ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Towards a Toothless UGC

This government is systematically working towards replacing the University Grants Commission.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has served India’s higher education system for over six decades. Like many other institutions forming its cohort, it has been struggling to cope with diverse responsibilities for some time. The struggle has as much to do with changed systemic circumstances as with the significant depletion in its own resources. It is not clear whether the central government’s move to repeal the act that created and empowered it with a financial role is based on serious dissatisfaction with its performance. Nor does the move seem to be inspired by a vision of the institution that will replace the UGC.

Named as the Higher Education Commission (HEC), this new institution will cover a considerable part of the UGC’s mandate, minus the latter’s financial role, which was represented by the term “grants” in its name. This function will go to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Not surprisingly, the academic world is apprehensive that the move will increase the power of the ministry (read political leadership and the bureaucracy serving it) to curb what little autonomy is left in the system of higher education.

On the other hand, the government has referred to the recommendations of various expert committees. And therein lies a catch. A large committee appointed by the MHRD a decade ago under the chairpersonship of the late Yash Pal had considered the UGC’s role, as had the National Knowledge Commission (NKC). The recom­mendations given by these two panels are often treated as a consensus to scrap the UGC. The nature of their advice and the diagnosis on which it was based, however, were quite different. The NKC’s concern was to give a free hand to the burgeoning private sector, whereas the Yash Pal Committee was concerned about the overlapping roles of the UGC and the regulatory bodies controlling the various areas of professional education. In fact, the Yash Pal Committee never suggested that the UGC should be “scrapped.” The term it used was “subsumed,” pointing towards the need to let the UGC look after the crucial task of equitable distribution of funds, while a larger, essentially deliberative body looks after and encourages the long neglected task of building curricular and research bridges between different disciplines and disparate areas of higher professional learning.

What is now being contemplated is the transfer of the UGC’s financial role to the MHRD. This is contrary to the Yash Pal Committee’s recommendations, even though the idea of bringing certain areas of professional education under the proposed HEC partially echoes the committee’s report. The government is aware of the suspicion that its move—to separate financial from regulatory powers, and the control of the former by the ministry—will arouse. Reassurances of online rectitude in distribution of resources reflect a lurking recognition of the diminishing credibility of meritocratic governance, practised in the recent past through accreditation and evaluation mechanisms. The speed at which the government is moving towards a repeal bill in Parliament to alter the financial arrangements managed so far by the UGC is both alarming and ironical. It is alarming because higher education has faced consistent budget cuts in successive central budgets. The emergence of a vast private sector in higher education, with little effective control on its finances, has given more than indicative signals of the preferred policy scenario for the future.

That is where the irony of the proposed move and the government’s haste resides. It has been four years since the MHRD started working on a new national policy on education to replace the 1986 policy document. The attempt to draft a new policy has gone through a remarkable number of gearshifts. The delay has made even diehard optimists despair. The latest announced deadline for a draft, currently being prepared by the Kasturirangan Committee, is the end of September 2018. One assumes that the policy draft will cover the financial aspects of higher education and the UGC’s role in it. Surely, the move to introduce a bill in Parliament to change the UGC’s key role and function barely three months ahead of the submission of a draft education policy will diminish the latter’s significance. One would have thought that the prospect of a new national education policy being formulated in the impending future would mean holding back any major new decisions.

The proposed move to repeal the UGC Act suggests that the government does not want to risk any potential contrary signals from the policy coming in the way of its desire to take financial powers away from the UGC. Alternatively, the move could mean that the government does not expect the new policy to have much practical value for taking decisions, especially in the context of finances. This surmise acquires its plausibility from the power that the general econo­mic policy has exercised since the early 1990s over decision-making in social sector policies. As far as higher education is concerned, no government at the centre or in any of the states has been particularly concerned about letting the neo-liberal economic policy drive decision-making. The present move is consistent with this trend, as it signifies further shrinkage of the public apparatus, tighter financial control—legitimised by meritocratic distribution and allocation—and, consequently, the furnishing of wider room for private capital to control the nation’s intellectual life and creation of knowledge.

Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018


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