Caution against undue optimism in regulatory reforms in higher education


The modern Indian higher education in its history of 163 years has undergone numerous reforms. The pre-Independence period had a negligible presence of regulatory mechanism. There were only two councils that were in operation during the pre-Independence period. One was the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), set up in 1929, to coordinate agricultural education, and another was the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), set up in 1945 to conduct surveys and coordinating development of technical education. The post-Independence period has witnessed the growth of a number of other councils for laying down norms and standards in different domains of higher education. Indian Nursing Council (INC), Pharmacy Council of India (PCI) and Dental Council of India (DCI) were the first to come up within a period of one year after Independence. Since then, nine more councils have been set up in different areas of study like medicine, homeopathy, rehabilitation, architecture, teacher education, etc.

Education is the sector that will always remain in need of reforms due to its ever-evolving nature. A need was felt soon after Independence to set up the University Education Commission (UEC) in 1948-49 to suggest measures to strengthen and expand the higher education in the country. Pursuant to the recommendations of the UEC, the University Grants Commission (UGC) was set up as an interim commission in 1953, which was converted into a statutory body in 1956 by an Act of Parliament. Since then, the UGC has been in the service of the nation meriting both appreciation for its professional contribution and criticism for its limitations.

The UGC Act, 1956 has been examined twice in the recent past with a view to ascertaining the relevance of the UGC in respect of emerging challenges of higher education arising out of national and international developments. Once, it was examined by the Amrik Singh Committee in 1998 and second time by the R.P. Agrawal Committee in 2014. Interestingly, one of the most vital and common recommendations made by both the committees was about widening the scope and power of the UGC with slight variation in its nomenclature. The external validation by two eminent committees amply justified the relevance and continuation of the UGC. While the Amrik Singh Committee proposed to rename it as Higher Education Commission (HEC), the R.P. Agrawal Committee suggested to call it as Higher Education and Research Commission.

The endorsement of existing role of the UGC by both the committees over a long interval of sixteen years was a stark testimony to its forward-looking design and timeless and enduring potentials. A dispassionate analysis of the UGC Act, even in present times, reveals that it is the finest document ever made in the history of Indian higher education. It is a very concise document with only twenty-eight sections running into sixteen pages. Every provision of the document, except the clause referring to penalties, is so futuristic and comprehensive that regardless of numerous reforms that have taken place in the past sixty-three years, it can address all the concerns of the present-day higher education. One cannot help but experience the deep imprints of the visionary leadership of the time.

There have been suggestions for quite a while to set up an overarching mechanism of various existing regulatory bodies and councils, which could harmonise varying views on policy matters. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) in 2006 after analysing the prevailing scenario of higher education alluded that the system was over-regulated and under-governed. It recognised the need to examine the regulatory system of higher education to make it more flexible and transparent. Accordingly, the commission recommended setting up of an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) by an Act of Parliament to regulate public and private institutions for opening of new institutions, granting of degrees, performance evaluation and accreditation. The idea of the commission was to pass on the regulatory roles of the UGC and all other councils including the MCI, BCI and AICTE to the IRAHE leaving disbursement of grants and maintenance of public institutions with the UGC.

A little later in February 2008, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) constituted the Yash Pal Committee to review the functioning of the UGC vis-à-vis the functional role of other bodies such as AICTE, NCTE, MCI, DCI, etc. The committee, which dealt with a number of issues related to higher education in its report on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education submitted in June 2009, recommended the creation of an all-encompassing National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) as a statutory body. The committee recommended the replacement of all the existing regulatory bodies including the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DEC by the NCHER and suggested that the NCHER alone should be responsible for the regulation of the higher education sector.

The NCHER Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. The Bill sought to create NCHER as an independent statutory body with five verticals in the form of General Council, Collegium of Scholars, Board for Research Promotion and Innovation, Higher Education Financial Services Corporation and Qualifications Advisory Councils in Vocational Education. The basic idea of creating five verticals was to avoid overlapping of responsibilities performed by multiple bodies and ensuring more objectivity and transparency. Somehow, the Bill did not find favour with the public representatives and was finally withdrawn by the government in 2014.

The Indian higher education undeniably needs regulations to ensure equity and social justice, planned and coordinated development, quality of education, and more importantly to prevent unfair practices. The multiple areas which require regulations are many like granting permission to establish an institution, permission to operate, introduction of courses, intake of students, levels of students’ learning, issues related to governance, funding and management and monitoring its overall performance. Currently, most of these vital functions are performed by the UGC while there are a few that are looked after by the AICTE and the NCTE.

The idea of a single regulatory body for higher education has been in discussion for decades. Once again it has been reiterated in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. The NEP has underscored the significance of ensuring objectivity and transparency by making distinction amongst multiple roles performed by a single regulator. The need has been felt, as ever before, for an overhaul of the regulatory system to avoid concentration of power within an organization or in a few related bodies and also to avert overlapping of their role and functions. The NEP has recommended that the functions of regulation, accreditation, funding and academic standard settings should be segregated and entrusted with different agencies. Accordingly, the policy has recommended the creation of an overarching mechanism in the form of Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) with its four verticals as General Education Council (GEC), National Accreditation Council (NAC), National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC) and Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC).

It may be worth mentioning here that the principal function of the UGC, as provided for in the Act, is “the promotion and co-ordination of university education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities”. The nomenclature of the organisation as “UGC” somehow was a misplaced choice made at the time of its inception, as it does not commensurate with the principal function of the organisation. In fact, its principal function, as stated above, got overshadowed by the grants-giving-auxiliary role. It might have been named that way either due to misjudgement of the legal department at the time of vetting of the Bill or due to British pattern of the UGC. It would have been justly named as Higher Education Commission, but for that slipup. One would now surely look up for some novelty in the present-day approach.

The NEP has envisioned to bring about extensive reforms in higher education. However, the reform initiatives will be more successful only when the policy statements reflect the intents of the policy in an unambiguous manner. In one of its assertions, the policy has envisaged “light but tight” regulatory framework. This leaves some with a sceptical paradox especially when it comes to replacement of three statutory bodies namely the UGC, AICTE and the NCTE by five new organisations. More regulators indisputably are not a good recipe for the growth of the sector. Further, it might cause widespread public concerns about equivalence when NAC takes the role of a meta-accrediting body and starts awarding jobs to multiple agencies for assessment and accreditation of institutions.

Some experts are in a tearing hurry to wind up the current setup since 2005 regardless of the consequences. But there are tangible reasons for cautious optimism. They seemed to have been understood much better by the public representatives, who stalled it, than the specialists. The Indian higher education, indeed, needs regulations to guarantee social equity and quality and all the more significantly to forestall unreasonable practices. But the top-heavy approach is going to be costlier and more burdensome in every aspect of governance than the present one. Moreover, the notion that the existing setup, which has nurtured and brought the system thus far, has completely outlived its utility and is wholly irrecoverable, seems a bit far-fetched. The recommendations made by Amrik Singh and Agrawal Committees are worth a try to save both time and resources that could instead be invested for the advancement of the universities which are starving of funds as a result of sluggish economy and slight weight.

Sometimes it is better to look into the past in order to prepare for a bright future. It may be prudent to keep a sense of perspective and give the regulatory part of reforms a deeper and more thoughtful consideration prior to effecting structural changes of any kind.

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

Education is the sector that will always remain in need of reforms due to its ever-evolving nature. A need was felt soon after Independence to set up the University Education Commission (UEC) in 1948-49 to suggest measures to strengthen and expand the higher education in the country.