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Could the ‘knowledge ecology’ go the way of the current economy?

An impending bill aims to arbitrarily dissolve the UGC and replace it with the Higher Education Commission of India

By Debaditya Bhattacharya
  • Published 18.10.19, 12:57 AM
  • Updated 18.10.19, 12:57 AM
  • 3 mins read
Since 1956, the UGC has existed as an autonomous institution entrusted with the dual task of ensuring minimum standards of quality as well as disbursing government grants to public-funded colleges and universities (Prem Singh)

In the winter session of Parliament, the Centre has planned to table a bill that proposes the abolition of the University Grants Commission and other professional-technical regulatory bodies, such as the All India Council for Technical Education, National Council for Teacher Education, Bar Council of India and so on, in the field of higher education. Since 1956, the UGC has existed as an autonomous institution entrusted with the dual task of ensuring minimum standards of quality as well as disbursing government grants to public-funded colleges and universities. The impending bill aims to arbitrarily dissolve the UGC and set up a Higher Education Commission of India in its place, with no power over matters of financing.

An earlier draft of this legislation, made public in June 2018, had provoked massive alarm by unilaterally announcing a complete transfer of funding prerogatives to the political leadership. Much in line with what one has seen in the field of education in the past five years, the HECI bill surrendered the health of a public institution to the will and pleasure of the ruling party. Understandably, the draft invited more than 50,000 suggestions from concerned citizens, warning against any attempt at its implementation. Having sensed this climate of large-scale censure before the general elections, the erstwhile Narendra Modi government was quick to shelve the bill at the last minute. In the resurrection of the bill, we see an unashamed acknowledgment of brute parliamentary majority and the shunning of existing public opinion.

It is worth examining what the stated objectives behind the dismantling of the UGC are, and then measuring them against the current state of higher education in India. The latter may be discerned from a document annually published by the ministry of human resources — the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19 — which has recently (and most furtively) been uploaded in the public domain. What follows here is a structural layout of the three major reform measures that the draft HECI bill sets as its targets, and what each portends in the context of the findings in the AISHE report.

In its original avatar, the bill claimed to strive towards “downsizing the scope of the regulator”, thereby enshrining the principle of “less government and more governance”. This, effectively, meant a slackening of regulatory frameworks for the setting up of higher educational institutions and easing the entry of private players. The latest AISHE report registers a 47 per cent annual expansion in the number of private universities, which account for an average intake of only 24.7 per cent of total student enrolments. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, while public universities grew at the rate of 21.6 per cent, the private university network has swelled by a staggering 48 per cent. At this rate, in another 11 years, private universities will outnumber government universities in India. The corresponding data for colleges is even more terrifying. Although the average enrolment in a single State-financed college is more than double the intake of a private, unaided college, nearly three-fourths of the total number of colleges opened in 2018-19 are private profiteering enterprises.

The second most important function of the proposed HECI— as spelt out in the draft bill — is to ensure ‘uniformity’ across widely divergent contexts of higher education by specifying a pre-determined set of “learning outcomes” and “standards of teaching/assessment/research”. It needs to be pointed out here that the UGC’s imposition of a common undergraduate curriculum through the choice based credit system and a three-month-teaching calendar in the semester system happened with precisely the same intentions. The ‘one size fits all’ syllabus was rammed in across colleges and universities in India between 2015 and 2018 with a cavalier disregard for material disparities in infrastructure and student demography. Inasmuch as the first batch of students under the CBCS model graduated in 2018 and the last set of institutions still functioning outside its purview was co-opted in 2018-19, the recent AISHE statistics serve as a referendum on the ‘value’ of such pedagogical reform. Not only have undergraduate enrolments dropped across the entire range of BA, BSc and BE courses by an average of 0.6 per cent, but the number of students completing their graduation has also dipped by a massive 2.5 per cent in the CBCS mode.

Third, the substitution of the UGC by HECI is geared towards absenting the figure of the teacher from the educational roadmap for the nation. While the UGC Act mandated the inclusion of 4 teachers among its 10 members, the HECI is to be reconstituted with a meagre 2 representatives from the teaching community in a 12-member body.

The HECI, if allowed to replace the UGC, cannot but hurl the nation’s ‘knowledge ecology’ towards the same fate as its current economy. The question is whether we should be mute witnesses to this spectacular carnival of destruction and deprivation.

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