Better alternative to UGC?

THE HIGHER EDUCATION COMMISSION

The Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will now replace the over six-decade old University Grants Commission (UGC) with a view to improving the quality of higher education in the country. The HECI will be born in a higher education landscape which has been transformed by the emergence of private universities which are a game changer in the country.

The proliferation of private universities has particularly proved to be a challenge for the government and a blessing at the same time considering that it provides an alternative avenue to state-owned universities which can absorb only a finite number of students.

The HECI (Repeal of UGC Act) Bill, 2018 is expected to be placed in Parliament in the current session. The proposed body aims to “provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth” and facilitate “greater opportunities to Indian students at more affordable cost”. 

Today, higher education constitutes autonomous institutes like IITs and IIMs, central universities, state universities, private universities, deemed to be universities and autonomous colleges affiliated to state universities. Apart from institutions of national excellence like AIIMS, Nimhans and NITs in the country, many state-owned universities have stagnated with anachronistic curricula and inadequate budgets.

The conceptual distinction between a university and a college merits mention considering the tendency to blur the difference between the two entities. The university aims to generate new knowledge while colleges provide the foundation for such pursuits through teaching which equips students to take the next steps.    

Modern India has been unable to deliver quality higher education for a variety of reasons unlike ancient India which had nurtured centres of learning like Takshasila and Nalanda which attracted students beyond the sub-continent.

India during the Cold War era till the early 1990s was driven by a socialist economy and remained insulated from the western world with little collaboration with academia there. However, thousands of Indian students have individually studied in the west and earned academic laurels like Nobel laureate Hargobind Khorana, besides other names like statistician C R Rao and Raj Reddy to name a select few among several others who have distinguished themselves in their disciplines. The fact that thousands of Indian students flock to western universities highlights several deficiencies in higher education here. Bright Indian youth who aspired to enter academia are compelled to go west and this resulted in the brain-drain phenomena.

Another dimension to the problem was that several powerful politicians at the Centre and state-owned colleges from where students graduated in engineering, medicine, humanities and commerce. Several of these colleges are not quality-oriented and remain factories to produce graduates that concentrate on quantity over quality of students.  

As a result, Western universities were never encouraged to enter the country and Indian students over generations were deprived of quality education. Moreover, the stagnation of higher education which earlier comprised mainly state-owned universities suffered from several inadequacies which impacted the quality of higher education.

Lack of teachers

Today, among the challenges to higher education is the lack availability of teachers who are genuinely interested in the profession. To what extent are teachers able to bridge the gap between academia and industry? It is time review the criteria for teachers in terms of their exposure to industry or the real world. Clearly, teachers cannot solely qualify for their profession on the basis of their masters’ degrees and PhDs without two or three years of hands-on industry experience whatever the discipline.

For instance, a professor of political science should have worked either in a semi-government position in the legislature or with a political party, political representative to be able to comprehend the realities of the political system better in order to deliver the curriculum more effectively in the classroom. Similarly, teachers in all sciences, social sciences, management studies or engineering should have logged a minimum stint in industry to make them truly knowledgeable about their subjects.  

In 1986, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, in order to provide direction to higher education, initiated the National Educational Policy (NEP) which provided a road map with a strategic plan which defined priorities related to education.

In 1992, then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao revised the NEP in tune with liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the economy. In 2017, a committee was constituted to give a new dimension to the NEP under the chairmanship of eminent space scientist Kasturirangan.

The declared intent of the government about the HECI is to avoid the ills that characterised the UGC. It has said: “The draft Act is in accordance with the commitment of Government for reforming the regulatory systems that provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth of the education system and which provides greater opportunities to the Indian students at more affordable cost.”

Prima facie, the HECI further centralises the grant disbursement process which runs counter to the dire need for decentralisation and a reduced bureaucracy. Despite limitations, the UGC had some autonomy with academics being at the helm of affairs.

The HECI in order to succeed in its mandate should be able to make teaching a more attractive and remunerative profession in order to draw the best talent towards academia that would in turn promote research within the country.

The challenge for the government would be to ensure that its articulated policies actually translate into reality. There are any number of government agencies that have been started with idealism and derailed thereafter due to various reasons.

The HECI should truly be able to offer the country a better alternative to the UGC and transform India into an education destination in the future.  

(Prabhu Dev is a professor with the Institute of Management; Chengappa is with Department of International Studies and History, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)

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