The government’s proposal to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) with a Higher Education Commission indicates a realistic appraisal of the grossly inadequate regulatory structure for higher education that has resulted in a visible deterioration in standards. This draft legislation appears to be part of a stated overarching strategy towards greater autonomy in institutes of higher learning, including the premier Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management. It is also of a piece with the proposal in March this year to grant some sort of conditional autonomy to 52 universities and eight colleges. The broad thrust of the Higher Education Commission legislation is to separate governance from funding. The proposed commission, the outlines of the Act suggest, will focus on academic issues, such as course curricula, faculty standards and outcomes, leaving “monetary matters” to the ministry of human resource development.
On paper, this sounds sensible, since the fund-granting process of the UGC and the technical education regulator — All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) — has been plagued with allegations of corruption and inefficiency. In reality, the setting up of a higher education commission raises many questions. Setting minimum standards such as faculty qualifications and infrastructure will be only one part of the commission’s mandate. Course curricula are the bigger responsibility and it is here that concerns arise about the independence of the commission as a regulator of higher education standards. How genuine will this be? Though institutional autonomy may be written into the legislation, experience with other sector regulators does not strengthen confidence on this score. The risk of political interference is, and remains, the biggest challenge. The propensity for such interference remains high since the financial dispensation will, under the new scheme, be directly under government control. The experience with the IITs and IIMs is a good pointer in this regard.
Over the past two years, both sets of institutions have been granted a greater degree of autonomy in terms of board appointments, fee structures and admissions. But such autonomy went only so far; in January, the government proposed a new law establishing a Council of Institutes headed by the HRD minister. The remit of this council was broad-ranging as it was ominous: it would review the performance of the IIMs, recommend scholarships for backward castes and such other functions referred to it by the Centre. The thinking behind this move, which has been vociferously opposed by the IIM governing bodies, is to make the IIMs “centres of excellence” that will award degrees instead of diplomas. Since the mainstream IIMs have an established global reputation, it is difficult to understand how the establishment of this “council” will help. The fact is that the creation of a higher education commission offers a tremendous opportunity for the government to take a giant leap towards fixing a broken system at a time when the quality of human capital is increasingly determining the success of nations. The United States of America is perceived as a declining power today but it owes its persisting global dominance to a robust and extraordinarily independent higher education system that has spawned an ecosystem of innovation and higher research that authoritarian regimes such as China, which is pouring funds into education, struggle to emulate. On this one parameter, India will do better to look West rather than East.