The Higher Education Commission of India: Where the mind is with fear

True academic freedom is key to economic development and a truly egalitarian society and is possible only under an independent, publicly funded higher education system. The HECI Bill is deliberately oblivious to this truth and seems to be driven by a brahmanical, corporate agenda of excluding and profiteering, writes Lokesh Kumar

The government has announced its intent to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). There have been many arguments for and against the HECI Bill.  A few academicians believe that this will address the irregularities present in higher education. However, many feel the Bill opens up higher education to market forces, leading to its privatization. Supporters of the Dalitbahujan cause believe that giving more power to institutions like UGC means nothing more than giving them a free hand to establish upper-caste dominance. With the UGC at the helm, neither have we done any quality research, nor have we found a place at the world stage in the field of education. On the pretext of autonomy, higher education institutions have given short shrift to calls for social diversity on campuses. With the intervention of Parliament, the other backward classes (OBC), which form the largest segment of the population, have been granted access to higher education, but even today, obstacles remain at numerous levels, which could still keep them out. Many Dalitbahujan intellectuals also fear HECI paving the way for saffronization of education.

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HECI Bill: Designed to kill academic freedom  

– LOKESH KUMAR

 

The higher education system and the University Grants Commission need various reforms at different levels. The discussions have been going on for a long time. Be it the Kothari commission (1964-1966) or the Yashpal committee (2009), there have many suggestions and recommendations, but issues concerning higher education still remain unresolved. Yashpal committee, examined all issues thoroughly and fairly, and suggested forming an overarching Constitutional body called the “National Commission for Higher Education and Research” to regulate all areas of higher education and research without compromising on the basic principle of autonomy. The idea was to form a regulatory framework that would shield higher education system from political interference while making it democratic and inclusive in nature.

The present union government’s proposal to form the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), which will supplant the existing UGC, thus did not emerge out of thin air. Attempts to replace the UGC with a new body to regulate Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) had been under way since United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II. However, there is a need to look at the HECI Bill in detail in the context of the other decisions of the present government and recent developments. Though most would agree that there is an urgent need to reform UGC and its functioning, the Bill does not seem to address serious concerns facing the HEIs. Rather, it turns the whole system subservient to the whims and fancies of the government. But why are we so worried about the educational system being subjugated to the government when, after all, the government runs the country and has the mandate given by the people? Why is there a need to limit the power of the government in the sphere of higher education?

The answer to these questions lies in the report of the first university education commission of independent India (1948-49) headed by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. It says, “Freedom of individual development is the basis of democracy. Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies. In such States, institutions of higher learning controlled and managed by governmental agencies act like mercenaries.” To sum up,  the report says, only totalitarian rule exercises total control over higher education to further the politics of the ruler.

The HECI Bill is decorated with deceptive words like “autonomy” and “uniform education”, which on the face of it look impressive. But a closer look suggests that these words are just masks. Furthermore, as noted above, we must not look at the HECI Bill in isolation but in the context of the other decisions taken by the present government. Since the present government came to power, there have been a systematic assault on higher education. We have seen the whole controversy centred around JNU and other universities. Rohith Vemula’s suicide exposed the caste-based social discrimination in the higher-education institutes. We have also seen how people ideologically close to the Sangh Parivar have been installed as heads of institutions or as decision makers.

Does the HECI Bill indicate a larger conspiracy to hijack the higher education system? Let us see why the Bill was vehemently opposed by academicians and students and MPs in parliament even before it was tabled in Parliament in July.

HECI will strengthen government’s grip on higher education

  1. The structure of the commission: It proposes only two serving professors among the members of the commission. It also proposes two vice-chancellors “known for their academic excellence” as members but then we have seen vice-chancellors being appointed from the bureaucracy, military and industry. Furthermore, it proposes a  “doyen of industry” as a member.  The reason for the presence of this “doyen” in a body “for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment“ is not known. The chairperson and vice-chairperson will be appointed by a “permanent search and selection committee” headed by secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, and consisting of three academicians. It is crystal clear from its structure that the proposed commission is firmly affixed to the government.
  2. Provision for removal: There is a provision that the government can remove members of HECI before completion of term for conviction of offence “which, in the opinion of Government, involves moral turpitude”. What constitutes this “moral turpitude” is not known. It is a vague phrase and can be used arbitrarily by the government. The Bill suggests that union government can easily remove any or all members, even the chairman and vice-chairman. This is not the case with UGC, which is empowered enough to resist any pressure from the government to ensure that academic standards are driven by fact-based research. Under the proposed HECI, those in the university administration can even be imprisoned for failing to adhere to the commission guidelines (Clause 23 (2)).
  1. Advisory Council: The HECI Bill provides for an Advisory Council “chaired by the Union Minister for Human Resources Development, and with the Chairperson/Vice-Chairperson, members of the Commission, and Chairperson/Vice-Chairpersons of all State Councils for Higher Education as members”. This council will advise HECI on all issues. The word “advise” is quite misleading, because the Bill itself says that the “advice” will be binding. This simply means that HECI will be expected to dance to the government’s tune, which is quite alien to the spirit of the UGC Act.
  2. Finally, government decision prevails: “In case of [sic] a disagreement arises between the Central Government and the Commission as to whether a question is or is not a question of policy relating to national purposes, the decision of the Central Government shall be final.” [Clause 25 (2)]

Hence, the draft fails on the question of shielding higher education from political interference.

Police personnel deployed outside Benaras Hindu University to rein in a protest by women students

End of Autonomy

Autonomy of both the Higher Education Commission and the Higher education institutions are at stake. As we saw above HECI Bill guarantees only two serving professors as members of the commission. The other members have been losely defined to allow those who have served in the government at some point. The UGC Act, on the other hand, expressly states that government (state or union) officers cannot be members. More specifically, out of the 10 members in the UGC, four must be members of university faculties, and four must be experts in agriculture, commerce, forestry or industry or from learned professions like engineering, law or medicine or vice-chancellors or educationists or people of academic distinction.

As far as HECI is concerned, the power to allocate and disburse grants to higher education institutions rests with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), not with the commission itself, as is the case with the UGC.

Thousands of students, teachers, and non-teaching staff marched against the central government’s education policies, including the granting of graded autonomy to 62 higher educational institutions.  The idea of graded autonomy was introduced earlier this year. Under this system, the university will be granted increasing autonomy depending upon its NAAC (National Accreditation and Assessment Council) rating. The reason for resistance to this idea is that it tends to evaluate institutions on a uniform scale, without allowing for different social realities and the lack of or dearth of resources of the universities.

The HECI Bill is designed to stifle movements like the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) in JNU

Here, the word “autonomy” is also misleading, for increase in autonomy means reduction in government financial support. Less government funds for Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University and Hyderabad University would certainly mean less trouble for the present dispensation. Many experts consider that this “autonomy is a lie”, because it promises everything but academic freedom.

So how will the autonomous institutions meet its budget, when state funding will be reduced? They will have to raise funds on their own by hiking the fees or by arranging for private funding. The biggest losers will be the students of socially deprived communities, especially SCs, STs and OBCs, and other poor sections of society. This is either an act of ignorance, or a brahmanical scheme to keep the SCs, STs, OBCs and and other deprived sections subjugated?

As the MHRD allocates and disburses funds, more the institution toes the line of the government of the day, the more funding it gets. It has been seen in the IIT Delhi, where the Centre for Rural Development and Technology seems to get funds easily for their “Panchgavya” (cow science) research, while the other departments have to apply for HEFA (Higher Education Financing Agency) loans. We could see programmes for rewriting history by incorporating myths history flush with funds.

Thus the HECI BIll fails on the question of autonomy of both the commission and the institutions it regulates.

Privatization

The idea of graded autonomy has been introduced also to allow privatization and commercialization of higher education. Even the government budget reflected this policy of the government. Profit will be motive of the private parties funding education, hence only those who can help them reap profits – in other words, the rich who can afford their high fees – will have access to higher education. Saqib Khan, a scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, rightly pointed out that the system of graded autonomy “aims to establish a tiered system of higher education with a clear class division: the first tier for the elite, the second for the middle class and the third for the masses”. The SCs, STs and OBCs will obviously find themselves in the third tier. Hence, HECI fails the inclusion, test too.

Social discrimination remains unaddressed

The government told the Rajya Sabha in March that around 26,500 students committed suicide in India from 2014 to 2016. In other words, there were 24 suicides a day and one every hour. The figures that the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir quoted in the Rajya Sabha while answering a question on what steps the government is taking to prevent student suicides show that more and more students have been taking their lives: 8068 in 2014, 8934 in 2015 and 9474 in 2016. Yet the HECI Bill is strangely silent on measures to prevent these suicides, such making university campuses free of caste discrimination. Deaths of Rohith Vemula in University of Hyderabad, J. Muthukrishnan in JNU, Bhim Singh in IIT Kanpur showed that caste-based discrimination on university campuses is a reality.

True academic freedom is key to economic development and a truly egalitarian society and is possible only under an independent, publicly funded higher education system. The first university education commission of independent India and the Yashpal Committee that submitted its report not so long ago seem to recognize this fact. The HECI Bill, on the other hand, is deliberately oblivious to this truth and seems to be driven by a brahmanical, corporate agenda of excluding and profiteering.

Copy-editing: Anil


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