HECI Act 2018 Fails to Address Structural Problems of Higher Education in India

The government’s intention to repeal the University Grants Commission Act and replace it with the Higher Education Commission of India Act, 2018 is alarming because it does not consider the structural problems of higher education in India and instead emphasises outcome-based parameters that are likely to adversely affect quality of teaching and learning.

In a drastic move, the government has announced its intention to repeal University Grants Commission (UGC) Act and replace it with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act, 2018. In many ways, the move is significant. 

First, it has shown the government’s dissatisfaction with the UGC and its twin functions of managing plan-funding and the maintenance of standards. With respect to both the functions, the charge levelled against the UGC has been on grounds of inefficiency and over-regulation without realising the outcomes. 

Second, the funding has two components—grants and loans. Grants will be centralised by the union government and the loan component will be managed by the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) established in 2016, giving a message, unlike in the past, that gradually loan-based funding from HEFA can be obtained at the cost only.[1] 

Third, the meaning of maintenance of standards has undergone change, as is evident from the new role and functions of the HECI in terms of specifying learning outcomes, laying down standards of teaching, assessment, and research, and evaluating the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions by monitoring the performance on the criteria laid down. This is a radical departure from the past in the sense that accountability and performance of teachers and higher education institutions will now be fixed more directly. Monitoring will be more stringent in terms of output irrespective of whether institutions suffer from teacher shortage, infrastructure problems, or fund constraint. 

Fourth, the HECI has acquired a very important function, so far not available to the UGC, to order the closure of institutions in case they fail to acquire accreditation within a stipulated period or fail to adhere to minimum standards. The clause pertaining to closure may not only give excessive powers to the HECI, but it will also act against the federal spirit by denying the state government its role. 

Fifth, all institutions of higher education that have authority to grant a degree, with the commencement of the HECI Act, will be required to start their first academic operations only after the proper authorisation from the HECI. This is necessary because with the repeal of the UGC Act, Section 2(f) of the act will cease to operate. This means that university nomenclature and its establishment by central, provincial, or state act and its automatic recognition by the UGC will also cease to operate. Though Clause 2(g) defines a “University” as a university established or incorporated by or under a central act, a state act, and an institution deemed to be university, the authority to grant a degree or diploma is concentrated in the HECI as per the HECI Act, 2018. Existing universities or deemed to be universities have been given a relief of three years to obtain authorisation to grant a degree or diploma. 

Sixth, unlike in the past, all institutions of higher education will be subject to accreditation under the act. This means that a new system of accreditation will be required to be in place before or immediately after the commencement of HECI Act. 

 

Authorisation to Award Degree or Diploma

As noted above, with the repeal of the UGC Act, Section 2(f) of the act also stands abolished. This means that the definition of university established by central or provincial or state act stands expunged; the automatic recognition of university given by this clause for the maintenance of standards also goes away; and the degree-granting power of a university given by Clause 22(1) of the UGC Act also stands abolished. How can a university, authorised to be established by 2(f) clause of the act, then be established?

In Clause 2(d) of the HECI Act, 2018, “Higher Educational Institution” means a university or an institution or a college, affiliated to a university, including the institutions or colleges that have been granted power to award degrees/diplomas by the commission. There are central, state, and private universities which are already established by central or state acts. Clause 2(g) notes that “university” means a university established or incorporated by or under a central act, a state act, and an institution deemed to be University. They are all covered under "higher education institutions." It seems that a university, an institution, a college, or a deemed university have been treated at par. Under the new system, affiliated college provision allows colleges to be established under the privileges of a university and therefore, there are no barriers to expansion. However, the new provision also allows for colleges to be opened without being affiliated to a university. The latter provision of the independence of colleges from a university is being permitted under the HECI Act. A university, college, or institution can grant a degree provided that the HECI gives it the authority to grant a degree through the process laid down under the act. 

 

What Does This Imply?

The state or central government’s power to allow the university to be established by act prevails, but it means nothing because the university will have to approach the HECI for getting authorisation to grant a degree. All existing universities will have to approach the HECI for a license to grant a degree or diploma after an initial period of three years. 

The distinction between university, college, or institutions has been done away with because all institutions will have power to grant a degree. Any non-state actor can establish a college or institution without being scrutinised by the state, and apply to the HECI for a license to grant a degree and only HECI will have centralised power to authorise any such university, college or institution to grant a degree. States will have no power to check the entry requirement for colleges or institutions and in the name of maintenance of standards by the union government, all the power will rest with HECI.

Moreover, private parties will have no restrictions to establish colleges or institutions. They can straightaway approach the HECI for the license to grant a degree or diploma. This is likely to lead to the mushrooming of colleges and institutions for diploma or degree courses and put considerable pressure upon the HECI. 

The HECI will act as a licensing authority. After setting the standards, it will provide the license to grant a degree. At any time, if such standard is not met, then closure power (that was not available so far to the UGC) will be used to shut down any institution, particularly institutions serving in rural areas that may suffer from teacher and infrastructure shortage.

It is important to bear in mind that in a developing country, many government colleges or universities are established with few teachers and little infrastructure and they slowly develop into big institutions. In fact, many new central universities in the recent past began their operations from borrowed infrastructure made available by the state government. Now, over the years, they have developed into large institutions.

Under the new system, the HECI, to begin with, asks that the standard be met in order to provide degree-granting license. Private providers, with promoters that are big businesses, in order to earn money in the future, may invest and get the license. Government institutions that serve the social function of providing higher education in rural areas, by not being able to meet the standard, will suffer from the threat of closure all the time. The worst sufferers will be the humanities and social sciences, which have survived so far with meagre government resources.  The democratic and inclusive character of many government institutions is likely to be threatened. 

The Meaning of Quality

The HECI Act, 2018 has made a paradigm shift in the meaning of quality. Some of the functions of the HECI under Clause 15(3) are: i) to specify learning outcomes for courses of study; ii) to lay down standards of teaching, assessment, and research or any aspect that has bearing on outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions; and iii) to evaluate the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions. Outcome-based learning parameters imply a new pedagogy, method of teaching, and assessment. It is unimaginable that a scholarly lecture by a professor has to pass the test of outcome-based learning.

Moving towards a learner-centred approach has a new dimension of quality. It defines quality by measuring the skills developed by the learner. Parameters will be identified by the HECI and all teachers of higher education institutions must fulfil those standard parameters. Standardisation as a goal will take away the active agency of teachers as they will have no autonomy to design the curriculum in terms of the varying needs and circumstances of learners, who may have cognitive, cultural, and language deficits that can only be addressed through the active support of teachers. The question worth asking is: How can such deficits be addressed through standard learning outcomes? The new approach to quality assumes that learners are a homogeneous group and that all of them have the same abilities. It is expected that teachers will achieve standard outcomes from standard learners. This will never be the case in actual practice. 

The meaning of quality is lost through any standardisation. A teacher's autonomy means the freedom to construct and pass on knowledge to students in the most scientific terms. Teachers do so in varying ways attracting the attention of learners. Besides, various modes of interaction and engagement such as seminars, tutorials, and feedback provide teachers the opportunity to supervise learners and address the deficits.     

Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions

Clause 15(2) of the act says that the commission shall take measures

 

to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and 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.

 

If we look at the provisions of the act, autonomy in real terms is seriously compromised. First, the provision of “graded autonomy” made under Clause 15(4) (d) may amount to autonomy to a select group of universities, colleges, or institutions. The autonomy to mobilise resources for starting a new programme would amount to privatisation of public-funded institutions and hence would lead to serving the market. Second, with the curricula based on learning outcomes and monitoring effectiveness of programme based on learning outcomes, the autonomy of a teacher is severely restricted to serve employability rather than a free pursuit of knowledge. Third, institutions engaged in the pursuit of knowledge by the very nature of knowledge generation process are autonomous, where the performance of individual scholars is evaluated by other scholars who have the ability and competence to do so. Outside evaluators such as the HECI cannot be allowed to define the parameters of outcome-based education to monitor teachers and impose accountability in the guise of autonomy. This was the argument given by Immanuel Kant (1979) in late 18th century Germany to defend the autonomy of scholars against the state.

The performance of an institution is based on the scholarly work of individual scholars. If any external performance criteria are applied for monitoring, then it amounts to coercive use of power to fix accountability rather than autonomy for knowledge generation. Lastly, unless the government commits to public funding and addresses the shortage of teachers, teachers will be overburdened and will hardly have the free time to devote for the research. Under a resource-constrained situation, if institutions are forced to generate resources from the private sector, then their autonomy is restricted to serving only the source from which the fund is received. 

Challenges for Governance

Clause 15(4)(m) states that universities shall be enabled to become self-regulatory bodies for the maintenance of academic quality. Clause 15(4)(j) states that the HECI shall recommend appropriate faculty-centric governance structure for higher educational institutions, which provides for transparency and efficiency in the decision-making process. The act also notes that the HECI shall formulate a code of good practices for promoting research; devolution of powers within the institutions for better decision-making; and encourage institutions to adopt the same. 

Self-regulation, faculty-centric governance and better decision-making are much desired, but the reality is just the opposite and how far the HECI will succeed to create that ideal situation, by keeping universities free from outside interferences, shall remain a challenge. The HECI is also supposed to specify norms and processes for fixing of fees to make higher education affordable. This is no doubt necessary. However, if public-funded institutions are short of public funding and will have to rely on loans and on self-financing courses to manage academic affairs, then there will inevitably be a tendency to increase the fees and higher education will consequently become less affordable. 

 

Conclusions

The HECI Act, 2018, no doubt, shows its intention to develop universities as self-regulatory bodies having faculty-led governance and efficient decision-making systems. However, given that political and bureaucratic control coerces universities time and again, this is difficult to achieve. The HECI Act intends to achieve outcome-based education and thereby changes the discourse on quality without looking at the structural problems of higher education. There is much talk about autonomy, yet in practice accountability is imposed largely in terms of monitoring outcomes. The agency of teachers will be lost if they are asked to serve market. Autonomy will be restricted to suit market needs. There is a possibility that private colleges and institutions will mushroom and degree and diploma mills will be on the rise. On the other hand, many institutions of higher education, serving the rural hinterland might face a threat of closure if they are unable to get the authority to confer degrees or diplomas.  

Higher education institutions run on the collective understanding of all stakeholders, mainly teachers and students. It is possible to have diverse opinions on how to teach in order to maximise the benefits to learners. It should be left to the teachers to understand local context and adopt appropriate ways to teach. Any attempt to have centralised control and to standardise learning outcomes may not work in practice.

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