OpEd – Reforming Higher Education

OpEd - Reforming Higher Education with HECI

Issue :-

  • The draft Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill is now in the public domain.
  • The HECI will replace the main regulatory authority, the University Grants Commission (UGC), to “provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth” of this sector and offer “greater opportunities to Indian students at more affordable cost”.
  • The new commission will cover all fields of education except medical and, presumably, agriculture, and institutions set up under the Central and State Acts, excluding those of national importance.

Point of departure of the proposed bill :-

  • The proposed Bill makes a clear separation between academic functions which will be discharged by the HECI and grant-giving ones by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) directly.
The academic functions include promoting the quality of instruction and maintenance of academic standards, as also fostering the autonomy of higher education institutions for, inter alia, comprehensive and holistic growth of education and research in a competitive global environment in an inclusive manner.
  • In other words, the HECI will be bestowed with comprehensive and overriding powers, including ordering the closure of institutions, in all academic and related matters while the money matters will be controlled by the MHRD.

Reasons to bring HECI :-

The need for a single regulatory body arose largely in the context of multiple bodies set up over the years trying to cope with the ever increasing complexity of the sector, both in terms of

  • Rapidly expanding number of institutions to meet the demands of surging student enrolment
  • The deteriorating standards in the quality of student output against the requirements of the job market.
  • Multiple regulators like the UGC and All India Council for Technical Education, together with the empowerment of professional bodies have not yielded the desired dividends.

What had to be done in the proposed bill ?

  • Granting near complete autonomy to the Indian Institutes of Management,
  • Providing graded autonomy to other institutions to free them from the clutches of regulations to enable them to develop into institutions of excellence.

Recent initiatives for sustainability across the higher education system

There have been recent initiatives to encourage public institutions to raise user charges so that they become self-sustaining as also allow such institutions to take a loan from the Higher Education Funding Agency to meet developmental costs. These initiatives might lead to:

  • Institutions to abandon courses that have hardly any job prospects and starting ones that are market-friendly which is against the very idea of higher education
  • The high fees to be paid by students for such courses might compel them to take concessional student loans which may result in the student loan crisis reaching alarming proportions on account of delay in payment and default

Structure of HECI and associated loopholes

  • There will be a chairperson, vice-chairperson and 12 members
  • The chairperson will be of the rank of Secretary to the Government of India
  • The secretary of the HECI will be an officer of the rank of joint secretary and above or a reputed academic and will serve as its member-secretary
  • The secretary, higher education is envisaged to don many hats, serving as a member of the search-cum-selection committee of the chairperson and vice-chairperson, then processing their appointment as a key functionary of the government, and finally acting as a member of the HECI
  • Such multiplicity of roles may create difficulties and conflict of interest

Conclusion :- Despite some apparent infirmities, the proposed Bill shows the resolve of the government to move forward in reforming the sector.

But if the public expenditure in the sector continues to hover around the present level of over 1% of GDP, against the minimum requirement of 2% then Major issues like :-

  • Making the universities the hub of scientific and technological research,
  • Restoring the value of education in social sciences and the humanities,
  • Ensuring that poor and meritorious students can afford to be educated in subjects of their choice,
  • Improving the quality of instruction to enhance the employability of the students,
  • Addressing the concerns of faculty shortage, etc.

It require a quantum jump in allocation of public resources to this sector. Tightening the screws of regulation in the absence of rapidly expanding public expenditure has obvious limitations.

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