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Higher Education Commission of India bill, 2018

Context:

Recently, the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grant Commission Act) Bill, 2018 (HECI) was drafted by the Centre.

Background

  • Earlier, TSR Subramanian committee recommended to replace UGC by new national higher education act. Accordingly govt has now planned to set up “Higher education commission of India” (HECI).
  • NITI Aayog’s Higher Education Action Agenda also suggested overhaul of archaic UGC Act 1956.

Purpose of introducing this Bill:

  • Reform in higher education: The Bill will provide major reforms in higher education.

  • Failure of UGC: The UGC and its regulatory regime have been critised on the following grounds:
  1. The UGC is preoccupied with disbursing funds.
  2. Unable to concentrate on mentoring the institutes, focusing on research to be undertaken etc.
  3. Till now, the UGC had no such powers. All it could do was to release a list of bogus institutions and not recognise their degrees.
  • Red tape and lethargy: Several committees like Yash Pal committee, National Knowledge Commission and the Hari Gautam committee have recommended a single education regulator to rid higher education of red tape and lethargy.
  • Autonomy: Reform the regulatory mechanism to provide more autonomy to higher education institutes.
  • The proposed HECI will also subsume some sections of the Advocates Act 1961 and the Architects Act, 1972, legislations that created the Bar Council of India and the Council of Architecture of India respectively.

Key features of the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grant Commission Act) Bill , 2018:

  1. This Act provides for establishing the Higher Education Commission of India repealing the University Grants Commission Act, 1956.
  2. This Act is applicable for all higher educational institutions established, under any Act of the Parliament excluding Institutions of National Importance so notified by the Government, Act of State Legislature and to all Institutions Deemed to be Universities so notified by the Government.
  3. Term of office of Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and 12 Members
  • A person appointed as Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and other Members shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or upto 70 years of age
  • Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and Members shall be eligible for one more term subject to age limit of seventy years
  1. Separation of academic and funding aspects
  • HECI will be in charge of ensuring academic quality in universities and colleges
  • Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) will be responsible for funding universities and colleges.
  1. Maintenance of academic standards in the Higher Education system
  • Specify learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education;
  • Lay down standards of teaching / assessment / research or any aspect that has bearing on outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development;
  • Evaluate the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions, by monitoring the performance on criteria laid down;
  • Promote research in HEIs and coordinate with Government for provision of adequate funding for research;
  • Put in place a robust accreditation system for evaluation of academic outcomes by various HEIs;
  • Provide for mentoring of institutions found to be failing in maintaining the required academic standards;
  • Order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards without affecting the student’s interest or fail to get accreditation within the specified period;
  • Specify norms for award of degrees by the institutions laying down minimum credits to be earned in the given period;
  1. Advise the Central Government or any State Government on any question which may be referred to the Commission by the Central Government or the State Government, as the case may be;
  2. Specify minimum eligibility conditions for appointment of Vice Chancellor, ProVice Chancellor, Directors / Principals, Deans, Heads of Department, teaching and non-teaching staff of any Higher Educational Institutions;
  3. Specify norms and processes for fixing of fee chargeable by Higher Educational Institutions
  4. Perform such other functions as may be prescribed or as may be deemed necessary by the Commission for advancing the cause of higher education in India or as may be incidental or conducive to the discharge of the above functions.
  5. Monitor, through a national database, all matters concerning the development of emerging fields of knowledge, balanced growth of higher educational institutions in all spheres and academic quality in higher education and research;
  6. Submit an annual report to the Parliament on the roles, responsibilities and powers and functions discharged.

The HECI draft Bill is critised on the following grounds:

  • Political interference: The structure of the new body is such that it will give political parties more say in decision making regarding education.
  • Vagueness: It is also not clear how shifting the grant-related functions to the ministry will result in less interference.
  • There is no plan to merge all higher education regulators, as was proposed through a planned agency called Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA), which was supposed to be put in place as a super regulator.
  • Loopholes in UGC: The loopholes in the functioning of the UGC should have been addressed by the academicians in the higher education sector and not the government.
  • Government control: The nature of the structure of the commission and its advisory council shows that they are bound to have more “government” in decision making processes rather than academics.
  • Foreign degree granting institutions: The Bill seems to implicitly open the door to foreign degree-granting institutions as long as they meet the specified norms, it will be best to make it explicit. This will eliminate the threat of legal challenges should a foreign institution wish to enter India.
  • More authoritative: Sweeping powers render the HECI more authoritative than the collective strength of campus authorities.
  • Over regulate and micromanage universities : With its mandate of improving academic standards with a specific focus on learning outcomes, evaluation of academic performance by institutions, training of teachers, the HECI is likely to overregulate and micromange universities.
  • Impact on autonomy: The proposal to empower the centre to remove the HECI’s chairperson and vice-chairperson for reasons including “moral turpitude” will again curtail the regulators autonomy, which in turn will impact the autonomy of universities.
  • Institutions of National Importance: The Institutions of National Importance (INIs) have been kept out of purview of the proposed HECI Act

Way ahead:

  • HECI can uplift Indian higher education, but requires some correctives before enactment such as quantum jump in public expenditure in the following sector:
    • Making the universities major issues like making the universities the hub of scientific and technological research,
    • restoring the value of education in social sciences and the humanities,
    • ensuring that poor and meritorious students can afford to be educated in subjects of their choice,
    • improving the quality of instruction to enhance the employability of the students,
    • Addressing the concerns of faculty shortage, etc.
  • The government should also address the concerns of various academician before formalizing the bill
  • Ensure separation of funding decisions from political considerations
  • Need to learn from the US, the UK and Canada where none of the institutions is exempted from accreditation. In India, institutions like IITs are free from accreditation.
  • The future role of multiple regulatory bodies that currently exist for engineering, medicine and law must be addressed.
  • In the US, there is the concept of a super regulator that regulates autonomous regulators, particularly of professional sectors which need specialised knowledge. Similar democratic structures exist in many European democracies. India needs to learn from their experiences.
  • Set academic benchmarks for each stream, with sufficient autonomy to innovate on courses and encourage studies across disciplines.
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