Speaking at the centenary celebration of Patna University last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised a pitch for reforms in higher education saying that it was a blot that no Indian university figures among the top few in the world. Now, the ministry of human resource development has come up with a draft bill to relaunch the University Grant Commission (UGC).
The new law will replace the 1956 Act and rechristen the UGC as the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). This is parallel to what the Modi government did with the erstwhile Planning Commission, which was replaced by NITI (National Institution for Transforming India).
The new regulator, once Parliament passes the Bill, will cede much of its power to the government except setting up an institution and maintenance of its academic records. With ideological schism deepening in the academic debate, greater political control of the regulator and university may ultimately impede completion of the agenda PM Modi set in his speech at Patna University on October 14 last year.
The UGC Act provides full autonomy to the regulator of higher education that the HECI Act is set to encroach upon. Under the existing provisions, the UGC chairman, vice-chairman and any of its 10 members cannot be removed by the government ensuring that academic standards in the institutions of higher education are governed by new fact-based research.
The new law will empower the government to remove any or all of them for specified reasons. This provision is fraught with the potential danger of motivated political appointments. The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) chairman was marred in controversy over the same allegation. That the left-heavy intelligentsia has dominated higher education in India may not be a strong enough defense to the future political appointment in the institutions of higher education or their regulator.
The new law will also take away from the UGCs replacement the HECI the power to disburse grants to universities. Now, the ministry of human resource development will be deciding the amount grant to a university and timing of its release. Universities in Opposition-ruled states and minority institutions of higher education have already been crying foul over alleged discrimination by the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.
Under the new law, the universities and higher education institutions face greater punishment for not complying with the standards read political viewpoint of the government of the day. The UGC is empowered to withhold the grants of an institution for not complying with the academic standards and its directions to improve the same. But under the HECI Act, the government can revoke approval of the institution in question.
The HECI Bill provides for an advisory council to the new regulator. There is no such council under the existing UGC Act. The new council will be chaired by Union HRD minister. This practically means the minister would be giving advice to the HECI chairman appointed by him. During 10 years of UPA rule, Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council was said to have behaved as an extra-constitutional authority with overbearing influence on the Manmohan Singh government.
The HECI draft law seeks to increase the retirement age of chairman and vice-chairman to 70 years from existing 65 years. With political parties fast moving towards a model cabinet with younger ministers, the institutions like proposed HECI may serve as a parking lot for politicians fit for becoming a part of marg-darshak mandal.