A draft Act on Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grant Commission Act, 1956) prepared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development was placed in the public domain on June 27, 2018, for comments and suggestions by the public, to be submitted by July 7, 2018. It is difficult to reconcile as to how comments and suggestions can be sought in just about 10 days for such a significant and important document which will have implications for the entire education system of the country. We all know that the Government of India constituted a drafting committee on December 28, 2015, to help frame the National Education Policy, 2016. It has not seen the light of the day till now. I sincerely feel that the Education Policy should have been in place before the draft Act is prepared. The inspiration for such a huge initiative had to come from the National Education Policy framework. It is not going to happen now.
It is a great injustice to the education sector as a whole. Many of us have come to know about this draft Act only two days ago. Some may not even know about it till the deadline is over. Since the deadline for submission of comments and suggestions is only a day or so away, one can only quickly run through the Act and point out some important concerns. Before we do that let us have a quick look at the preamble and guiding principles
The preamble itself raises some fundamental questions. It talks of the constitutional mandate of the central government to take steps for co-ordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education. It also talks of promoting the uniform development of quality of education in higher educational institutions. The basic question arises, was this constitutional mandate not there when the University Grants Commission was established? Does changing priorities of higher education warrant abolition of existing regulatory mechanism or it could have been done by strengthening it and removing bottlenecks which constrained its effective functioning?
Now let us turn to the guiding principles. The guiding principles are: Less government and more governance (no more interference in the management issues); separation of grant functions; end of Inspection Raj (merit-based decision making); focus on academic quality(improving academic standards and performance of institutions); and powers to enforce (compliance to the academic quality standards etc). The important concerns are:
The very first guiding principle is negated when the Act states, “The Act further states that, “In the discharge of its functions under this Act, the Commission shall be guided by such directions on questions of policy relating to national purposes as may be given to it by the Central Government”. And further states that, “In case of a disagreement arises between the Central Government and the Commission as to whether a question is or is not a question of policy relating to national purposes, the decision of the Central Government shall be final.“ Where is the governance in it, it is all government?
How is the government so sure that they will be able to justify judicious allocation and disbursement of grant of funds than what UGC was doing so far? The experience of last few years does not support it. Had it been so the Vice Chancellor's of Central Universities would not have been seeking the intervention of the President from time to time for allocation and release of necessary grants. There is always politics in funding. Why can't we think of assigning it to an autonomous professional body if we were not satisfied with UGC performance?
A substantial part of the draft Act is devoted to procedural matters including appointment of Chairman, Vice-Chairman, and members, their resignation, and removal, terms, and conditions of service, grant of authorisation and its revocation and penalties for non-compliance Very little thought has gone to establish urgent need for such a Commission and how it will be different from the University Grants Commission.
The Act states that the Commission shall ensure maintenance of academic standards in the Higher Education system in the country without suggesting any mechanism to achieve it. Perhaps there was a need to have a provision either for full-time members or such experienced professionals who could be entrusted to ensure maintenance of academic standards.
The draft Act states that “Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indira Gandhi National Open University Act, 1985, [ 50 of 1985], the provisions of this Act shall apply to the coordination, determination, and promotion of standards in distance education systems”. IGNOU Act 1985 enacted by the Parliament mandated IGNOU to fund and maintain standards of education through distance mode. It was similar to what the UGC Act 1956 was in the context of conventional universities. Without amending the Acts of IGNOU and UGC, the above mandate was taken over by the UGC as per the direction of the government u/s 20(1) of the UGC Act.
The Madhav Menon Committee report submitted in 2011 which proposed an independent Distance Education Council of India was accepted by the then government but shelved for reasons best known to them. It not only shows the disinterest of the government in democratising higher education but also its lack of accountability to the Parliament. The ODL system which has such a great potential to reach unreached continues to suffer and we are made to witness dying of a once premier institution.
These are some of the important concerns which need to be discussed and debated in detail. Above all politics, before we venture to have a commission for higher education. If we ignore these genuine concerns and rush to have a Higher Education Commission to gain some political points, we will be subjecting our educational system to an irreparable loss.
Prof Mohd Aslam is President of All India Educational Movement ( AIEM) based in New Delhi and former Vice Chancellor of IGNOU.