UGC: demolishing a colossus of no value

The Centre’s decision to do away with the University Grants Commission (UGC) topples one of the biggest white elephants in the country. This gargantuan body that was established in 1956 with great idealism “for the maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in institutions of higher education” did anything but that — with its corruption, inefficiency and indifference. Its bureaucratic composition and functioning actually dragged research and scholastic institutions into cesspools of mediocrity for 50 years and more. The dissolution of this colossal body marks the beginning of a new era in higher education.

But, our rejoicing comes with a question mark. Will the termination of this establishment pave the way for something better, more effective? The Centre plans to replace it with another body called the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) which will have similar powers but with the separation of the academic responsibilities from the task of funding universities and colleges.

As its very name suggested, the UGC was essentially a funding body, with the powers to withdraw its funds from erring institutions. It was naturally assumed that universities would maintain high standards with this Damocles sword hanging over their heads. But, sadly, this only resulted in nepotism of the worst kind, with the threat of grants being withdrawn on the one hand and preferential treatment given on the other — depending on favours offered and freely accepted.

The HECI, on the other hand, will have two separate wings where the funding and academic aspects will be independent of each other. It is hoped that this reform will put an end to the nexus between colleges/universities and their governing body.

Needless to add that this will happen only if the HECI does not turn out to be old wine in a new bottle. If the same old faces reappear in a new avatar to continue the same old practices under a different label, as it happens all too often with so-called reforms in this country, the Centre is wasting time and money to fool the public.

We have already wasted 50-odd years on periodic “reforms” in the higher education sector. Reforms that are mainly initiated by governments which try to undo what the preceding government did. The various education policies in the country are proof of this favourite government pastime. It is hoped that the present move is not driven by such motives.

If the bill to establish a higher education commission becomes an Act, the new body will have a lot of mess to clean up before embarking on new projects. The unplanned and uncontrolled expansion of colleges and universities in the country has reached a state of crisis with a lack of infrastructure in terms of money and material in its 384 state universities, 123 deemed universities, 47 central universities and another 296 private universities.

Moreover, they are plagued by deplorable standards of teaching and research due to a sad dearth of talent and motivation. Managing and funding them, maintaining academic standards and overseeing their functioning was too much for one body. No wonder, the UGC assumed the role of a spectator rather than a regulator.

No political interference

It may seem a herculean task to set right these ills. But it can be done if the Centre makes a nationwide effort now to improve the system by giving the new body enough teeth to correct these ills and implement reforms. As long as there is no political interference to disturb its smooth functioning, as feared by several academicians, the new set-up should be a better alternative.

The HECI should be given the freedom to adopt whatever measures are necessary to improve teaching and research in universities. It should be allowed to interact with the academic community freely so that it can work with the consensus of teachers and research scholars. Universities and colleges cannot be managed in a bureaucratic style. This is where the UGC failed. Its successor should avoid becoming an agent of the government against the teaching community.

Like all great universities in the world, reforms should start with discovering and nurturing talent among teachers and research scholars, followed by proper admission policies that would lay the foundation for colleges and universities of distinction. Today, even the selection of a vice chancellor, who is the crucial link between the academic and executive branches of a university, is politically motivated.

The Centre’s latest reform should be accompanied by its distancing educational institutions from politics and politicians. Unless this is done, merely scrapping one body to replace it with another will become an exercise in futility.

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UGC: demolishing a colossus of no value

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