The setting up of a funding agency for universities and higher educational institutes or Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) and a National Testing Agency for entrance exams will hardly have an impact on the higher education system as the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) has through the years lost most of its autonomy, an academic expert has said.
The alleged misuse of section 20(1) of the UGC Act by the HRD ministry, which makes it binding on the UGC to act on government directions, has disempowered it, alleges MM Ansari, former UGC member. “The Distance Education Council was transferred from Indira Gandhi National Open University to UGC (when it required amendments in both the UGC Act and Ignou Act) and the four-year undergraduate programme of Delhi University was scrapped. HEFA has the mandate for funding select public and private institutions, but where is HEFA?” he asks.
Under section 20 (1) of the UGC Act, the Commission is bound to follow the diktat of the government, mainly in the matter of providing policy guidance. “However, under this provision, functional autonomy of the UGC is totally compromised due to its misuse by the Central bureaucracy. This section has been used undemocratically and illegally to bypass the Commission. As a result, it has failed to ensure transparency and objectivity in its decision-making processes as well as implementation of its regulatory guidelines,” adds Ansari.
In fact, Ansari in a presentation before the Hari Gautam Committee set up to assess UGC’s status had said UGC’s funding role, particularly in respect of state universities, had been taken over by the HRD ministry, which in turn had undermined the role and responsibility of UGC for disbursement of grants to universities. The committee had also recommended revamping of the UGC but the report is not in the public domain.There was undue duplication of roles and efforts in funding of universities by the HRD ministry and UGC, Ansari had told the committee. He had also called for greater clarity in sources and methods of funding of universities fix accountability and to seek value for money.
In the last Budget, the government had promised to establish HEFA for supporting 10 universities each from the public and private sector to make them world-class institutions. “The government has forgotten about it and no one knows what happened to HEFA,” Ansari says.
Funding by the UGC also totals a mere one-third of expenditure of Central institutions. “It will hardly have any impact on the higher education system. More than half of Central universities and other institutions like IITs and IIMs established in the last five years have hardly been operational. They continue to suffer due to lack of infrastructure, including shortages of staff to the extent of 40% to 50%. The government is silent on these issues,” Ansari says.
The Centre, last year, had announced the setting up of HEFA to give a major push for creation of high quality infrastructure in premier educational institutions.
The HEFA will be promoted by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) with an authorised capital of Rs 2,000 crore. The government equity will be Rs 1,000 crore. The HRD ministry will leverage this equity to raise up to Rs 20,000 crore for funding projects for infrastructure and development of world-class labs in IITs, IIMs, NITs and such other institutions.
All Centrally-funded higher education institutions will be eligible for joining as HEFA members. Some experts have welcomed these proposed moves and the existing issues related to formation of a National Testing Agency, central depository for degrees, creation of education funding agency or the general revamp of UGC .
Ashok Thakur, former secretary to the government of India, department of higher education, HRD ministry, has pointed to the positives announced in the recent budget. HEFA and a National Testing Agency will free the UGC to apply its energies solely on regulatory aspects without getting distracted by funding matters which are purely administrative and routine.
The National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill has proposed that instead of UGC, one single regulator be created in the higher education domain in the country instead of 13 at present. “As for general revamping of UGC, no major enactment of legislation is required. All that is needed is to appoint only persons of stature and academic excellence as chairperson and members of the Commission which alone will pave the way of autonomy and re-visioning of the apex higher education regulatory body,” says Thakur.
In his presentation before the Hari Gautam Committee, Ansari had also pointed out legal flaws in the composition of the Commission. “Of all the national commissions in the country, UGC is the only Commission which is functioning without the support of full-time executive members for regulating and for providing funding support to the second largest education system of the world. Clearly, it suffers from deficiencies in organisational structure because of which it is unable to respond to emerging challenges in the field of higher education and research,” Ansari had said.
Keeping in mind these issues, Thakur says immediate steps should be taken to deal comprehensively with the issue of accreditation and making it autonomous of UGC, cleaning up the process of setting up and running state private universities and deemed-to-be universities (including the appointment of its boards, vice chancellors and faculty) are some of the steps that are necessary.