UGC or HEC, high time higher education is redefined

  • Modi government seems determined to change the archaic education system
  • UGC to be replaced with a Higher Education Commission of India
  • Move to create world-class universities is a welcome development
UGC or HEC, hight time higher education is redefined
Institutions will come and go, but education will remain anachronistic. File photo

The Modi government seems determined to change the archaic education system in India. Among its latest proposed measures are replacement of the University Grants Commission (UGC) with a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), setting up of a separate agency to hold some examinations and giving some institutions in the private sector a higher status to build world-class universities. All these have been criticised as either unnecessary or motivated by considerations other than educational reform.

Unless there is a change in our mindset to accept changes, no reform programmes are likely to succeed. Institutions will come and go, but education will remain anachronistic.

“It does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” These famous words of Deng Xiaoping should be borne in mind when we look at the new avatar of the UGC being proposed by the Union Government with the HECI. Since the black cat did not catch enough mice, the expectation is that the white one will do it. But happily, the second cat has features other than the colour to give us hope that it may

perform better than the first. The declaration at the very outset that the mandate given to the UGC required redefinition based on the changing priorities of higher education is a truism that will not be challenged.

The disappearance of the word, “Grants” from the name of the new body is just a recognition of the fact that funding of state universities and others have already been shifted from the UGC to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) through the Rashtriya Uchatar Siksha Abhiyan (RUSA), set up by the previous Government. RUSA was meant to be an academic body, but it was soon swallowed up by the bureaucracy. Equally elementary is the jurisdiction given to the new body for all higher educational institutions, excluding institutions of national importance. (Curiously though, the Chairpersons of All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) have been included in the Advisory Council. Does it mean that AICTE and NCTE will continue to exist?)

The qualifications and qualities of the high officials of the new Commission have been elaborated,  but there is considerable ambiguity about the mandatory provisions, allowing the Government to appoint anyone, including “overseas citizens of India.” Here, doubts have been raised about the possibility of the Government of the day filling up these positions with its own supporters. But this should be taken for granted in any institution under any Government. Even though we do not have the spoils system as in the US, every Government is guilty of nepotism and that will continue regardless of the nature and structure of the institutions.

What India needs is a liberal education, which promotes the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all and providing for holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment. This is precisely stated among the functions of the Commission. Further, it will promote the quality of academic instruction and maintenance of academic standards. Moreover, learning outcomes should be specified for courses of study in higher education and lay down standards of teaching, assessment and research. Curriculum development, training of teachers and and skill development have also been included as the Commission’s functions. Monitoring the implementation of its decisions has been clearly assigned to the Commission. In other words, the functions are precisely specified and the Commission has no scope for diverging from its mandate. This is the heart of the proposal, which is beyond reproach.

Other important features of the responsibilities of the Commission are the authority to grant authorisation to higher education institutions and to revoke authorisation to them, if the need arises. The procedure for both actions has been laid down in detail. This is an important function, which gives the Commission some teeth.

The thrust of the mandate of the Commission is that it should be an academic body, with minimum interference from the bureaucracy and the politicians. But the Government has no intention to allow it to act totally independently. There will be an Advisory Council chaired by the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, with the Chairperson and members of the Commission as well as Chairpersons and Vice-Chairpersons of the State Councils for higher education as members. The advice rendered by the Advisory Council is binding on the Commission. In addition, the Commission shall be guided by policy directions of the Central Government and if there is a dispute on policy, the decisions of the Central Government will be final. Curiously, the Commission can give autonomy to other institutions, but the Commission itself will have very little autonomy in practice. The Commission will have no powers for policy making, funding of activities or any authority, which is not subject to the authority of the Advisory Council. In a sense, the new mandate could have been given to the UGC, without the “G” in it, instead of creating a new body. But the formation of the Commission is a signal that the Government means business to redefine higher education and to reinvent it to use the opportunities and to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Without drastic changes, India will not be able to derive the benefits of the demographic dividend.

One important point that is missing in the new context is the need to empower universities and colleges to re-engineer the education system on the basis of technological advancement. A few computers here and there will not suffice anymore as artificial intelligence and robotics too will energise learning in advanced nations. Many of the plans like revision of curriculum will be overtaken by technological advances unless the new body takes charge of the use of technology in higher education. The use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and “Flip Schools” must be embraced and popularised. “If the poor cannot come to education, education must reach them at the plough, in the factory, everywhere,” said Swami Vivekananda. Perhaps, the way to get education everywhere is to embrace technology.

The Union Government has also announced the creation of a National Testing Agency to develop a new examination system. Of course, our examination system is antiquated, with little use of technology. But why this responsibility has not been given to the new Commission is a bit of a mystery. The announcement of creating world-class universities is a welcome development.

The Higher Education Commission should be welcomed as many features in it point to a liberal, students-centric, faculty-oriented education system. To get there, we need a consensus among the political parties about the purpose of education and the best way to achieve it. Narrow political, religious and sectarian considerations will not lead us to that heaven of freedom in education.