Autonomy in, UGC out

Higher education demands government intervention with financial support, not for curbing dissent.

'Autonomy' Explained

Some 62 universities and colleges were granted, in last March, a degree of freedom from the oversight of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which itself is being repealed now. The policy allows institutions with high accreditation scores awarded by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) to start courses, research facilities and programmes without seeking the commission's permission. Those in the top category, with a score of 3.51 or more out of 4, are even free from external reviews. Five central universities, 21 state universities, 26 private universities and 10 other colleges were granted autonomy under the Autonomous Colleges Regulation. The institutes include JNU, BHU, AMU, TERI, JU, Pune University and the University of Hyderabad, which have maintained high standards of excellence. These quality institutions, as per the declaration, will receive complete autonomy by which they can start new courses, departments, programmes, off-campus centres, skill courses, research parks, appoint overseas faculty members, take foreign students, offer variable incentive packages and introduce online distance learning courses.

'Autonomy' Exposed

Most of the academic community members are of the opinion that the move is nothing but the government's withdrawal from the education sector to allow space for private players. In contrast, the Indian Constitution, so far, has visualised education as an important tool of social-economic-political transformation which could ensure the objectives enshrined in the Preamble. Jadavpur University's (JU) teachers' body objected most to the regulations which stated that autonomous institutions would be allowed to add infrastructure, launch programmes or initiate collaborations with others without taking permission "provided no demand for a fund is made from the government". They fear that this would lead to high fees, ad hoc teaching appointments and the neglect of those academic disciplines which are less immediately connected to industry.

Further, there exists confusion on what this autonomy entails. Osmania University VC, S Ramachandran, is under the impression that an autonomous status will bring more government funds. In reality, the regulations state categorically that all programmes started by autonomous institutions without the commission's permission must be financed by them. Despite the recognition bringing in laurels, many feel that it will be pushing the University towards unknown challenges. sCritics note that this will have an impact in the long-run as Universities will be forced to take in students who can pay, while gradually the meritorious students from humble backgrounds, who have been an integral part of public Universities, will be weeded out. Also, the recently held People's Tribunal in Delhi on attacks on higher education institutions in India, in its interim report, said, "The centrality of higher education to the survival of Indian democracy is crucial and the higher education system must itself be the space where the freedom to think, explore, discuss and also to dissent is maximised. Higher education institutions must be open to all sections of the society, particularly those marginalised in multiple ways."

Spending on education

The Union Budget, this year, had a reduced allocation of less than 1 per cent of the Gross National Income for education. This has added woes to the already crumbling public-funded higher education sector. Imposition of the partial funding formula for universities, the institutionalisation of loans instead of grants from UGC, making universities and colleges 'autonomous' and the contractualisation of jobs at universities are seen as ways to dismantle higher education. On the other hand, the CAG report tabled in the Parliament in 2017 tells us that the entire education cess collected during more than a decade since its imposition in 2006-07 has remained unspent. It's as huge as 83,497 crores. In addition, a mere 7.73 per cent of the taxpayer's money collected under the research and development cess in the last 20 years has been utilised, so far. Clearly, there is more to it than what meets the eyes. Under the guise of autonomy, the government may be pushing universities to generate their own resources through self-financed courses. This will eventually end with the state shedding its responsibility of subsidising education or treating it as a public good, as a public service, rather than as a commodity.

The other perspective

Several university heads have also expressed support for the autonomy of selected universities. Father Felix Raj, the VC of St Xavier's University, said, "Autonomy is good as it gives the institution the freedom to design their curriculum but yes, the cost of education definitely shoots up when one decides to include new courses. But then, it's very much needed to maintain the standard of the educational institute. The government still pays a certain amount as grants but for the traditional ones." Prof Dinesh Singh, the former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, said, "This is certainly a welcome step. They have reduced the oversight of the UGC, which is crucial. Its role has been extremely regressive and counter-productive in the last few years."

Repeal of UGC

The Centre has also prepared a draft Act, last month, to replace the University Grants Commission with a new regulator for higher education in the country. The Act is being called the Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018 (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act), i.e. HECI. The draft bill has claimed that the new institution will ensure more autonomy for colleges and facilitate holistic growth of the education system and also provide greater opportunities to students at a more affordable cost. It aims to reduce the interference of various regulatory bodies in the functioning of higher education institutions and create a single body that will have the power of accrediting institutions, maintaining their academic standard and even imposing fines for non-performance.

So far, various regulators – UGC, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Technical Education (NCTE) – have been functioning under the ministry. The new regulator will replace all of them to create a single regulatory authority. The HRD Minister has claimed that the transformation of the regulatory set up is based upon the principles of – Minimum government & Maximum governance, Separation of grant functions, End of inspection raj, Focus on academic quality, Powers to enforce. The government had asked for suggestions online till July 7.

HECI will be tasked with the mandate of improving academic standards with a specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions, mentoring of institutions, training of teachers, promoting the use of educational technology, among other functions. In addition to these, it will lay down standards for the opening and closure of institutions and also for appointments to critical leadership positions at all universities, even if they are established under state law.

Behind UGC Repeal

The seemingly mother-of-all reforms is, in fact, a climb down from the HEERA (Higher Education Evaluation and Regulatory Authority), earlier promoted by the PMO and NITI Aayog which tried to form a single body to oversee education. UPA HRD minister Kapil Sibal tried to do the same by advocating a National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). In the neoliberal WTO-GATT order of finance capitalism, education is not a right but a marketplace of profitable commerce, and, hence, needs to be commercialised. HECI is purportedly claimed as a regulatory body to maintain academic standards with punitive powers. It also, in one stroke, has legislated funding as the exclusive domain of the government of the day, thereby, compromising academic freedom by making financial grant conditional to the pleasure of the government in power.

The government appears to be withdrawing from the duty of providing more inputs/infrastructure in higher education by talking about public-private-personal partnership and, yet, tries to reap suitable outcomes or credulous subservience from these spaces of critical thinking by having absolute administrative and financial control. HECI will pave the way for higher student fees and place a greater curb on dissent and freedom of expression of individuals and institutions. It appears to be nothing but the government consolidating, centralising and monopolising power in academic matters while ensuring a free run for private capital. Most claims accompanying the new act seem anti-people. For instance, when it claims to end Inspection Raj, it actually inaugurates Accreditation Raj. In envisioning it as overriding the specific acts of universities and the legislation of states, this Act unilaterally legislates on a concurrent subject thereby encroaching on the rights of the state governments and jeopardising constitutional federalism.

While private education can co-exist based on market demands, the government's abdication of its responsibility from public education for the poor cannot be reduced.

(The author is a former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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