THE CPI(M) has written a detailed note to the prime minister, with a copy marked to the HRD minister on July 25, on the proposed Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Draft Bill.
The NDA-II government has repeatedly targeted public-funded higher education and research in the last four years. Its hostility against the culture of democratic debates and rational social enquiry in premier universities, by demonising and mobilising negative public opinion against sections of students and faculty, its authoritarian challenge to academic and intellectual autonomy, and its aggressive promotion of mythological beliefs and supremacist bias against scientific and historical facts constitute one dimension of this attack. The other, more systematic way in which it has tried to bring higher educational institutions (HEIs) down on their knees is by continuously slashing budgetary allocations to the UGC, asking public-funded HEIs to generate a part of their costs through internal resources and loans, drastically reducing seats and fellowships for MPhil and PhD research programmes and promoting short-term contractual employment of faculty and administrative staff instead of permanent recruitment.
Higher educational reform under the NDA-II government is guided by twin concerns that threaten to destroy the foundations of higher education in independent India and impede the salutary role it has played, over decades, in empowering the common people with learning, jobs and social confidence. These twin concerns are (i) privatisation, and (ii) social exclusion. The twin agendas of privatisation and social exclusion are strongly reflected in the Draft Bill on the HECI (Repeal of UGC Act, 1956) Act, 2018 that the MHRD proposes to introduce in the monsoon session of the parliament.
The CPI(M) will approach all secular, democratic parties, educationists, intellectuals, teaching fraternity, students and all other concerned individuals and organisations to build a broad resistance against this.
Along with the Party’s note detailing its comprehensive understanding about the proposed legislation, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury wrote a letter to the prime minister. He said, “After carefully going through the provisions of the proposed bill we, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are compelled to come to the conclusion that if the bill is enacted in the present form and with the approach that its provisions suggest, it will have a major adverse impact on higher education in the country in general and public funded higher education in particular.
“As it is often said, it does not require an external enemy to destroy a country; destruction of its education system is more than adequate to ensure that outcome. I am afraid that the present draft bill needs to be withdrawn to avert that eventuality”, he wrote.
The Draft Bill for the HECI Act proposes an ‘improvement’ in the regulatory mechanism for higher education without reflecting on the shortcomings of the UGC or the reasons thereof. Instead of creating an objective case for such a drastic legislation that dismantles the UGC and replaces it with a markedly different structure and scope of regulation, it vaguely refers to “changed priorities”. Its dishonest emphasis on ‘quality’ of higher education is at the cost of the other two indispensable and inseparable foundations, ‘equity’ and ‘social and economic access’. While the concern over quality is repeated throughout the contents of the bill, equity and access do not even find a passing mention. There is not even token representation of representatives from disadvantaged sections like women, dalits, adivasis, backward castes, minorities or persons with disabilities in the composition of the commission, while the industry and commercial sector has been singled out as a stakeholder and included in the composition. In fact, the draft bill for the HECI Act signals a step backwards in the history of higher education policy and regulation; it is designed to arrest the progressive social transformation that marginalised social groups and classes in india have, since independence, historically achieved through access to higher education. Through the draft bill, the central government aims at restoring the exclusive educational privileges of traditionally powerful groups in society and offering a “level-playing field” (as per WTO-GATS diktats) to public and private institutions. It also creates an authoritarian framework of regulation through over-bureaucratisation and centralisation and undermines the federal character of decision-making by completely ignoring the need for concurrence of the centre and states in all policy matters pertaining to higher education. Finally, by delinking funding from the core functions of regulation and maintenance of standards, it encourages direct political interference of the ruling coalition and institutional conformism to the ruling political ideology.
BUREAUCRATIC STANDARDISATION &
Uniform Standards – The draft bill proposes the setting up of an overly bureaucratic body that will provide a level playing-field to public and private HEIs by creating a set of uniform parameters of assessment and accreditation, determining learning outcomes and standard areas of research and measuring the effectiveness of courses and programmes through a direct correlation with employability. This measure is the direct outcome of the government’s commitment of higher education to the WTO-GATS regime. This rabidly commercial approach destroys all scope to allow an independent vision of higher education to evolve in tandem with the growing educational aspirations of the masses. It ignores the fact the public-funded HEIs are engaged in a qualitatively different range of functions that focus on larger social inclusion and cater to diverse needs. It is silent on the quality infrastructural and faculty inputs required by public-funded HEIs to offer quality higher education in wide-ranging academic and vocational disciplines at a reasonable and affordable cost. Instead, it imposes financial autonomy on HEIs through the insistence on the widely criticised graded autonomy, generation of funds through internal receipts like student-fees and corporate consultancy fees, and also promotes commercial initiatives like self-financed courses and MOOCs (massive online courses that can enrol large numbers of students without having to provide them with much physical learning infrastructure).
Regulatory Overreach – The draft bill takes over many regulatory functions of the commission by laying down the criteria and process of application of authorisation and the conditions that would merit the revocation of authorisation. By doing so, it precludes all debate and discussion from which such regulations are expected to emerge. This overreach is a clear illustration of the central government’s intention to disempower the regulatory authority and create a narrow regulatory framework within which it will be forced to function mechanically.
Closure of Institutions – The draft bill, however, allows the commission to order closure of institutions that repeatedly fail to adhere to/comply with its regulations. Such regulations under the present dispensation are bound to suffer from subjective criteria. This arrogant and fallacious proposal disregards the fact that public-funded HEIs have been established through independent central and state-level legislations and that the prerogative for closure must hence lie with the parliament and state assemblies that have established the HEIs, in the first place. Closure of public-funded HEIs is a complex process that involves several decisions like determining the future land-use, compensation or rehabilitation of employees, disposal of infrastructure and assets that have grown overtime through substantial public-spending etc. A nodal regulatory body for higher education cannot take such decisions involving public-interest. It is hence absurd to allow it to order closure.
Academic Overreach – The commission has been side-tracked from the genuine functions of monitoring and maintenance of standards by making it a body responsible for determining curricular structures, learning outcomes and measure the effectiveness of courses/programmes. These are the integral academic functions of the statutory academic bodies of the HEIs, the prerogative of university-level committees on curriculum development and faculty departments. By denying HEIs these rights, the draft bill creates a draconian model of academic micromanagement that disregards the academic autonomy of HEIs. Ironically, the draft bill explicitly mentions employability as a measure of effectiveness of courses and programmes. While employability of graduates is a genuine concern, it cannot be directly correlated with the academic content of every discipline. Students should be given the freedom to combine vocational subjects with academic disciplines but the reduction of academic disciplines to employability can only result in extreme commercialisation of courses and a gross undervaluation of higher education as a critical-intellectual pursuit. The objective of higher education must be the elevation of intellectual levels even higher. Instead, the primary emphasis here seems to be to produce, solely, cogs for the production wheel of the economy.
WITHDRAWAL OF FUNDING
Delinking of Grants from Regulation – By separating grant-funding from regulation, the draft bill on HECI Act has broken the spine of the regulatory body. Funding is not charity or largesse – it involves the crucial process of determining infrastructural needs, sanctioning faculty positions and staffing, monitoring utilisation of resources and effective implementation of schemes. For public-funded HEIs, standards of funding based on student-teacher ratio, research, remedial teaching, library resources and laboratory equipment have historically provided the key basis for growth and quality assurance. The draft bill gives independent funding powers to the government, thereby increasing the scope for arbitrary funding decisions and direct political interference.
No Monitoring of Quality Inputs – It is in this context of neglecting the input requirements, that the MHRD’s fallacious euphoria over freedom from “inspection raj” needs to be seen. The glib reference to inspection raj conceals the fact that regulation and monitoring will be confined to an excessive emphasis on periodic institutional documentation and mechanical adherence to assessment parameters. It will not involve physical inspection of institutions and interaction with teachers, students and staff. This will lead to a further abstraction of the notion of quality, the ignorance of grievances and the elimination of objective feedback. The long-term aim is to maintain a mechanical record of performance while completely setting infrastructural concerns aside and going soft on ‘fly-by-night’ private operators who run universities with the lowest inputs.
Preparing for Loan-Funding – This retrogressive move has to be also seen in the context of the attempted withdrawal of public-funding and the shift to loan-based funding through HEFA. HEFA organises funding through capital markets and envisages a loan-based system in which public assets of public-funded HEIs will necessarily be mortgaged as ‘collaterals’ equivalent to the value of the loan applied for. In other words, this is a direct infringement of the financial sector and, in the long run, a devious way to hand public assets over to private hands.
Such an overhaul in the funding mechanism will choke public HEIs of required funds while applying the same standards of quality and resource mobilisation that only big private corporate-run institutions can meet, force them to mortgage their assets for loans needed to meet running and expansion costs and eventually create conducive conditions for their closure. This move of withdrawing assured grants and delinking funding from regulation is the most brazen anti-people measure adopted to ensure that public HEIs rapidly pushed into a state of ‘sickness’, declared unviable and finally sold off to big businesses. It is nothing but a staged script in auctioning off public-owned assets and educational infrastructure.
DISHONEST SILENCE ON RESERVATION POLICY
Constitutionally-mandated reservation for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, the economically-deprived sections of backward castes, persons with disabilities, and in many cases, minorities and women, has been able to secure a modicum of access for these marginalised sections in higher education. As such, it is of critical importance that a nodal regulatory body for higher education should be specially tasked with ensuring that the government’s reservation policy is implemented across HEIs with full transparency and accountability. The draft bill on the proposed HECI Act completely ignores the context and significance of this need. By repeatedly emphasising on managerial and financial autonomy of HEIs, and remaining silent on their reservation obligations, the draft bill allows a grey zone of uncertainty to prevail over this crucial public responsibility. We are already confronted with many instances wherein HEIs have been allowed to subvert or completely circumvent their obligation to correctly implement the reservation policy. As a result, most HEIs have recorded large backlogs and shortfalls in appointments to reserved posts (both teaching and non-teaching). The government is clearly not keen to acknowledge this aspect as a failing of the regulatory functions in higher education, nor does the draft bill offer any remedy.
BUREAUCRATIC COMPOSITION TO UNDERMINE ACADEMIC DECISION-MAKING AND FEDERALISM
Reduction in Academic Perspective – The composition of the HECI Commission is heavily tilted towards purely bureaucratic and administrative profiles. It swamps the commission with secretary-level bureaucrats of the central government ministries and departments, directors of other regulatory bodies and accreditation agencies under the central government and vice-chancellors of institutes of national importance. These direct beneficiaries of the central government cannot be expected to voice or endorse alternative views that may be critical of the central government’s policy or the ruling coalition’s political/ideological agenda. Through such a composition, the MHRD only intends to create an echo-chamber of ideas voiced by ‘yes-men’. Compared to the UGC Act, 1956, the number of active teachers in the composition has been reduced from a minimum of four to a maximum of two. This skewed composition will only encourage an administrative perspective on the various issues and challenges that the regulations will seek to address. But the real ground-level challenges of teaching-learning and institutional problems may get ignored or set aside, as has increasingly become the experience of academic communities across HEIs in the country.
No representation from undergraduate colleges and state universities – The reduction in the number of active teachers and the necessary condition that they must be “Professors of universities, reputed for research and knowledge creation” effectively rules out teachers from undergraduate colleges and state universities. In the context of the need to maintain coherence across 44,000 undergraduate colleges and approximately 850 universities, as well as addressing their grievances, this composition is severely limited. This not only allows a narrowing of perspective in decision-making, but it also undermines the federal and concurrent character of higher education by eliminating the possibility of state-level representation in the commission.
While a “doyen of Industry” has been singled out for representation in the commission, no provision for representation from the constitutionally-approved bodies of disadvantaged sections like women, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, OBCs, minorities and disabled persons has been given. It is clear that the new regulatory framework is designed to accommodate corporate interests but unwilling to ensure the effectiveness of affirmative policies for social justice and inclusion. The selective emphasis on quality, at the expense of equity and access also gets reflected in this selective representation from industry and commerce.
While the UGC Act 1956 clearly mandated that the chairman of the commission “shall be chosen from among persons who are not officers of the government or any state government” – precisely with a purpose to maintaining the autonomy of the commission from any form of direct interference by governments – Section 3.6 of the draft HECI Bill drops this necessary condition for the chairperson’s appointment. The chairperson of the proposed Higher Education Commission can now be selected from among functionaries of the central or state governments, provided he/she satisfies either of two conditions listed under Section 3.6 – none of which comes into conflict with his/her holding an office of the government at the time of appointment.
The provision for an “Overseas Citizen of India” in the eligibility criteria for the post of chairperson to the commission is unacceptable. An overseas citizen may be an accomplished scholar/administrator but cannot be expected to be acquainted with the ground-level realities and challenges that prevail in higher education and HEIs across the nation. The real reason for this arbitrary provision seems to be the central government’s heavy reliance on sections of the overseas community acting as a bridge between the financial and commercial interests of local businesses and those of the international business community. This also points further towards the agenda of commercialisation and the promotion of private capital investment in higher education.
MHRD given Supreme Authority through ‘Advisory Council’
The HRD minister will chair an advisory council whose ‘advice’ will be compulsorily implemented, as per Clause 24 of the draft bill. This gives the MHRD supreme powers that further erode any scope for autonomous functioning/decision-making within the commission. Such a brazen abuse of public-trust is unprecedented.
UNDERMINING PARLIAMENTARY AND STATE-LEVEL LEGISLATION
Clause 26 of the draft bill is unconstitutional as it brazenly violates the federal and concurrent character of higher education in India. It gives an overriding effect to the HECI Act against the statutes and ordinances of all Central and State legislations through which various HEIs have been established. As a result, it overturns the public-trust invested in each Act or law through which state and central universities have been created for diverse and distinct purposes, bringing all of them under one overriding parliamentary legislation. This level of centralisation is not only draconian, but also dismissive of the multiplicity of educational needs among diverse sections of the Indian peoples.
Apart from developing employable skills and contributing to knowledge-production, higher education has also been entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing the essential constitutional values of democracy, secularism and rational free-thinking and enabling a socially-diverse and interactive profile of students that will promote the growth of an enlightened and culturally tolerant citizenry immune to prejudices and having the strength to overcome divisive ideologies that threaten the unitary fabric of the nation. That is why higher education has always needed to be kept free from political interference and bureaucratic diktat. Recent decades have seen the unprecedented growth of higher education in India, parallel only by the growth in common people’s aspirations and demand for access to higher education. As a result of the exponential increase in the gross enrolment ratio (GER), hitherto marginalised sections like women, backward castes and tribes, minorities and persons with disabilities have gained access to higher education through the public-funded system. Private initiatives can, at best, supplement, but not address the gap in demand and supply of quality higher education that currently afflicts and threatens popular aspirations. The huge expansion of affordable quality institutions required in diverse regions and states of India can only be undertaken through increased public-spending and clarity about the importance of public initiatives in higher education. Clearly, privatisation and commercialisation cannot be solutions to this crisis. On the part of the central government, it requires a commitment to the overall strengthening of public-funded institutions and the material empowerment of states.
Unfortunately, the draft bill for the HECI Act does not point this way forward. Instead, it is an instrument to appease corporate interests and attract private-sector investment in higher education, by neglecting the challenges that confront public-funded HEIs and by being dismissive of the larger public as a stakeholder in the fortunes of higher education. It gets its priorities wrong: it is obsessed with mechanical standards of assessment and global rankings. Public-funded institutions require separate performance parameters and global rankings are not sensitive to this need. They are based on trends perceived in elite western universities that are financed through private endowments and student-loans. The government has not heeded the lessons of the American debt crisis in which unpaid student-loans constituted the major component of debt. It is yet to acknowledge the role that exclusive access to higher education has played, in the deepening of social fissures and faultlines in western societies. It is willing to undermine its own affirmative policies (like the reservation policy) and social-justice initiatives by encouraging educational administrators to adopt corporate models of governance and resource-mobilisation for the narrowly-efficient running of institutions.
In public interest, there is a case for amending the provisions of the UGC Act, 1956 and strengthening the UGC in a manner that allows it to effectively and autonomously address the challenges of increased access to, and growth of, public-funded HEIs while ensuring minimum standards and public accountability of the privately-funded HEIs. For that, widespread consultation with students, teachers and the public at large, is required. However, there is no case for dismantling the UGC and fragmenting the functions of regulatory bodies. There is also no case for undermining the important roles played by the state-level authorities that have concurrent responsibilities of monitoring and maintain the standards of higher education in the states. Hence, people’s representatives and political parties that are committed to upholding public interest and the federal character of higher education need to ensure that these concerns are seriously considered by the HRD and central government and this current draft bill is withdrawn at the earliest.