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The draft higher education Bill needs some tweaking

Through its power to grant and revoke authorisation and order closure of institutions after enquiry, for 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 standalone institutions (All India Survey on Higher Education 2016-17), HECI will have the power to hold hostage the ability of colleges to even enrol students by refusing to grant them authorisation.

analysis Updated: Jul 20, 2018 19:09 IST
Through its power to grant and revoke authorisation and order closure of institutions after inquiry, for 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 standalone Institutions (All India Survey on Higher Education 2016-17), HECI will have the power to hold hostage the ability of colleges to even enrol students by refusing to grant them authorisation. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

The ministry of human resource development’s (MHRD) draft Higher Education Commission of India Bill 2018 (HECI) is being called a major reform, which will promote “less government and more governance” and “focus on academic quality”. But academics and education experts have criticised certain provisions of the Bill, and the government has promised to address these anomalies.

On Thursday, minister of state for HRD, Satya Pal Singh, said in Parliament that the ministry received 7,529 suggestions and comments from educationists, stakeholders and the public on the Bill and the ministry is making the necessary changes to the Bill based on the comments received.

Earlier this week, a report in Hindustan Times said the government is mulling revising the draft: instead of the ministry, an independent body of experts will decide on grants to institutions, and the provision of an “advisory council” — which was to be chaired by the HRD minister — has been modified in the amended draft Act.

There is absolutely no doubt that the HECI Bill needs to be altered if the Centre wants it to promote, in its own words, “less government and more governance”, “downsize the scope of the regulator”, “remove interference in management of educational institutions”, and “focus on academic quality”.

In its current form, the Bill will do only the opposite:

Far from “less government”, the proposed HECI is to be packed with more government than ever, and with the State controlling the purse strings as the regulator will not have the power to disburse grants to institutions. Not only are the chairperson and all other members of the HECI to be chosen by a search-cum-selection-committee headed by the Cabinet secretary, along with the secretary of higher education and three other academics, the UGC Act’s proscription that neither the chairpersonship nor majority in the commission should reside with officers of the central/state governments has been removed.

The composition of the search committee for commission members has been changed, dropping the membership of the MHRD secretary, but the composition of the commission is still all government, and teachers and educationists have been left out. Authorisation for existing colleges and universities have been omitted, but the power to order the closure of institutions, set performance targets for them, and eventually push them out of state funding remains unchanged.

Three of the 11 members of HECI are to be secretaries of government departments. Six others are to be chosen from those who are already in office at the pleasure of the central government — two chairs of regulatory bodies, two of accreditation agencies, two serving vice-chancellors. Another member is a “doyen of industry”, but who is to be classified as such is left undefined. Teachers are reduced to an ineffectual minority of just two serving professors. And since the secretary to the commission is also a central government officer, HECI will have no legislative autonomy either.

Through its power to grant and revoke authorisation and order closure of institutions after enquiry, for 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 standalone institutions (All India Survey on Higher Education 2016-17), HECI will have the power to hold hostage the ability of colleges to even enrol students by refusing to grant them authorisation.

Even if authorisation is obtained, its force is contingent on satisfying both performance targets set over the next 10 years as well as a yearly academic performance audit carried out by HECI. Given the composition of HECI, this means government control of the day-to-day functioning of educational institutions.

All that will result is a partial authorisation process, susceptible to corruption, which will disrupt the functioning of universities. It will also severely affect the federal nature of governance — education is on the concurrent list, yet effectively, in order for state-level institutions to run, permission must first be obtained first from the HECI/central government.

What is to be academic quality is also to be determined by the Centre and its officers, rather than teachers, students, and the public. Unlike the UGC, which was at least supposed to work in consultation with educational institutions and specify minimum regulations, HECI’s regulations will be maximal and binding.

The HECI will micromanage all aspects of academic life in the institutions as well. It will specify norms for “learning outcomes”, “governance structure”, a “Code of Good Practices”, “effectiveness of programmes”, all of which shall have the “prior approval of the Central Government”. The HECI Bill widens the scope of the regulator to enforce obedience in educational institutions, stamp out the much-needed diversity that makes them viable in the many different local contexts that they exist in and the populace they serve.

In fact, the autonomy that the HECI Bill is being publicised as having is available only to a select few institutions that will be given ”graded autonomy”, which we know from the UGC’s version of them, is a euphemism for divestment from high performing educational institutions.

The loss of state support for the institutions that will be so set free will almost entail immediate transfer of the burden of resource generation on to students, a manifestation of which will be increase in fees, the casualisation of teachers’ employment, and a drastic reduction of access to quality education for the bulk of the Indian population, particularly for those who carry the burden of historical social disadvantage.

The HECI Bill frames itself as a response to the “changing priorities of higher education” in the country, but as the figures from AISHE 2016-17, published by the MHRD, reveals that this change in priorities is not for the benefit of the majority of the population. Overall, only 25.2% young people in the 18-23 age group currently enrol in a university/college, with the figure plummeting to 14.2% for SCs, 5.1% for STs, 34.4% for OBCs, and 7.1% for minorities. The all-India average for available colleges/universities is just 28 per lakh of population, with about 80% of colleges admitting not more than a thousand students. In this distressing scenario, if the government’s priorities are not for a radical expansion of accessible and affordable higher education committed to social justice, then its commitment to the country’s development as a knowledge economy must be questioned.

Ayesha Kidwai is a professor of linguistics in Jawaharlal Nehru University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 19:08 IST