The draft Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill, 2018 (HECI) has triggered systemic and institutional fears and concerns. The move cannot but have deep structural implications. Dr. Gurukkal, what, to your mind, are the most critical issues at stake?
To my mind, the most critical issue is bureaucratic centralisation and homogenisation of the higher education sector. It is the sustained effort to legislate centralisation that excites fears and concerns. The Draft Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) 2018 is old wine in a new bottle. There is nothing new about the proposal to scrap the UGC with a single regulator commission. It has been one of the key agendas of Central Governmentsover a decade now, ever since the National Knowledge Commission (2005) recommended an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) as the substitute. The Yashpal Committee 2009 endorsed the idea of a single regulator. The National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 (NCHER), subsuming all regulatory bodies,such asthe UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DEC, was the first legislative attempt towards the ‘objective’. The Narayana Murthy Committee Report 2012 emphasised the developmental urgency of enacting such a Bill. Nevertheless, amidst controversies even over its constitutional validity, the Parliament rejected the Bill in 2014. Anticipating the NCHERBill’s defeat, the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) had appointed a committee to examine the redundancy of the UGC and based on the review committee’s recommendations a ‘National Higher Education Authority’ was mooted. Now the idea is back again as the HECI Draft Bill 2018, a rehashed version of the NCHERBill. Putting the whole higher education of the country under a single regulator is a need driven by the corporates, for it enables a certain disciplining of the sector to suit their enterprises.
So, there is pressure on the government to centralise?
Corporates have been forcing the government to legislate centralisation in the sectors of health and education. But they cannot wait till due legislation is carried out,a time-consuming exercise. Functional autocracy rendered plausible through bureaucracy is the alternative to democratic procedures. Developmental urgency is the excuse put up by way of justification for bypassing democratic procedures. There have been sustained attempts at legislating centralisation. HECI is its latest instance in the higher education sector. It seeks to entrench a centralised bureaucratic authority with explicit precedence over the democratic system of educational governance. This is a clear case of disregardof federalism, which upsets educational perspectives at the regional level. A few states such asKerala have been pursuing an inclusive approach to educational development, which combines growth with equity and access. Naturally, such states’ approach has been horizontal, with a strong sense of distributive justice as distinguished from the exclusive approach of competitive selection and vertical privileging at the national level.
What is the principal interest of the corporates?
Today, higher education is a trillion-dollar trade site in marketable knowledge for the corporates. Knowledge economy, academically called ‘technocapitalism’, heavily depended on science and technology for trade in marketable knowledge, which is its main source of accumulation today andis the decisive pressure behind it all. Trade in knowledge, facilitated through the transaction of patents and intellectual property rights (IPR), helps corporates fetch profits that amount to almost four-fifth of their total turnover. Easily distributed via global communication networks, marketable knowledge generating other commodities as well is both commodity and capital today. MHRD, advised about this dynamic ofknowledge economy, thinks it ideal to chart a path for India’s economic development where knowledge management assumes a key role. Corporates want an industry friendly academic environment of autonomy and discipline in higher education for producing innovative graduates in diverse fields of global demand. Their goal is fast realisation of a few such institutions of excellence through competitive selection in ‘challenge mode’ as corporates call it. They pressure the MHRD to reorient the national revenue expenditure in higher education and selectively invest ina few most competent institutions, rather indiscriminately squandering money oninstitutions across the country. Corporates are willing to share the expenditure by building up their own universities and research institutions of global standards but under the state guarantee of subsidies and privileges. These select institutions are expected to be centrifuges of best brains with innovative faculty trained to handle high-power computing essential for research in science-tech hybrid areas of interestfor corporates.
How do corporates secure better capital accumulation through trade in marketable knowledge?
Corporates have already built up the world over largeexperimentalist establishments for generating patents and IPR by employing thousands of young graduates proficient in theoretical research across genomics, bio-synthetic engineering, agro-biotechnology, bioinformatics, robotics, cloud computing and so on. Now their demand is that the state provide them special status and exclusive patronage. It is a sophisticated institutional method used bycorporates to‘tap’ creativity and intellectual property rights.
India is a modernising project in the making, where every institution needs to be responsive and adaptive to the finest impulses of the spirit of the Constitution and constitutional guarantees, inclusion being one of them. Where has the UGC failed to have called for such a drastic ‘reinvention’?
Limitations of the UGC are too many. Its democratic structure as well as deliberative functions achieved through the huge secretariat of support staff, multiple bureaus/committees of academics, and ungainly procedures, jointly causing inordinate delays in decision-making are notorious. The UGC has also beenseen as a failure in resolving issues such asthe unwieldy affiliating system, inflexible academic structure, uneven capacity across various subjects, eroding autonomy of academic institutions, and poor quality higher education. Further, it was not successful in effectively addressing needs such asworld-class quality assurance, international credit transfer system, mobility across streams of general higher education, professional skills development and so on. However, most allegations against the UGC are self-contradictory. Why accuse the UGC for not regulating privatisation or commercialisation of higher education, which was a government imposition under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation?In fact, it is the UGC’s regulatory intervention in privatisation/commercialisation, which has been annoying the architects of HECI.
In an interview late last year you say, and I quote: “Universities should be completely under the control of academic power, and never under the imposition of arrogant and under-qualified administrators.” The draft proposal, in fact, seeks to centralise wide-ranging powers with the Ministry of Human Resources, more specifically with a bureaucrat of the rank of a Joint Secretary, when it comes to grants or funding.
Look at the recent UGC regulations on Autonomous Colleges/Universities to gauge the extent of government control over the UGC for ensuring unbridled growth of privatisation and commercialisation. MHRD’s presumption that HECI can successfully manage with some ten bureaucrats what the UGC and its multiple bodies of specialists failed to achieve, is ludicrous. Every supreme value in higher education, such as equity, access, universality, excellence, democracy and what not, is part of the draft Bill’s avowed goals. But there is total ignorance about the fact that the Commission’s central objectives such as privatisation, commercialisation and globalisation of higher education for exclusive merit preclude goals of equity and access. This does not mean that UGC is perfect. There is no difference of opinion about the urgency to improve upon UGC. Nevertheless, if the draft Commission Bill is enacted as such to replace UGC, it can only worsen the state of higher education in the country.
Sections 12(e)-(g) of the UGC Act 1956 laid down an advisory role for the Commission, especially with reference to information sought by the Central or State Governments. On the other hand, the Draft HECI Bill mandates the setting up of an Advisory Council within the Commission to be chaired by the Union Minister for Human Resources Development and with Chairpersons/Vice-Chairpersons of all State Councils for Higher Education as members. Dr. Gurukkal, to what extent do you think, will there be an appropriation of advisory autonomy, in fact, autonomy itself?
HECI draft document shows not even theslightest indication of expertise or scholarship or planning based on any intellectual appraisal. It explicitly makes an impatient rush to leave the entire higher education sector for the corporates to control. While the UGC has been a constitutionally ordained Commission of democratic heritage and academic power reinforced by funding authority, HECI is a body of bureaucrats obliged to go by the unilateral and absolute powers of the Ministry. A recommendatory body with no powers, which would lay down norms of standards, their monitoring and accreditation for granting graded autonomy, and recommend performance-based funding, disinvestment and even shutting down of institutions. In effect it shall be a namesake body that prescribes what the government wants to do. HECI, if legislated, shall be the end of all democratic hopes for quality higher education with equity and access, for its agenda is to realise a higher education sector of the corporates, by the corporates, and for the corporates. What to do now is unequivocal. Since the Bill is open for discussion, it is extremely crucial to make the best use of the occasion for creatively redoing this highly centralised, bureaucratised, undemocratic, and anti-academic document.
Soon after you took over as Vice-Chairman of Kerala State Higher Education Council, you spoke about “determination of learning outcomes (under Outcome Based Education) as the first step in course designing... Outcomes decided upon should evolve out of the contents, instructional strategies, learning experiences, methods of evaluation, and assessment.” How could it possibly tie in with the proposed “learning outcomes” under Section 15.3(a) of the HECI draft, which, it is widely feared, could lead to a state of standardised ‘meritocracy’ without reference to a student’s background, especially of those from historically deprived and marginalised communities?
Outcome Based Education (OBE) is originally an extension of militaristic disciplining in the industrial sector, which insisted on predetermined deliverables in advance. However, it helps resuscitate teaching how to learn and deepening learning through systematic unlearning as inevitable constituents of quality assurance. OBE insists upon determination of learning outcomes as the first step in course designing. Outcomes that are decided upon should evolve out of the contents, instructional strategies, learning experiences, methods of evaluation, and assessment. At different levels of higher education, each course should have its own expected outcomes, explained logically through a linked process, which can be defended as to its ability to produce graduates with predetermined outcomes. The worthiness or desirability of the whole course can be pre-judged before its implementation, by the defensibility of its objectives viz., the outcomes, and how they can be achieved through the several steps contained in the process. Precisely drawn specific outcomes provide clarity of purpose in teaching/learning. Informing learners about the outcome well in advance, OBE enables ongoing concurrent self-assessment of learners for making sure of their progress towards attaining the outcome. It provides them with chances to demand new learning experiences that ensure outcome. Since the outcomes are stated, the teachers also get to know the progress and they enjoy the legitimate right to test whether the learners have attained the goal. Nevertheless, who or what combination of forces would ultimately decide outcomes is a crucial question. The HECI draft stipulating a nationally imposed set of learning outcomes makes it explicit that ultimately the corporates would decide them. In a techno-economically globalised world, the outcomes would be set globally.
“Higher learning is inevitably a self-directed and highly personalised process of unlearning,” you say. Dr. Gurukkal, under the proposed ‘reinvention’ of UGC in the form of HECI, where do we go from here, especially given the deep social, structural, economic, and historical complexities that constitute India?
That is quite clear. HECI, if legislated, shall be the end of all democratic hopes for quality higher education with equity and access in the country. However, this bill is not going to be legislated.