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Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is the Role of UGC

After my previous blog on UGC coming up with new rules on dual-degrees which essentially declare IITs offering of BTech-MTech dual degree as illegal, I have been asked by many people whether UGC has jurisdiction over IITs. Can UGC dictate terms to IITs.

Before I answer that question, we need to understand the history and the Constitution of India a bit. In our constitution, the tasks between the state governments and the union (or central) government have been defined in terms of three lists, a union list of topics on which only parliament can make laws, a state list of topics on which only state legislatures can make laws, and a concurrent list of topics on which either can make laws, and in case of any conflict, union law will prevail. Of course, parliament can always influence activities in the state list by suggesting model laws, and by offering financial or other incentives to states to adopt those model laws.

When the constitution was promulgated, the higher education was included in the state list. It meant that parliament could not legislate anything related to higher education. However, as I said above, it was always possible to influence state governments by offering financial incentives.

Nehru was quite wary of having any legislation on higher education passed by parliament since he wanted to maintain the fine balance that the constituent assembly had crafted between the powers of the union and the states. And hence all the central government institutions in the first few years of the independence came to union territories, since parliament could exercise the rights of a state assembly for laws to be applicable in a union territory. The reason for delay of IIT Kharagpur Act (it was not passed in 1951 but in 1956) was precisely this. As per the Constitution, Parliament could not pass such an act, but everyone was advising Nehru that the new institution would lose its national character, if it is set up through a West Bengal act. And it was only after Nehru was convinced that no one is likely to drag the Union Government to court on this issue that the IIT Kharagpur Act was presented to the parliament.

So this was the context in which UGC Act was passed in 1956. Nehru was extremely careful in ensuring that the Act does not contradict any of the state acts which had set up all the universities in the country at that time. The UGC therefore would not have any power to dictate terms to universities. However, it could only push those universities to follow best practices by offering financial incentives.

Things changed in 1976. During the emergency period, a large scale butchering of the constitution happened. Some of the changes were restored later by Supreme Court in the landmark Kesavananda Bharti case through its doctrine of basic structure of the constitution being inviolable. However, the transfer of education from the state list to the concurrent list was considered as regular.

With this change, overnight, the union laws took supremacy over the state laws. The parliament could impose any kind of restriction on state universities, because in case of any conflict, now the union law will prevail. To strengthen the UGC and make it a more powerful body, some changes were done to the UGC Act in 1985.

But the questions remain. Can a body primarily constituted to disburse funds to universities over which it had no legal control, suddenly become all powerful and its directives become legally binding just because the education has now become a part of the concurrent list. Wouldn't this need an explicit and a new legislation by the parliament.

Nobody wanted to know the answer, and still does not want to know the answer. For a long time, UGC was happy because it could control pretty much the entire higher education landscape simply through the carrot of more funding or the stick of reduced funding. A few places where these carrots and sticks did not work were places like IITs, which had a direct funding through parliament, bypassing the UGC. IITs maintained that UGC had no legal jurisdiction over universities, it was only a funding agency, and hence it had no control over how IITs functioned. UGC kept claiming that it had jurisdiction over all universities (which included IITs). However, UGC did not try to force the implementation of its directives, taking the high moral ground of giving sufficient autonomy to universities. It was happy to see most universities follow most of its directives (because of funding). Universities were happy that they did not have to think of making their own rules and in those few situations where they wanted to do things on their own, UGC was not taking a hard stand. Nobody wanted to go to court in most cases, since everyone was unsure of what the courts might rule.

This cozy equilibrium state has now been threatened by the emergence of private universities. These are universities which are not funded by UGC, and hence the carrots and sticks should not necessarily work with them. However, when the first few private universities appeared on the scene, UGC included them in its funding through the so-called 12B route.But with an ever increasing number of private universities, it is no longer possible to provide substantial funds to most of the private universities. Of course, since UGC has a huge nuisance value (it could simply remove your name from its list of recognized university on its website and let you explain the situation to all your students and parents), the private universities have mostly fallen in line too. However, as time passes, and as more and more portion of higher education goes into private hands, questions about the role of UGC will be increasingly asked.

As should be obvious from the description above, there are two schools of thought. One school believes that UGC can issue directives in order to maintain the quality and standard of higher education, and those directives are legally binding on all universities. The other school believes that UGC can issue directives but can enforce them only through the carrot and stick of funding, and has no legal force behind those directives. As an IITian, I tend to believe the latter.

The problem is that either interpretation has its share of problems.

If UGC has all the powers over all universities, then it has powers over IITs, AIIMS, and all such top institutions in the country, and all UGC directives must be compulsorily implemented by IITs. And mind you, it is not just UGC but any stake holder that can take an IIT to court for non implementation of those directives under this interpretation of UGC Act. So our PhD program was always illegal. Our dual degree programs are now becoming illegal. In fact, pretty much everything we do is arguably illegal, since we do not even have 180 days of classes in a year which is required by UGC. So we might as well close shop and go home. MHRD can declare as many IITs as it wants but all of them will either become university-like or will only do illegal things.

On the other hand, if UGC can only get its directives implemented through carrots and sticks of funding, then it has no control over private universities whom it does not fund, and while I think that is absolutely fine (as I have repeatedly argued, we should not have government control in education sector, only accreditation), but most people in academia in Government sector seem to be afraid of such a scenario. Most people in government sector believe that private sector is corrupt and worse, and must be controlled by UGC and perhaps by many other bodies. And unfortunately for this country, the say of the vast private sector is very limited in policy making, at least not in the direct transparent ways, forcing some elements in the private sector to find ways to have influence, thereby proving the critics of the private sector correct (letting them generalize a few to the entire private sector).

As the tension between private universities and UGC increase over a period of time, IITs will get dragged into the debate. After all, from the legal perspective, there is no difference between IITs and private universities - both do not get funded by UGC. And I think it will be good for the education in this country if this clarity of UGC role is provided by the courts sooner rather than later.

Till a bunch of private universities get the courage to take UGC to court, we in IITs can afford to keep throwing UGC letters to dustbin. But how long can that continue?


Unknown said...

This article educated. Thanks. The 180 day criteria is probably not met in any university, and hence all our higher education degrees are illegal :)

The mushrooming of private universities to cater to the needs of the growing demographic dividend is a half-hearted approach to address the issue. One can see that it has created more problems. Further, as is pointed out, the role of UGC (or the state) vis-a-vis the private universities was probably not well defined.

To respect autonomy, it may be good to have a well-defined role, and a proper accreditation that evaluates how well the university is implementing that, and what be the consequences in cases of (gross) failures.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Dear Sir,
Thanks for this enlightening post. Seems like UGC has acquired so much power that legal authority does not matter. All the UGC have to do is remove an XYZ university from its list of "recognized university". It is similar to Google choosing to hide a particular website. People will not visit the site (students will not take admission) if it is not on Google (on UGC list).

There are certain grey areas though. Do private universities get direct/indirect benefits (land acquisition, construction of agricultural land, tax benefits) in the name of education? If yes, then the government may demand certain obedience from these universities (and there might be some justification in doing so, I am not sure). If not, I think let the private universities be controlled by market forces but bring them under consumer protection act as well. Thus, a student should not be made to pay certain arbitrary charges/fees that are imposed after the student has been admitted (Terms and condition of the contract can not be changed after the transaction). Ideally, A student should be able to take a university to a court for poor quality education :-).

Regarding corruption, be it regulation or be it accreditation it is going to be there as long as the regulators or the accredication inspectors are willing to sell their honesty (along with the hopes of many parents and students) for a few extra bucks.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh, Facilities to private universities depend on state governments. Some state governments will provide cheaper land, for example. But then the state departments put conditions in exchange of that. For example, state governments may demand a fraction of seats for in-state students. Or demand tuition control, or whatever. But UGC should have no role in the deal between the private university and the state government.

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, can there be a third school of thought, sort of, as a variation of your first school. UGC has legally binding powers to regulate and recognise all Universities (and degrees). However, IITs and AIIMS do not come under this (while IISc would, as a deemed university) - this is the 2(f) definition. 12(b) is 2(f) + something more so as to receive funding. 2(f) is recognition.

Chirag Mittal said...

Its good to know about UGC Act but it does not mention anything about the IIT Act. I believe IITs are instituted and governed by IIT-Act which empowers its senate to further institute/award degrees. That's why degrees are awarded by senate through BOG.
Regarding, controlling private universities, there should be a legislation, and a regulation to govern education like there are bodies which govern corporate sector for its offerings (like SEBI etc.) With increasing privatization, there are higher chances of frauds on the name of education. Hence it should be governed under some legislation, and monitored by some bodies on various aspects.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Sriram, 2f is really just the definition of the university. If it were to be interpreted as recognition of a university by UGC, then I am sure there are at least some private universities who wouldn't mind not getting recognized by UGC as long as they are not considered illegal by other arms of the government. Indeed in the case with a private university when UGC did not put up their name on its list of recognized universities, the courts had ordered UGC to put up the name and said very clearly that UGC has no business recognizing or not recognizing universities after a state legislature has created a university. So I don't think a third interpretation is possible based on play of words of 2f. But frankly the nuisance value of UGC is so high that very rarely one wants to test the legality of UGC actions in a court.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Chirag, Even a private university is governed by its own Act. So that is not the distinction between IITs and a private university.

gautam barua said...

This "UGC vs IITs / NITs / IIITs/ IISc / IISERS / etc" issue has been waiting to come to a head for quite some time. While I think that there is an escape clause for IIT dual degrees (as someone has pointed out - there is no exit clause in IIT dual degrees), unfortunately, reading sections 22(1), (2) and (3) together with the latest notification on degrees seems to imply that those with a PhD from India without a Masters will not have a valid degree. What about those with a PhD from abroad who have no Masters' degree? UGC cannot opine on this, but who will? Leaving this point aside, the point I wish to make is that
when the UGC considers only "universities" (shall we read DU here?) when it takes decisions and then expects others to follow them, this kind of a disaster happens. It is time to take another look at the UGC Act. Clause 22 needs to be "diluted" at the very least, because a larger overhaul may result in no change at all (remember what happened to the plans of the previous govt. re: UGC and AICTE?).

Ankur Kulkarni said...

I said this on Prof Madras's blog: "I sense a growing irrationality and brazenness in the UGC's recent actions. Is this so and what might be the reason?"

After reading your post, I am wondering if UGC has begun to feel insecure at being ignored by IITs and private universities. Are these recent actions their way of crying for attention? And is stomping their authority on universities that do not ignore them, a way for UGC to apply balm on its ego?

iitmsriram said...

(cross posting from Life in IISc blog)

I was carefully reading the recent gazette notification and comparing to the one it superseded (the 2009 notification) - M Sc Tech is not in the list of recognised degrees any more. But then, M Sc (Engg) as offered by IISc is not in the 2009 list or the current list, so I don't know what that means, with IISc being a deemed university and all. Of course, the MS (or MS by research as it is called) has never been on the UGC list, so I don't know what it means to these programs of IITM, IITKGP, IITD, ...

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

UGC allows pretty much anything in the parenthesis. So MSc (Engineering) is an ok degree. However, UGC would treat this as an MSc degree, that is not equivalent to MTech. Similarly, MS by research are ok in terms of degree names. Just write them as Master of Science (by research), but again UGC may not like our treating these as equivalent to MTech.

Unknown said...

It made very nice reading and was informative. However, there is a discontinuity between paragraph 4, where it talks about IITKGP act, and paragraph 5 where it starts by saying "this is how UGC act came into being". Could you please explain the birth of the UGC act better becasue I did not get a clear picture of it.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Manoj Harbola, the context of the birth of UGC was that Nehru was extremely wary of doing anything that would disturb the fine balance between states and union that was established only recently by a well respected constituent assembly. Many things that happened in education sector in the 50s can be explained as a result of Nehru's insistence on not violating this balance. The delay of IIT Kharagpur Act is also explained by the same.

So the point is that the intent of the parliament (in case there is any doubt about the interpretation of any clause in UGC Act) was clearly to have an agency which will not dictate terms to the universities of the country.

Unknown said...

What about the students currently pursuing Integrated 5 year course's, Is the UGC taking a common stand regarding students who do not want to take 6 years doing dual course. Will universities issue BE certificate who do not want to spend extra year

IISERgraduate said...


I am a BS-MS graduate from one of the IISERs. Currently I have joined a college in Kerala as assistant professor and is facing difficulties in getting approval for my post from the state university. All the students graduating from IISERs are facing similar issues in getting jobs in state level PSC and state universities since we are qualified with BS- MS dual degree, which is not listed by the UGC in the gazette notification dated July 5, 2014 on nomenclature of degrees in India. Are the students now supposed to get the course recognition for each courses separately from each state for employment purpose. Or is there something else that can be done in this regard? Can you give me your opinion on this problem.