A super UGC?
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The bill is deficient on so many grounds that it would take several pages to expound its infirmities. But to begin with, it displays minimal grasp of either the first principles of regulation or the context in which the debate for a new regulatory body had started. The problem with the current structure was three-fold. First, the UGC had acquired overweening powers. In its original and much better crafted 1958 Act, it was entrusted with "coordination" of higher education. Slowly, this was transformed into a mandate of "standardisation" and "homogenisation". Second, the UGC merged many functions: it became regulator, accreditation authority, funding agency, all rolled into one. And third, the whole institution seemed to diminish in authority, in part because of the politicisation of the appointments process. Instead of acting as a buffer between government and universities, it started doing the government's bidding. It started acting on the autonomy of public universities with impunity. And it had no transparent mechanism for authorising new institutions, resulting in the current deemed universities mess.
The new bill, except for making the appointments of some of the members of the new NCHER more elevated, does nothing else to alleviate any of the deficiencies of the UGC. It makes the problem worse. It retains the expansive ambit of the UGC, and adds considerably to its powers. The most egregious example of this is the proposal that appointments for vice-chancellors in all universities in India be de facto centralised. They will now have to be appointed from a national regis-
try prepared by a single collegium which will forward five names for a position. This is probably as much an infringement on federalism as it is a diminution of a university board's ability to take charge of its own appointments.
Second, the commission is entrusted with promoting university autonomy, and it drops the word on occasion (kind of oxymoronic when a central agency is required to promote autonomy). But the very section that speaks of autonomy gives the commission an indiscriminate mandate to regulate everything from syllabi, course structures, administrative protocols. These powers would greatly erode all slivers of autonomy that universities currently possess. The drafters seem to have very little conception of what a "university" means, and what powers that status must confer on an institution that carries that name.
The authors of this draft seemed not to have understood any of the reasoning in various committee reports suggesting regulatory reform. For instance, it makes sense to distinguish a funding agency from a regulator. An agency mandated with funding public universities, like the UGC, should not be the regulator. This draft retains the fusion of both functions, in addition to giving tribunal-like powers as well. It will also be required to do a job of a research funding agency, which should be done separately. Second, the administrative mechanisms envisaged in this act are, to put it mildly, impractical. The core collegium entrusted with a national registry, appointments, and extensive advisory functions shall consist of Indian Nobel Laureates or Field Medallists, Jnanpith award winners, national research professors or members of international academies. They will also co-opt members from each state on the recommendation of the state. Of this Nobel Laureates and Field Medallists is a tiny set that living abroad is unlikely to get its hands dirty with our system; why being a Jnanpith awardee gives you any special insights into running education institutions is not clear. This will leave a small group of national research professors, usually close to retirement or members of international academies mostly in the sciences. In addition there will be severe politics at the state level to secure nominations as a co-opted fellow, since the stakes are so high.
Apart from producing both centralisation and politicisation, this architecture ignores one crucial issue: appointments should have significant role for the highest body of an institution that has all the fiduciary responsibilities of that institution. Imagine what would happen if all of India's companies were required to appoint CEOs through a single collegium and registry. This draft does not even distinguish between public and private institutions.
This draft fails on all three measures that should be used to judge regulatory reform in higher education. It will do nothing
to improve public universities, because it is premised on a misdiagnosis why they are in bad shape. It pedals the illusion that centralising appointments of VCs is all there is to this game. Each public university has to be reclaimed one by one, and so far there is no strategy in sight of how to do so. It does not represent an improvement over the existing mechanisms for granting entry, except consolidation of regulators. And it fails to bring about a paradigm shift in how we think of regulation. Instead of empowering students and parents to make right decisions, it still pedals the illusion that a small six-member commission can produce greater accountability by acquiring more and more power over institutions. It does not understand that regulators like SEBI and TRAI work because they have very specific mandates, not indiscriminately open-ended ones. It is not even clear whether the powers the Central government has retained in the bill will allow for a fully independent regulator.
If this bill goes through, we will get centralisation instead of decentralisation, control instead of autonomy, homogenisation instead of diversity, bureaucratisation instead of suppleness, institutional rigidity instead of innovation, and a winner takes all approach to regulation. While we have a new minister trying to shake things up, this bill seems to reek of the mindset of the old education and bureaucratic establishment; the very same people who made the current system so dysfunctional seem to have conjured up a new command and control system. Indeed, one of the lessons may be that we are looking too much to laws and regulations to fix every problem. If Sibal does not empower the right people who have a genuinely liberal imagination in the widest sense of the term, what he will get is a travesty wearing the mantle of reform.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy research, Delhi