In this context, the T.S.R. Subramanian committee’s recommendation in the National Education Policy, that the UGC Act should be allowed to lapse and replaced by a new National Higher Education Act, brings up an important question—has the UGC failed to evolve according to the changing dynamics of higher education, and fallen short of achieving its original mandate?
The UGC is the central body for coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of university education in India. Though it can’t be blamed for all the problems with the higher education system, its decisions have an important bearing on the entire student population of the country. Therefore, when policies made by the UGC to keep pace with the changing dynamics of higher education are ill-considered, as well as lacking in research and consultation with stakeholders, there is reason to worry. The recent increase in teaching hours of the faculty and its subsequent cancellation, the implementation of the choice-based credit semester system in Delhi University, and the decision to discontinue UGC non-NET scholarship for MPhil and PhD students and its abandonment after protests, are all cases in point.
The three primary functions of UGC include overseeing distribution of grants to universities and colleges in India; providing scholarships/fellowships to beneficiaries; and monitoring conformity to its regulations by universities and colleges. It is in the context of these functions that one must examine the UGC while debating its relevance.
Today, instances of delay in fellowships, especially the ones under other ministries such as minority affairs, social justice, and tribal affairs, have become a regular affair, placing underprivileged research scholars in a fix. The fresh efforts to use direct benefit transfers for fellowships and bring institutions under the public finance monitoring system are a relief, but the policy still has to cover a lot of ground.
The problem is that an understaffed UGC, while disbursing grants and fellowships, fails its more important function—ensuring quality standards. According to QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings released last month, India ranks 24th in higher education system strength out of the 50 countries evaluated. Interestingly, along with countries such as the US, the UK and Germany, the traditional leaders in higher education, Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan have also figured in the top 10. It might be worthwhile for UGC to explore how quality standards are maintained elsewhere to accomplish the same in India.
Its policies suffer from two diametrically opposite issues—under-regulation and over-regulation. While it lets smaller substandard institutions slip by as deemed universities, it also instigates witch-hunts against reputed deemed universities.
Last year, it wrote to 10 institutions asking them to shut down their off-campus centres for violating rules. BITS Pilani got a court stay order for the same—the rule specifications had been notified after the construction of the campus in question. As a saving grace, the new rules for deemed universities lifts the bar on the number of off-campus centres, and stipulates that the UGC and human resource development ministry approve applications for deemed universities within seven months—as opposed to the normal time lag of 6-7 years.
It is doubtful if scrapping UGC or any institution is the remedy needed for India’s higher education system. The Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011, introduced in the UPA regime, was discarded for non-consultation with states, violation of institutional autonomy and so forth. Unless a foolproof system is made addressing these issues, the new proposal would be akin to renaming a scheme or creating a new institution on the ruins of an old one to earn the government extra brownie points for the next elections.
To begin with, the UGC should resolve its many problems with respect to placements—nepotism at the top of the ladder and understaffing at the lower rungs. It could then work its way to reinventing itself in line with the T.S.R. Subramanian committee recommendation—retaining a leaner and thinner version of the commission as a nodal organization and creating a separate mechanism for disbursement of fellowships. Perhaps, this will enable it to focus on the more relevant issue of quality education.
Should the UGC Act be scrapped?