Proposal to scrap UGC invites mixed reactions

The new draft law, the Higher Education Commission of India Bill proposes to revamp the governance of higher education in India, writes VIVASHWAN SINGH

The present central government has a tendency to lean towards centralising power and promote commoditization. However, the recent directive on scrapping UGC is an important step. The new draft law, the Higher Education Commission of India Bill proposes to revamp the governance of higher education in India. The Bill seeks to replace the UGC Act, 1956, and restructure the UGC as the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The body, in its new form, will focus on setting, maintaining and improving academic standards in universities.

The government has also decided to develop norms for setting standards for opening and closure of institutions, provide for greater flexibility and autonomy to institutions, lay standards for appointments to critical leadership positions at the institutional level irrespective of University started under any Law (including State Law).

The present government has a highly technocratic attitude, even when it comes to the UGC. The number of academics in the UGC has been sharply reduced. The communalisation of higher education goes hand-in-hand with a strengthening of caste prejudices. What is even more shocking is the fact that there is no reservation for women/Dalit/OBC scholars in the proposed Higher Education Commission.

It is full of bureaucrats, academic bureaucrats including vice-chancellors, professors, who are controlled by the state. The proposed Higher Education Commission of India, will have comparatively lesser academics than the UGC. Out Of the total 12 members of the commission, there will be three bureaucrats — the secretary of Higher Education, secretary of Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, and secretary, Department of Science and Technology.

It’s obvious that a commission largely consisting of bureaucratic academics will sharply reduce the academic component of the UGC with a bias towards white-collar professionalism. The communalisation of education actually meshes well with commodification. The self-centred individuals designed for the neo liberal market that capitalism produces, not only carry over the prejudices that they may have imbibed early, but even strengthen these prejudices, of people being judged by the money they have and the marginalised and the oppressed, such as the minorities, are looked upon with contempt.The draft should have mentioned that due or fair representation should be given to marginalised social groups, genders and minority communities.

According to Professor Prabhat Patnaik, professor emeritus of economics at JNU, the HECI, in all probability, will end up being a bureaucratic body, based on the current government’s leaning towards neoliberal development. The academic institutions in India have never been totally free from government interference but with the HRD ministry controlling university funding directly, the feasibility of political interference in the running of our institu-tions will increase to large extent.

Giving ‘autonomy’ to institutions is one of the key points in the proposed Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). Although giving autonomy by itself is not a bad proposal and universities need autonomy to function effectively, but the present government’s autonomy plan has come with a package of cost cutting and raising fees. It is a matter of fixing fees, in which large numbers of students belonging to backward economic backgrounds wont get the access to higher education, unless they are willing to take student loans. Considering the large scale unemployment that prevails in our country, if the students take loans, then a large number of them will be unable to pay back the loan and will lead to mass suicides, similar to the prevailing peasant suicides.

In the name of autonomy the government is moving towards the privatisation of higher education. The HECI aims to establish a tiered system of higher education with a class division: the first tier for the elite, the second for the middle class and the third for the masses. If implemented we would have ‘world-class’ universities with full autonomy and exorbitant fees but also a sea of common students in the third tier having no recognition from the government. It is unclear how the universities are going to function in the absence of the UGC. We don’t know about how institutes will get their funds, and to whom will they be affiliated. In absence of the government’s intervention, they are likely to be dependent on crony capitalists for funding. It will lead to more control of higher education being handed over to the political-corporate nexus.

The funding and academic decision-making should be done by an autonomous body on the basis of academic criteria, and it should be at an arm’s length of any political institution. The current reform is an attempt to further exonerate the State from its financial responsibility towards higher education. Whereas, the need of the hour is a meaningful reform of higher education that can address concerns of access, equity and affordability. It will further envisage the creation of autonomous colleges which would have considerable freedom in the matter of admissions, syllabus and the fees. This will advance the racket of “self-financing professional colleges” with their “management quotas” to the higher education sector as a whole.

The UGC had often prevented the direct interference of governments in educational institutions but when institutional heads feel that funding is under the direct control of the Ministry, they will be forced to carry out what is said to them even informally. India is a vast country and our socio-political dynamics varies from state to state. The government can create a body like HECI but the situation should allow those norms, should see the diversity and variation and whether they can help the state situation. The reforms in higher education have to respond to the need of affordability, accessibility, quality and must respond to social responsibility of providing education to all.