University Grants Commission is the primary regulatory body that controls, coordinates, maintains and determines the standards of higher education in India. This statutory body was established by the Indian Union government in accordance to the UGC Act 1956, under Ministry of Human Resource Development. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 manifesto promised to restructure and revitalize the University Grants Commission India, a promise that is yet to be fulfilled. Four years and several false starts later, in July 2018, the Modi government drafted a bill to scrap off the plan in a bid to replace the commission with Higher Education Council of India; with completely different functions and administrative composition.
This bill is yet to pass, but other initiatives by the Ministry of Human Resource Development have tremendously altered and transformed the higher education landscape of India. Grants to universities have been replaced with loans dedicated for infrastructural development, paving the way for private investments at public institutions. These measures have liberated a few institutes from the regulatory grip of the commission, granting them more autonomy and independence.
Moreover, the commission has also issued a number of regulations for central universities, including standardizing syllabus and curricula, initiating new research programmes and even introducing new academic disciplines; some of the issues that were previously handled by universities internally.
Limited role and autonomy of Commission
One of the first actions of the Modi government in 2014 was to roll-back the four-year undergraduate programme in Delhi University. This programme was introduced by the previous government and was highly unpopular, however the relief from the programme was short-lived.
This move was seen as an erosion in the commission’s regulatory authorities, limiting their role and autonomy in the country. The commission supported the plan of the previous government but later shifted their stance in favor of the new government. The Modi government also imposed a similar choice-based credit system which was binding for all central universities, despite the opposition of the teachers. These universities were forced to adopt a uniform curriculum which previously designed their curricula independently. The commission, however, deemed the decision a vital measure to improve the standards of higher education institutes, acting like a puppet of the Modi government.
Curtailing the autonomy of universities
In 2016, the commission introduced new regulations for research programmes including MPhil and PhD progarmmes, converting written-based entrance tests into qualifying exams. Students from different universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University protested against the regulation, arguing it would minimize their chances for securing admission in these programmes. Students challenged this decision which was ruled in their favor in October 2018.
Another regulation by the University Grants Commission fixated the number of research candidates that a faculty member can supervise simultaneously. This regulation dropped the number of seats allocated at universities, the most at the JNU which opened admissions for about 80 percent fewer seats. Also no seats were offered in 56 out of 67 MPhil and PhD programmes by the varsity in 2017.
Only few institutions have been given autonomy in their operations in the last few years including the Indian Institute of Management. Through a new law passed in December 2017, Indian Institute of Technology were awarded the authority to award degrees. However, majority of institutes in India still lack the autonomy to exercise freely.
Under a new initiative, introduced in 2017, colleges and varsities that scored high in the government assessments were granted varying degrees of independence from the regulatory grip of the commission. Fully or partially autonomous institutes were given the liberty to start new degree programmes as long as they do not seek funds from the government. On March 20, 2018, the commission granted 60 institutions the autonomy to grant degrees, although their administrators were themselves confused about the standard process.
Financing and withdrawal of funds
University Grants Commission has been laying the framework for slowing down the withdrawal of public funds from the higher education sector, naming it as an act of ‘graded autonomy’. Withdrawal of university grants was initiated in order to push institutes to raise funds for the market. The Higher Education Finance Agency was established on November 2017, as a non-banking finance organization that will provide infrastructural loans to varsities and colleges. The institutions are entitled to pay back the principal amount in a span of 10 years, while the government pays the interest. By the end of November, 2017, a loan of almost 2,066 crores had been approved for six engineering colleges, increasing the fee structure of the colleges drastically.
In 2018, the ministry announced “Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education” programme which aims to provide funds to education institutes over the next four years, through the Higher Education Finance Agency. The ministry has also asked the central universities to sign a binding agreement to raise such loans, a provision that has been deemed as coercion by teachers in India.
Declaring ‘Institutions of Eminence’
The most controversial decision of the Modi government in the realm of higher education is the selection of ‘Institutions of Eminence’. In the budget 2016, the government announced it would choose 20 institutes, 10 each in public and private sector, which would be awarded greater autonomy and more funds to achieve a spot in the top-500 positions in the international university rankings.
Eventually, only public institutes were eligible for public funding, while “greenfield” institutions that were virtually non-existent, were eligible to apply for greater autonomy. The government received applications of over 114 institutes, of which 40 institutes were private, while 11 were Greenfield institutions
New schemes initiated by the Modi government.
All the new schemes that were launched by the Modi government for higher education were limited in their scope. In 2015, a new scheme titled ‘Impacting Research Innovation and Technology scheme, or Imprint’ was launched but was limited to Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science only.
Moreover, the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship has been extended to students studying in particular disciplines only. Almost 3000 fellowships have been offered under the programmes, however students of applied sciences are given priority over other disciplines.
To sum up…
The future of the higher education sector in India is uncertain, despite of all the major decisions and schemes that have been launched by the Modi government. The ministry now plans to merge the University Grants commission with the All India Council for Technical Education and some other regulatory bodies. On June 27, 2018, the ministry announced a draft law to reform the University Grants Commission, however, the draft is yet to be tabled in the Lok Sabha, raising questions on the future of Commission in the near future, supposedly in the regime of new government.