BJP regime still needs to learn how to frame a document of governance. It messes it up and makes it look unprofessional and infantile. The HECI Act is an example of it, as it is full of contradictions and incomplete facts. Here is an Act, which is clear about the intentions of the government but those intentions are badly expressed. As an example it talks of centralisation as well as self-regulation making it difficult to understand how would it implement the two. Anyhow, the most important part is that its intention is clear – concentrate power in the hands of government.
There is great amount of opposition and concern to the newly proposed Higher Education Council of India (HECI) as a replacement for the University Grants Commission. The concern, as far as it could be seen, emerges on the following grounds:
- It seeks centralisation of power with the Ministry of Human Resource Development
- It has no imagination for an inclusive higher education, which is otherwise constitutionally guaranteed
- It will adversely impact financing of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
- It goes against the idea and spirit of federalism
- It professes a misplaced notion of autonomy
The concerns seem genuine and well framed if I look at them experientially as a teacher-worker. But then it also raises, to begin with, a methodological question for the critiques: why is a policy measure like HECI seen in isolation when it should be dialectically located within the larger processes that constitute a system grounded in the way how capitalist ‘development’ determines the forms and content of policy in different arenas. None of the analysis or concerns that I have come across till now point to using such a methodology because of which most of them end doing criticism of current regime, which is flawed. Some analysis have pointed out how this is a continuity of the earlier regimes as well. It is within this framework of analysis that one can encounter answer to many of the concerns pointed above.
At the first instance a lay person like me does get baffled at the proposal to do away with bodies like UGC and asks a basic question of what has been the need.
One pragmatic answer can be that with changing times we need to “upgrade” or “redefine” our institutions. And the proposed act seems to be well aware of it at least the way it makes itself relevant. Its preamble recycles the old rhetoric of how central government is concerned about “determination of standards” in HEI. The same preamble reinforces the idea of authority that central government holds through instruments of “systematic monitoring and promotion”. In the same breath it contradicts its commitment to autonomy (read privatisation) by saying that it would promote “uniform development of quality of education in higher educational institutions” because it not only wants to dismantle state control over HEI through autonomy but it also seeks to create an unequal HE scenario with private HEI for those who can pay and the state run HEI with bad infrastructure for the masses who can’t pay. It redefines itself by saying that the “mandate” of UGC needs redefinition because the “priorities of higher education” have changed. Obviously one would ask what are those changes.
The other answer can be that like the present regime undid all symbols and institutions of the past because it wanted to show a clear break from the past (decaying) welfarism into a new world of outright aggressive corporatised social, economic and political order this move is one among many. A new order has set in, a new imagination and new world needs to be showcased. The recent move is merely that. In this sense it is a continuity of the same process which replaced Planning Commission with Niti Aayog.
The UGC is obsolete because given the needs and requirements of the current situation Indian state needed a body that fully liberates education from its management. It is not that UGC was not doing anything towards liberating it. It had been allowing universities to run on guest and adhoc faculty. It had reduced funds, the infrastructure was being squeezed, the authoritarianism evident in any corporate funding was becoming the order of the day, students, faculty and staff were discouraged to unionise and therefore could not become stakeholders in the university system. Scholarships have been cut and teachers were sent letters early this year that if they needed seventh pay commission they must mobilise funds to run the institution. Nobody seems to be talking of the Gazette Notification that created different category of universities? What more is expected in terms of corporatisation except that all this needs to be formalised and institutionalised. Many of the voices of concern have been, in fact, part of the institutions that talked of redefining the institutions because in the changed situation with private universities etc., new institutional frameworks need to be worked out. If a move like this has to be opposed it cannot be opposed as a stand alone event but the whole process has to be opposed but unfortunately many of us have been part of the process at one point or the other.
Within the given mandate UGC had outlived itself. A new mechanism to facilitate a full-fledged overhaul of education system in interests of private capital to allow rampant and uncontrolled profiteering is required. One way to do this is to centralise the working of the system. Decentralisation, which has been critiqued in the past as messy, is a way to counter the invasion of private capital to some extent, till state does not become fully colonised by private capital and the decentralised governance becomes a facilitator of its rule. That process of colonisation is nearing it’s completion. It was started by the Congress regime in the early 1990s and has been carried forward by every successive regime. What BJP has done is that it has loosened the shackles through changing the nature of all institutions. It has defined and implemented the idea of ‘autonomy’, which is a move towards complete integration of HE in the market as it also talks about how HEI in India could have an education and research “in a competitive global environment.” The moment discourses on linking market and educational institutions came up in past, and even Yashpal committee was concerned about it, it implied that one is moving towards erosion of the idea of education in general, which should not have anything to do with whether one gets a job after completing it or not. Once, that becomes the concern the institutions will end up doing what private capital wants it to do – become direct producers of tailor made labour power for the market. It is not surprising then that the discourses on skilling would come up after that and so would emerge discourses on prioritising the disciplines and reframing the courses that are taught. Linked to these would be prioritisation of expenses with institutions. Some of my colleagues get fascinated by how an institution in West is run by only guest faculty but has a lot of other resources Or how the administration academics still look at UK/USA as model without even thinking about how their HEIs are being destroyed. Sometimes it does not seem like myopia of analysis but a comfortable position of how well we can live within capitalism by becoming its best advisors.
Section 15.3 of the proposed Act and its various sub-sections talk about academic standards and how to ensure it. Many provisions such as 15.3.b talks about laying “down standards of teaching / assessment / research or any aspect that has bearing on outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development.” This is centrally determining what is required as a knowledge or not. What should be an outcome of higher learning – be a good, servile worker and the institutions must be geared towards it or produced a critical knowledge. This new move will not only determine what kind of courses will be taught but also who will teach them and who will not. Provisions on content will be decided by a group of people, which will not have many academicians (02 out of 12). The question that remains is whether the HECI will be capable of going through the courses etc., of such a mammoth system or will a set of courses approved by it be valid throughout India. The way it is proposing the working of HEI across India will it not change the very fact of education being in the concurrent list?
Section 15.4 makes it amply clear that the HE would look like a market place where different enterprises compete to survive, flourish or perish. It talks of (15.4.c) laying down “standards for grant of autonomy for institutions and provide flexibility and freedom to institutions granted autonomy to develop their own curriculum”, (15.4.d) specifying “norms and standards for Graded Autonomy to Universities and Higher Educational Institutions and accordingly prescribe regulatory mechanisms” and; laying down “norms and standards for performance based incentivization to the faculty and the Higher Educational Institutions and the Universities”. It makes its intention amply clear by proposing that universities will be enabled “to become self-regulatory bodies for the maintenance of academic quality in higher education and research and in colleges affiliated to it” (15.4.m). The self-regulation also means that the institutions will not have to constantly go to the Ministry if it does not want money. Once, it fulfils all the formalities of annual reporting (which we know by now how corporates are experts at manipulating). At the first instance it might appear contradicting to the idea of centralisation it may not in longer run. These provisions if read along 15.3 also indicate at the centralisation aspect of the content of HEI. The Government decides what to teach, how to teach and (in other words) what not to teach.
One is surprised to read scholars argue that UGC with all its lacunae has been good whereas the HECI will be very bad. However, I would see HECI, dismantling of UGC, institutions of eminence, autonomy to HEIs, etc., as moves towards liberating the HEIs from clutches of state funding. It, at the same time, also moves towards making Higher Education more unequal, destroying the possibilities of research and teaching. But there is nothing new in this because this was already happening and the concerned analysts have failed to understand the inevitability of this. This would also mean that if a battle is to be waged against this it has to be enmeshed in the larger battle against the system that produces these policies.