Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill
The Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill, 2016 proposes a centralised system to govern and control institutions of higher learning by taking implicit recourse to the Central Universities of India (Teaching, Research and Administration) Bill, 2013 and explicit recourse to the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan. The proposed bill avoids discussing any imperilment of the prevalent “academics’ atrophy” while ensuing “academic atrophy” and “atrophy of homogeneity.” This is followed by “atrophy of episteme” by way of deciding a priori research topics in universities.
The Gujarat assembly passed the Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill (Gujarat Bill No 27 of 2016) on 31 March 2016. The bill is aimed at covering institutions of higher learning, including universities and colleges affiliated to them in Gujarat. The University Grants Commission (UGC) and Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) are explicitly stated in the bill. However, the bill does not discuss the actual mandate of either the UGC or the RUSA. This article discusses the bill and the actual mandate of the UGC and RUSA on which the entire edifice of the bill is built imprudently.
The bill envisages the creation of the Gujarat State Higher Education Council (GSHEC) for “planned, coordinated, and integrated development” of higher education. The GSHEC will also “observe” and “control” higher educational institutions, and advise the state government. The council is to have a 32-member governing council, which includes 15 ex officio members and 17 other members. The chief minister will be the president of the council. The chairperson of the proposed executive committee within the council will also be a member. The 17 other members include five vice chancellors, one selected vice chancellor of a private university, two persons from institutes of national importance located in Gujarat, five persons from specified fields (arts, science, commerce, law, engineering, management, medicine, journalism, film and television, theatre, games/sports, public administration, and finance), three members from universities or affiliated colleges who have 15 years of experience, and a member secretary appointed by the government.
The aim of the council is to connect institutions, “observe” and “control” institutions, prepare a database, take action against unauthorised acts, allot resources and assess financial needs, establish social parity, and modernise and improve institutions to the scale of world-class universities. The council’s work includes implementation of directives of the state and UGC along with evaluation of the institutions and suggestions on collaboration with the industry. On the academic front, the council will promote a common syllabus and interdisciplinary mobility (read transfer) of students and teachers. Some of the advisory functions are also noteworthy, like advising universities on consolidation of research activities, and statutes/ordinances and regulations.
The crucial component of the council is a 22-member executive committee, including the chairperson and three ex officio members. The state government will appoint all members. A three-member search committee will be constituted for the appointment of the chairperson of the executive committee. The state government will appoint the search committee’s chairperson. Within one month, the committee will suggest and submit three names to the government. Out of the three, the state government will appoint one eminent educationalist as the chairperson of the executive committee for three years. The chairperson will be the CEO, educational head, chief-in-charge of the council’s functioning, and will also look after supervision. Other members are three vice chancellors, one vice chancellor from a private university, one person from the institutes of national importance located in Gujarat, five persons based on their distinguished contributions as stated above, and three professors or principals having 10 years of teaching experience.
The powers and functions of the executive committee are exceptionally broad and comprehensive. It can take policy decisions under the broad guidelines of the council on expenditure, planning, and coordination, and provide advice related to statutes and ordinances, and suggestions on quality improvement. The bill also seeks to address the issue of protection of the autonomy of the state universities.
The status of autonomy takes a different turn as soon as Articles 14 and 15 of the bill are bared. Article 14 empowers the council extraordinarily. It states that the council will retain its power to act even in the case where posts are vacant or any lacunae are discovered in the constitution of the council. Notwithstanding some people who are not even eligible for the membership and remain present in the meeting of the council, and have cast their vote or participated in any other work of the council, the meeting as well as the decision taken will be valid. Article 15 takes the matter further with a far-reaching consequence. The state government can order any change or amendment and direct any process for reformative action either on the recommendation of the council, or of its own volition. Notwithstanding any regulation or law, a university has to fulfil the orders of the state government, and inform the state and council on the action taken. The council will review periodically the steps taken by the university to follow the state government’s orders.
Imitating a Rejected ‘Apotheosis’
The impact of the Central Universities of India (Teaching, Research and Administration) Bill, 2013 (CUI bill) is writ large on the GSHEC bill. The GSHEC bill refers to the CUI bill by way of the UGC. Interestingly, the UGC had no direct role in formulating the draft of the CUI bill except circulating it for soliciting general public opinion (No F15–10/2013). The draft was prepared by a committee constituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Higher Education (Reference No F20–06/2010-Desk U, dated 12 April 2013; MHRd 2013).
Two distinct features of the CUI bill are impenitent centralisation and unconcealed homogeneity. Both have squarely influenced the GSHEC bill. The CUI bill advocates repealing of all acts of central universities and replacing them with one single act. Impenitent centralisation is also envisaged through advocating centralisation of administrative decisions. A Vice-Chancellors Council (VCC) is proposed to be set up, whose chairperson will be the human resource development minister. The VCC is mandated to coordinate all academic activities of central universities. Providing policy advice on academic matters, synchronising academic calendars, recruitment and exchange of faculty members, and setting up of higher education standards are assigned functions of the VCC.
Instead of making academic councils, executive councils and vice chancellors more democratic, a top-down mega system is imposed. Unconcealed homogeneity is envisaged through inter-university mobility of faculty. This has a devastating consequence. The university is a unique institution that takes years to develop. The transfer of faculty mars the unique needs and growth of a university. Immense diversities of universities are replaced by unconcealed homogeneity, while making academics a vocation and a fleeting entity.
Impenitent centralisation, unconcealed homogeneity, and commodification have been the reasons to oppose the CUI bill. Barring finding a space in the Retreat of Vice Chancellors at Chandigarh (12–13 September 2014), the CUI bill could not become a policy guideline. It is astonishing to see the impact of the defunct and outright anti-academic CUI bill 2013 on the GSHEC bill. It is also appalling that the CUI bill 2013, which has no legal validity, advisory role, or academic value in any form, has disingenuously become the role model for the GSHEC bill.
Structure without Autonomy
The RUSA is no role model. It provides, however, unambiguous and unflinching guidelines on structure and autonomy. It proposes the establishment of a State Higher Education Council (SHEC) in this particular context. Purposefully, the GSHEC bill takes the structure and neglects both the context of the SHEC and a substantive concern on autonomy. Since the UGC cannot fund all state universities and affiliated colleges under the provisions of Sections 2(f) and 12B of the UGC Act that lays down certain conditions to receive assistance, the RUSA plans to fund all state universities and affiliated colleges (both compliant and non-compliant), including private ones, to achieve “access, equity and excellence.” The SHEC becomes a primary structure wherefrom funding is released (MHRD 2013).
The SHEC, being a planning unit through the State Higher Education Plans (SHEPs), will be responsible for the funding of all the higher educational institutions in the state. The funding ratio for the SHECs by the centre and state is 90% and 10% for special category states (north-eastern states, Sikkim, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and 65% and 35% for other states and union territories, respectively. Funding to state universities is crucial because 94% of students are either enrolled in government-funded universities (48% overall) or government-controlled private universities, and are a part of the state education system. Besides, 52% of the private educational institutions come under state universities for administrative and financial control. Funding becomes imperative to attract good teaching staff and improve the teacher–student ratio. Since higher education is a public good that produces valuable externalities, it requires liberal funding against the commercialisation of education.
Against the backdrop of reports of the Radhakrishnan Commission, Kothari Commission and Yash Pal Committee, the RUSA envisions SHECs as promoting greater autonomy. Increased funding, fostering institutional autonomy and meaningful academic autonomy are crucial concerns. The RUSA lays emphasis on administrative, academic, and financial autonomy. It also warns the universities from becoming administration- and administrator-oriented. The primary function of the administration is to serve the academic interests of the university. The universities are witnessing centralisation in the decision-making process. The importance given to ideas must be based on objectivity and intrinsic merit.
The departments are perceived as the main operational unit of academic autonomy, and teachers as the most crucial components of the university’s autonomy. They are the pivot on which the excellence of the university will depend. The participation of teachers and students must be ensured in the decision-making process. Financial autonomy is ensured through the provision for funding to individual universities in a manner untied to actualisation of prioritisation. This is also crucial to maintain a good teacher–student ratio, that is, 15:1 for undergraduate courses and 12:1 for postgraduate courses.
The RUSA highlights five key substantive concerns to enforce university autonomy. First, revisiting the acts of various state universities is necessary to do away with the detrimental clauses, which are a hindrance to autonomy. These clauses must be replaced by such clauses that would enhance the autonomy of universities. Second, universities must have the autonomy to recruit faculty as per procedures. Third, governing bodies must not be filled with ex officio members and government nominees. Fourth, the vice chancellor must be a leader on academic and administrative fronts to safeguard the autonomy of the university. Fifth, public representatives and civil servants should not interfere in the administration or day-to-day affairs of the universities. Autonomy is inseparable from accountability. The RUSA underlines accountability to the future of the students and the country, the generation of new knowledge and establishment of the truth.
Against the micromanagement of the universities by the government, the RUSA proposes a buffer body, like the SHEC, to ensure government withdrawal and fulfil the function of planning, monitoring, quality control and coordination at the state level while maintaining an arm’s length from the state and the centre. It will have an eminent academic/public intellectual with proven leadership qualities as the chairperson. The member-secretary will be an eminent academician of the rank of professor. There should be few ex officio members in this council. The chairperson will be selected by a committee comprising the chief minister, the speaker, and leader of the opposition on the basis of recommendations of shortlisted candidates by the search-cum-selection committee. Two members of the committee will be nominated by the council and one by the state government. The state government nominee will be the chair of the committee.
Arrival of an Atrophied Autonomy
According to the RUSA, Gujarat lags far behind other states in higher education, particularly in terms of gross enrolment ratio, institutional density, and gender parity. Instead of mitigating these along with commercialisation, the GSHEC bill further erodes the already compromised autonomy of universities by way of two sets of compromised autonomy. In the first set, “academics’ atrophy” is a pre-GSHEC bill phenomenon that has not been addressed in it. In the state, upon selection as an assistant professor in government universities or an affiliated college, the higher education commissioner issues a letter of appointment, which itself highlights the abysmal state of affairs. After joining the service, the selected candidate receives a fixed payment of ₹25,000 for five years. The probation period is of five years. During this period, the candidate will not receive any increment in salary, benefits of the pay commission, medical reimbursement, bonus or any kind of financial benefits. After evaluation of service after five years, if found satisfactory, she or he will get full employment. Work experience will be counted only for the full employment period. The first five years’ services will not be counted.
In the second set, three ensuing “atrophied autonomies” are more precarious for the health of higher education. The first is “academic atrophy” where institutional autonomy is highly compromised by making the head of the state government the head of the council. This compromises the council’s autonomy squarely since there is no provision of appeal against the council’s decision. The number of ex officio members remains abnormally high in the proposed council. The leader of opposition is to be consulted for the selection of the chairman of the executive committee, but is given a miss in the GSHEC bill. Due to absolute compliance of the government order, the GSHEC bill makes the vice chancellors, senate, syndicate and academic councils effete individuals or bodies.
The second is the “atrophy of heterogeneity.” Homogeneity is envisaged in three ways, that is, transfer of teaching and non-teaching staff, advocacy for common syllabus, and direct intervention in statutes and ordinances of the universities. This will deaden the idea of each university as a distinct entity. The RUSA proposes an alliance of the universities, but the GSHEC bill stresses on integration. The RUSA empowers the SHEC on statutes and ordinances of universities only to rectify anomalies that may hinder the autonomous functioning of the universities.
The third is the “atrophy of episteme.” The possibility of conversion of universities into public relations offices looms large. The recent government order on PhD topics is an outcome of the GSHEC bill. The state government’s order provides 82 research topics that are related to various schemes of the state government and the central governments. The university has to ensure that a minimum of five topics are chosen for doctoral research (Yagnik and Chauhan 2016). This is a violation of academic ethics where both research and outcome cannot be a priori by design. Indeed, research in the universities should challenge policies if these turn out to be antithetical to the people’s cause, not brazenly endorse them.
In a nutshell, it needs to be reiterated that centralisation is not a sublime approach to accomplish excellence in higher education. This crucial universal academic value needs unconditional reclamation.
The Raj Bhavan, amidst widespread opposition and heterogeneous submission of petitions to the Governor of Gujarat urging him to not give his consent to the GSHEC bill becoming an act, had issued the following statement on 1 June 2016:
Taking cognisance of seriousness of all the above representations, Governor O P Kohli had called concerned ministers and higher officials of education department at Raj Bhavan, Gandhinagar, held detailed discussion on provisions of the Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill, 2016 with them and sought clarifications of the state government on certain provisions of the Bill. (Indian Express 2016)
The bill was subsequently approved by the governor to become an act on 1 February 2017 (Dave and Yagnik 2017).
Dave, Kapil and Bharat Yagnik (2017): “Controversial Education Bill Gets Gujarat Governor’s Nod,” Times of India, 4 February, Ahmedabad, viewed on 4 February 2017, http://m.timesofindia.com/city/ahmedabad/controversial-education-bill-ge....
Indian Express (2016): “Higher Education Council Bill: Gujarat Governor O P Kohli Seeks Clarification,” 2 June, viewed on 31 January 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/higher-education-counc....
MHRD (2013): “Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan: National Higher Education Mission,” Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, New Delhi, September.
Yagnik, Bharat and Ashish Chauhan (2016): “Gujarat Govt Gives Universities List of Topics for PhD Theses,” Times of India, 26 April, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gujarat-govt-gives-universities....
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