Column | Under fire, ‘archaic’ UGC has abdicated its regulatory role | punjab | Hindustan Times
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Column | Under fire, ‘archaic’ UGC has abdicated its regulatory role

Facing parliamentary pressure, the central government in September 2014 withdrew the ‘Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011’ which sought to abolish these regulatory bodies. But there has been no let up in the drive against them.

punjab Updated: May 18, 2017 11:06 IST
Avanindra Chopra
By invoking the powers available under the UGC Act itself, the government has cleverly circumvented parliamentary scrutiny by formulating the draft UGC Regulations 2017.
By invoking the powers available under the UGC Act itself, the government has cleverly circumvented parliamentary scrutiny by formulating the draft UGC Regulations 2017.(File Photo)

Following the submission of the Yash Pal committee’s report in 2009, which proposed a national commission to take over the responsibilities of the ‘archaic and draconian’ University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and other professional regulatory bodies such as the Bar, medical, dental, architecture, pharmacy and veterinary councils, there appears to be a well-orchestrated campaign underway to malign the educational regulators and truncate their powers.

Facing parliamentary pressure, the central government in September 2014 withdrew the ‘Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011’ which sought to abolish these regulatory bodies. But there has been no let up in the drive against them.

Now, by invoking the powers available under the UGC Act itself, the government has cleverly circumvented parliamentary scrutiny by formulating the draft ‘UGC (Grant of Graded Autonomy to Institutions of Higher Education) Regulations 2017’, which completely exempts top-ranking institutions from the purview of the UGC. Thus, the UGC seems to be strangling itself.

The human resource development (HRD) minister has frequently commented that the UGC and AICTE have become ‘stumbling blocks’ in promoting excellence in education; a leading newspaper’s recent editorial observes that the regulators’ ‘top-down whimsies choke bottom-up innovation’. Others accuse the ‘heavy-handed regulatory framework’ of having failed to check mediocrity in higher education. The budgetary announcement on restructuring the UGC-led regulatory framework and recommendations of various committees have built up a persuasive narrative that higher education can only thrive in a free and competitive environment without any regulatory mechanism whatsoever. Unfortunately, autonomous and statutory bodies have done little to absolve themselves of these accusations. In fact, they seem to have played into the very hands that want to enfeeble them.

NEED FOR BIG REFORMS

This hostility towards regulatory bodies perhaps is in sync with the emerging scenario that demands big-ticket ‘reforms’ to facilitate foreign and even domestic investment in the ‘business’ of higher education. Importantly, the institutions given exemption under the new regulations will be free to enter into foreign collaborations with global universities and set up new campuses, thereby eliminating the need of parliamentary sanction for the entry of foreign players in India.

Also, with a growing aspirational class rooting for ‘branded’ education for their wards, voices against indigenous regulatory bodies are finding great resonance. Moreover, many countries such as the USA and the UK have begun to block admissions of Indian students to their universities and colleges. So, it becomes imperative that foreign institutions are allowed to set up base in India to provide ‘exclusive’ education. This will also enable the government to claim credit for opening international institutions in India. Already, the 20 government and private educational institutions that will be selected for being developed into ‘world-class’ institutions have been promised full freedom from all regulatory framework.

It is argued that Indian students have long been deprived of the finest education available. Ideas that institutes in India, like their foreign counterparts, should recognise and award talented students and faculty wherein ‘merit’ alone is rewarded find takers in plenty. Autonomy in framing of new courses and awarding degrees, revising curriculum, admissions of students and fixing of their fees, recruitment and fixation of salaries of faculty all unencumbered by stifling UGC controls and the oppressive ‘reservation’ regime, is being promoted as a panacea for all ills troubling the higher education.

Moreover, several of the recent initiatives taken by the UGC have done little to enhance its stature or restore its erstwhile respectability. To just enumerate a few: it directs universities to adopt the choice-based credit system with the semester system, without taking the stakeholders on board, giving rise to great uncertainty reminiscent of the imbroglio when the four-year degree programme was introduced in Delhi University and later withdrawn. Curiously, the CBSE has discarded the semester system, whereas the UGC has embraced it, sending conflicting signals.

UGC CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

The UGC encourages each university to undertake periodic revision of curriculum but imposes its own template allowing only a 30% deviation from it. It allows institutions autonomy to design their own procedure for selection of research fellows but imposes strict conditions on the number of researchers a teacher can guide raising needless controversy. It wants self-financing courses to be introduced, but is unable to prevent institutions from profiteering from them.

Successive UGC pay-review committees, unlike those for other professions, arbitrarily leash teachers’ pay-revision to ever tougher conditions than earlier both in matters of appointments and promotions, effectively de-motivating them. Many of their teacher-friendly measures stay unimplemented. Worse, the last UGC pay revision of 2008 was linked to an impractical recruitment/promotion system based on Academic Performance Indicators (API) that privileged research over classroom teaching. Having seen four amendments since 2010, it remains work in progress. These and other flip-flops on teachers’ workload, approved journals for publication of research etc. have hurt the prestige of both the teachers and the UGC badly.

Whether the UGC redeems itself and reasserts its lost authority and credibility, or allows itself to be made absolutely redundant remains to be seen. But it needs to be acknowledged that higher education sector has witnessed a tremendous growth since the UGC came into existence. Some credit for the stupendous overall success of the India story, both here and abroad, must go to our educational institutions and regulatory bodies. No one is suggesting that we cease to strive for excellence in education, but to single out the regulatory mechanism as the sole culprit is an indictment thick with suspicion.

Views expressed are personal

(The writer is associate professor, DAV College, Chandigarh)