The Human Resources Development Ministry’s plan to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) with another regulatory body, the Higher Education Council of India (HECI), has drawn approval and censure in equal measure.
While the establishment of the HECI may still be some while away, it is important to understand how it could differ from the UGC.
The UGC’s primary mandates are to provide grants to central institutions, and define and maintain standards of teaching, examination and research. The proposed HECI, on the other hand, is expected to specify standards for the grant of authorisation for an institution to start its operations.
Operationally, the HECI will be a lot more empowered to set and monitor high standards of education and penalise or even shut down an institution if it does not comply with the standards prescribed. The HECI will have more power to ensure higher quality standards and will look at promoting autonomy of institutions. However, autonomy without responsibility and accountability will not serve any purpose. Excellence in academics, research, governance and finances can only be achieved if autonomy is attached to responsibility and accountability. Also, making institutions autonomous will work only if there is a strong regulatory framework supporting it.
As per the proposed Act, the HECI will not have any funding powers but is expected to focus on academic standards and related matters. But it is not defined on where the funding powers will lie. Leaving them with a set of people instead of a central institution will not be the right thing and may lead to larger problems for many institutions.
The most relevant change for Indian youth is that the HECI is expected to bring in newer forms of learning; specify learning outcomes; and define standards on curriculum, content development, knowledge and skill outcomes for all programmes. While this could lead to absolute micromanagement of the universities, it could also become another avenue for regulators to increase their power.
The HECI should focus on creating a framework that not only defines and monitors standards but also gives institutes the flexibility to create and upgrade the curriculum as per industry needs, to provide multi-faceted learning mechanisms, and to integrate learning with online and on-the-job skill programmes to make more students employable.
The proposed HECI is expected to recommend faculty-centric governance for institutions. Universities should have the responsibility, ownership and flexibility to build their own governance structures. The HECI can develop a framework but should not micromanage universities on such aspects.
Another area that the HECI is supposed to work on is specifying the norms and fee structure for institutes. Again, recommending a framework is ideal, and the institutes should be allowed to define the minimum and maximum fees. Like in all cases, the markets should drive these factors and autonomous institutions should have the flexibility to define the fees.
The regulations made by the HECI should be implemented in a transparent manner. Institutes should be monitored ranked by their performance in areas such as academic excellence, research, industry linkages and placements.
If the the HECI were to take all this into consideration, it could become an entity with well-defined frameworks and outcomes. Only then will it be different from the current UGC structure.
At the end of the day, we must remember that what happens with the HECI should benefit the biggest stakeholder, India’s youth.
Neeti Sharma is Sr. Vice President at TeamLease Services Ltd.