex business that involves granting support to research projects, individual teachers, research fellows, and various other initiatives. It requires the involvement of a large number of academics. To expect the Ministry to have a nuanced understanding of this complex task is asking too much from it.



The bill claims to be a revolutionary transformatory step in higher education. But it suffers from wilful amnesia regarding the history of attempts to bring in reform in regulatory bodies. A sounder philosophical case was built by the Yashpal Committee, which called for an end to the fragmentation in the regulation of institutions involved in creating and imparting knowledge. It was not merely to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) by a new body but to merge the academic regulatory functions of all the bodies dealing with law, medicine, engineering, management,architecture, agriculture, etc. in order to have a holistic view of the world of higher education.


Prof. Yashpal, a distinguished scientist and educationist, who was a former UGC Chairman, also argued that more than regulation, it should be the job of this apex body to facilitate autonomous functioning of the educational bodies. The bill in question talks about granting graded autonomy. Yashpal had famously observed that autonomy comes without strings. Autonomy should not be seen as a reward but as precondition for excellence.



The proposed bill is pedestrian in its language and approach. The government needs to go back to the history of the attempts to reform the higher education sector and first develop an understanding of the challenge, make a more truthful diagnosis before writing a prescription as has been done in the form of the bill.



Dr. Apoorvanand

A Professor at the Department of Hindi, University of Delhi, is a well-known columnist and public intellectual.

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