Kudos to the Government of India for its concern for improving the quality of higher education in India. The passion and commitment to bringing in positive change is evident from the historical decision to scrap off the more than seven decade-old UGC and replace it with another commission. But it is imperative to introspect whether this transformation is actually addressing the issues, imperiling higher education or will it be just a replacement of one institution by another.
A look at the UGC Act 1956 for establishment of University Grants Commission shows that it was created for the promotion and coordination of university education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities, and had all empowerment for the purpose of performing its functions along with disbursement of funds to universities and recognised higher education institutions of the country.
Over a period of time, there have been indications that the standard of higher education in the country is declining and, as a consequence of it amongst various initiatives in 2011 itself, the Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 was brought in but could not see the light of day. There have been no of committees which have submitted their recommendations for upgrading the quality standards of higher education and certain recommendations have been complied but the enhancement of spending on higher education has not been done.
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Now again there is a determined move to scrap the UGC and establish the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The draft Act of HECI mandates it for promoting the quality of academic instruction and maintenance of academic standards, take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment.
Let us briefly compare the UGC which is in existence with the proposed HECI and review the relevance of proposed commission on certain accounts.The composition of the proposed HECI shows that it is by and large a similar representative body as that of UGC except that there is an additional Advisory Council in HECI. As regards the advisory council’s role is concerned, the similar role of overviewing the higher education and coordination with states is being currently performed by the Government of India. The broader mandate for HECI is similar to that of UGC except that the proposed HECI will not deal with disbursement of funds higher education Institutions and its functions are precisely described in context of the present requirement which may need change in the future. This will need a suitable grant disbursement system to be put in place in the concerned ministry either directly or through some other Institutions. However, introspection into the current functioning system of UGC exhibits that stripping off UGC from fund disbursement role will definitely allow it to utilise its potential for evolving policies and framework for maintenance of standard of higher education. The HECI Act empowers HECI starting from the authorizing start of functioning of higher education institution to its micromanagement for outcome-based education, innovation, incubation, entrepreneurship and research. The mandate given to HECI is well spelt for prescribing some of the specific domains relevant to the higher education system at present which was not explicitly there with UGC. However, there is no deterrent prohibiting UGC from intervening in these current predominant attributes of higher education. The proposed HECI will impose a limitation upon starting the Institutions being created by the legislature as they need to seek consent from HECI to become functional which was not there with UGC. Proposed act of HECI meticulously describes the most of specific initiatives needed to be taken by HECI for ensuring the access, equity and excellence. It aims to give more autonomy to the higher education Institutions but prescribing finer processes by HECI will not end up in giving autonomy to the Institutions and it will lead to the situation where HECI will be indirectly governing the Institution and there could be loss of autonomy due to top driven approach. In fact, it is essential for every Institution to brainstorm in respect to the prevailing requirements of education imparted by them and remain competitive for producing excellence.
Looking upon some of the aspects detailed herein, it seems that the proposed HECI will be simply replacing UGC with a much-detailed mandate and authorisation on administrative and academic affairs except financing, which is even available with the UGC but could not be exercised due to lack of its commitment in the past. The question that still remains unanswered is whether mere prescribing norms and standards and stringent regulation of higher education institutions can bring excellence without committed involvement of teachers and staff engaged in teaching- learning processes and research.
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In fact, the issue needing urgent attention is the prevalent deterioration in quality of primary and secondary education, compromises made while adhering to the prescribed quality standards for teachers, deficiency in enablers for delivering good quality teaching-learning processes, nepotism at top, shortage of teaching staff and insufficient funding which lead to the disastrous situation of mediocrity promoting mediocrity.
It seems, the UGC could have also delivered well, provided it was supplemented with requisite manpower to handle the significant increase in its workload since its creation in 1956 to 2018. It needs to be underlined that any Institution is not defective rather defect lies in the way it is administered to deliver as per its broader mandate to maintain the standard of higher education.
The integrity and commitment of human resource engaged in managing the systems is much more important to ensure the holistic improvement at every level i.e. with the regulators and also at the level of higher education institutions. Even the amendment to UGC Act to strip off its certain roles and adding more to it could also serve the purpose of precise prescription of the desired initiatives to be taken by it.
It is hoped that the new regulatory institution is capable of offering controlled autonomy for achieving excellence in higher education and the government enhances the spending on higher education. However, learning may be made from the roles played by the already existing regulators for professional education without financing authority since quite long for assessing their effectiveness and efficacy in delivering quality professional education.
(Dr Onkar Singh is the founder Vice Chancellor of Madan Mohan Malaviya University of Technology, Gorakhpur (UP), the first non-affiliating technical University of UP. Currently, he is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Harcourt Butler Technical University, Kanpur, UP - firstname.lastname@example.org)