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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Higher Education Commission of India

The government is proposing to set up a new regulatory authority that will replace UGC through an act of parliament. It will be called Higher Education Commission of India or HECI.

At the outset, this proposed bill appears to be a product of complete confusion in the Ministry and their right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. But after a moment's reflection, it would seem that the right hand indeed knows what the left hand is doing and is not particularly happy about it and may even want to cutoff the left hand.

Before you propose a solution, it is usually a good idea to define a problem and then search for a solution. Of course, sometimes a solution is proposed first and the problem is searched appropriate for that solution. So what is the problem. UGC, of course. You dimwit. You claim to write about higher education, and you don't even know that UGC is the main reason for most of the problems of higher education. I would politely argue that I know UGC is part of the problem, but do you know what aspect of UGC's functioning is the problem.

As per the media reports, the government seems to believe that UGC was not able to function properly because it spent enormous amount of time in deciding grants. If that function is removed from there, they will focus on academic matters, and Indian education system will soon be the best in the world. But wouldn't it be a drain on the time of IAS officers. How will they cope up with this huge extra workload. And if you are going to put extra manpower in MHRD, why not put that extra manpower in UGC. And a voice from the clouds reminded me that I am supposed to be a professor of Computer Science, and hence should have heard of not just cloud computing, but also AI, ML and the government's favorite these days, the blockchain. And somehow the combination of all these technologies will appear in the form of a software, that would disburse the money to all the universities and colleges (I am sure through the Aadhaar verified accounts), and everyone will be happy ever after. In fact, it will improve autonomy since funding decisions will be taken through Artificial Intelligence (real intelligence being in limited supply) and we, of course, all know that AI cannot have any biases and softwares have no way to be tweaked or controlled. But I have a query. If we can develop such a software, why not keep the server in UGC building, why should it be in MHRD building.

Then we hear of he second problem of UGC. It does not have sufficient teeth. By the way, how many teeth does it have? My friends in universities are mortally scared of UGC. It can send completely arbitrary diktats to universities and ask them to comply even when it does not have sufficient teeth. Do you really want to give them more statutory powers. I mean, Indian universities probably are more controlled than in any other country, and you want to increase that control.

And I always believed that the government policy was to give more autonomy. I hear about this Institutes of Eminence scheme, and the graded autonomy scheme and Autonomous colleges and so on. The whole idea seemed to be to slowly increase the autonomy in the higher education sector, but with one master stroke, you are going to undo all of that and put all sorts of controls back on the universities. (Cutting off left hand!)

HECI can not just issue guidelines on anything under the sun, but also demand compliance and take the strongest possible action, including removing the right to grant degrees, if it is not satisfied with the compliance.

It can even ride roughshod over state legislatures. Anytime a legislature approves setting up of a new university, HECI will intervene and say, not so soon. First you need authorization from HECI. That is federalism - Indian style.

Whenever anyone has criticized UGC and wanted its demise, the hope was that if somehow we can just remove lots of UGC diktats, our universities will start improving. But this new act believes in exactly the opposite. You must control much more than now for the universities to improve.

So you have an interesting state of the affairs with Prime Minister's office repeatedly reminding MHRD that we need to give more autonomy to universities, and MHRD repeatedly trying their best to not only continue license permit raj but expand its control.

I am extremely suspicious of anyone who says, "here is the new rule, and this rule applies to everyone except me." If this rule is good for others, why is it not good for you. The proposed law wants to keep Institutes of National Importance outside the regulatory framework of HECI. And most of the central government universities (IITs, NITs, IIITs, even the PPP model IIITs, IISERs, SPAs) fall under the INI nomenclature. Which means that HECI is meant to control primarily state universities (including private ones) and deemed universities. I think a common regulator for all will at least keep the regulator abreast of best practices and there is a hope that the regulator may suggest those best practices to others. There is also hope that if HECI tries giving a stupid diktat to IITs, there will be enough hue and cry that the diktat will be forced to be removed, thereby saving our universities. The framers of the law have figured this out and decided that anyone whom the media is likely to support should be out of regulation. I suggest that they add a line saying that besides INIs, MHRD reserves the right to keep any other university out of HECI's regulatory control. This way any future university who has as many friends in media as IITs can be quietly kept out of regulation.

Then there are drafting issues which make the Act confusing. The members are required to be scholars and more specifically persons of eminence and standing in the field of academics and research, etc. And then it says that Secretary of Higher Education, Secretary of Skill Development and Secretary of DST shall be members. The first two are usually IAS officers and not persons who have a standing in the field of academics and research. And then, one doyen of industry who too is unlikely to be fitting the bill. So, may be they don't need to specify the qualifications of the members.

All members to be appointed by the Government. No role of states. I am not sure how we could bring in non-Government players, but there should be some way. May be the chairman and vice chair can be appointed at the higher level, as in many other commissions, by Minister, leader of opposition, and one more.

There is a confusion about conflict of issues and resulting two year cooling off period for members. Two current professors will be members. If they retire/resign or cease to be professors during their term as a member, then they stop being member of HECI from that day. On the other hand, the moment their term ends, they must cease to be a professor as well for a period of two years. So during membership of the Commission, they can be professors, and that is not conflict of interest, but after their term is over, they cannot be a professor since that will be conflict of interest. I think there should be an exception for professors, since otherwise, you are essentially saying that only those on the verge of retirement can be members. You do need to allow younger blood to be members.

Members are appointed for five years. But suppose a member resigns without completing his/her five year term. The new member appointed will be for a three year term. So, if the previous members stays for 5 years, the next member gets a five year term, but if the previous member stays for 4 years and 364 days, the next member gets a 3 year term. This appears to be a drafting error.

Bottomline: The bill wants an extremely tight control over higher education.

3 comments:

Harsh Payal said...

As of I have understood from the HECI bill, I think the replacement of is because the grant-giving functions of UGC allowed for over-regulation and thus to do away with this grant giving power the govt. is introducing HECI. HECI will have no funds to dole - it will have powers to act against the institutions in case of violation of norms.

SuyashJolly said...

Thanks for your insightful analysis.

Rahul Agrawal said...

Sir, please write about BigData, BlockChain, IoT, AI, etc. and hysteria of GoI around them. A word, I am from metallurgy and do not understand them much. So the current madness over them feels exaggeration (may be it is not) to me.