HEC Bill will lead to further centralisation of higher education: Experts

The draft Higher Education Commission of India Bill, 2018, which repeals the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act, has received more than 5,000 responses from academia, professors and universities in two weeks. In a spate of constructive criticism, it has triggered a debate on how access to, and quality of higher education in India should improve and accelerate. 

On the one hand, educationists, including former government officials, have raised an alarm over possible reduction of states’ autonomy, transfer of funding rights from an independent UGC to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), and excessive centralisation. According to legal experts, though it may not change the nature of legal cases in the education space, the number may go up due to stringent actions against the nonbinding institutions. 

And on the other, the Union government and heads of some universities have strongly argued for the new body, the chief objective of which would be raising learning outcomes and education standards. 

“It is necessary to weed out those one-room universities which still thrive,” said R Subrahmanyam, higher education secretary in the MHRD, stressing it's time the onerous task of setting standards of quality higher education is taken up. 

The HEC curtails the autonomy of states in two ways, experts said. One, any college would now require the approval of the HEC to get affiliated to any university in India. Second, it would also need prior approval to start the first academic session of a new degree. 

M Anandakrishnan, former chairman of IIT Kanpur and former vice-chancellor of Anna University, said the HEC draft, written in a “crude, threatening” language, severely emasculates the power of states as able governing entities.  “The 42nd constitutional amendment shifted education from the State list to the Concurrent list. The HEC virtually moves it from the Concurrent to the Union list,” he told Business Standard

The Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) will now have a dominant role in the functioning of universities, which is inadvisable, he said.  Shobha Ghosh, a leading educationist and assistant secretary general, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) too argued that the HEFA should be brought out of the ministry and incorporated as a company. 

State officials and some renowned institutions have commended the separation of regulatory and financial functions. “Under the UGC, only those universities which fell under Section 12B would get grants. But new institutions that were overall good, but had to sort some issues were excluded. Now it would be more judicious (disbursal of grants),” said Dr Anup K Singh, director general of Nirma University in Gujarat. 

Singh, however, believes state governments would be a bit wary of the HEC draft on what happens to their role in higher education. “There would be some conflict. We don’t know how much centralisation HEC would like to have. The HEC could be quite centralised in formation of rules,” he added.

Officials from the Gujarat government seemed unperturbed by the HEC taking away some of their rights. “If the technical colleges have it (centralised control) through the AICTE, then why should there be a problem for non-technical colleges?” a senior official said. 

The Yashpal Committee, set up in 2008 to reform and rejuvenate higher education, had aimed for a complete overhaul assimilation of all education regulators into a one-stop shop for all colleges and universities providing higher education. But its recommendations eventually tanked. 

UGC too received valid criticism in recent years for being a toothless body unable to act against trouble makers—those who award fake degrees and set up colleges in two rooms—and for being ineffective on quality, supporters and critics of HEC said.  

Legal experts noted the overtones of HEC were similar to those of the Yashpal committee. 

“The HEC looks progressive. But it still does not address the issue of multiplicity of regulators,” pointed out Aarushi Jain, leader, education practice, with law firm Nishith Desai Associates. Technical, pharma and medical sciences have their own bodies for monitoring higher education, she added.

Experts in the education sector feel that centralisation of authority in higher education has been going on for decades and HEC is the most recent centralising force. “Until the National Knowledge Commission, the word ‘regulation’ was non-existent in education affairs. Now, it has become the norm,” said a former UGC chairman. 

Quoting German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger, a septuagenarian professor quipped, “The University should always be higher than the state. The HEC in its current form demonstrates centralisation of authority, politicisation of funding and corporatisation of decision-making process.”

Converting the philosophical concerns to worldly ones in principle, Nirma’s Singh feels that government would be more concerned of access and equity, and not excellence. “Excellence can be promoted by institutions and not government," he said.