Higher education worries

The Central government is mulling far-reaching changes in the country’s higher education structure which call for all stakeholders to be on high alert, including State governments. A move has begun to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) and replace it with a ‘Higher Education Commission of India (HECI)’. This proposed regulatory body will not have any funding powers — the grant-making authority will be vested in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The proposal to hive off UGC’s inspection and funding powers is of long standing, the NDA regime claims, arguing that the proposed changes will allow the new body to focus exclusively on the quality outcome at colleges and universities. To this end, a bill has already been drafted and circulated before it is tabled in Parliament during the monsoon session. However, some provisions of the bill have triggered disquiet in various quarters. The new commission will specify what will be taught at higher educational institutions as well as desirable learning outcomes, and also lay down standards for teaching, assessment, and research. For all purposes, varsity authorities and State governments will have practically no say in determining the course curriculum But what if HECI’s orders are not obeyed? In that case, HECI can shut down the offending institution, and what is more, even jail the varsity or college authority for up to 3 years (only institutions of ‘national importance’ like the IITs will be exempt). As for the structure of this commission vested with punitive powers, it will have a chairperson, vice-chairperson and 12 other members; the chairperson will be selected by a panel to be headed by the Union cabinet secretary; of the 12 members — three will be secretaries from the departments of higher education, skill development & entrepreneurship and science & technology, four will be heads of Central bodies like AITEC and NCTE, one member will be an industry doyen, and only the remaining four will be academics.

Two key points in the proposed HECI bill need to be examined closely. To ensure ‘employability’ of those who receive higher education, the commission will prescribe norms. The Central government seems to believe having secretary ranked bureaucrats and a top industrialist in the new commission will help bring this about. It is all very well to talk about tailoring curriculums to suit industry requirements, but will it be to the detriment of fields of knowledge and pure research whose commercial benefits are not yet clear? The other point being bandied about is ensuring the ‘autonomy’ of colleges and varsities. Because such institutions will have no say in what they will be teaching and other academic matters, then what will be their autonomy about? Well, they will be ‘free’ to collect the fees they need — and in this matter, the new commission will only give ‘advice’! Quite understandably, this has sparked worries that colleges and varsities will be reduced to mere centers for ensuring course completion, holding exams and declaring results. The bottom line literally is money, which the government appears loath to give. From all indications, the Central government is anxious to tap new sources to fund higher education. The money could be available as loans, seen as a way to compel educational institutions to be fiscally accountable. Quite often, the government has made no secret of its displeasure at institutions perennially dependent on UGC grants but having little to show in terms of learning outcomes and employability of pass-outs.

A pointer of things to come was the Union Cabinet’s decision early this month to allow MHRD to raise Rs 1 lakh crore from the market to fund education infrastructure and research. The sources will include education bonds, commercial borrowings, and corporate houses, and the money will be collected by the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) under MHRD. The thinking seems to be that IITs and IIMs will repay loans from their internal resources, while other institutions will get grants from MHRD as per status to partially service their loans. No wonder the Tamil Nadu recently government expressed the apprehension that “the funding pattern would change from 100% funding to 60:40 ratio between Government of India and the State Government.” As for the role of State governments, it would be limited to only a representation in the advisory council, as proposed in the draft bill. It remains to be seen what the K Kasturirangan committee proposes for higher education as part of the new education policy it is drafting and is slated to submit a report on 31st August this year. But the Assam government needs to be prepared for the winds of change that could blow hard on the fortunes of State colleges and varsities as well as their students. We could end up with higher educational institutions having little tolerance for free thinking to push the limits of human intellect. Learning could be judged on the scales of ‘practicality and market demand’. There could be hidden political agenda for government to exert control over what will be taught while holding tight on to its purse strings. This is far too vital an issue to be complacent or uncaring about.