According to media reports and statements made by the human resource development (HRD) minister, the central government plans to dissolve the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC), and replace them with a single body, tentatively titled the Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA). Having a single statutory body for higher education is expected to simplify and consolidate the mass of regulations and compliances that currently operate in the sector.
Policy analysts and experts have been advocating the replacement of AICTE and UGC with a more efficient regime for a long time. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC), which was constituted in 2005 under the chairmanship of Sam Pitroda to recommend reforms in the education sector, found that there was a multiplicity of regulators prescribing standards and minimum norms for higher education institutions. This meant the barriers to entry for new higher education institutions were high and often overlapped with each other, leading to confusion and disorganisation. Accordingly, NKC recommended the creation of the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), which would function at an arm’s length from all concerned stakeholders, accord degree-granting status to universities, set standards for higher education and award licences to accreditation agencies.
Then, the Yashpal Committee, constituted in 2009 with the mandate of advising on “renovation and rejuvenation of the education sector”, identified a need for a “drastic overhaul” of the higher education system. This committee concluded that if higher education was to be seen as an integrated whole, then the governance of professional education could not be separated from that of general education; there ought to exist a “single, all-encompassing higher education authority”, which could regulate the sector on a pan-India basis.
Considering the above, the government’s initiative for introduction of a single independent regulator in the higher education space is welcome. Details regarding the HEERA proposal are being ironed out. The NITI Aayog and the ministry of HRD are in the process of drafting both a formal proposal to introduce HEERA and the legislation which would govern it (HEERA Law).
Given the immense administrative and legislative upheavals required for the complete dismantlement of AICTE and UGC, smaller-scale amendments to the prevailing regulations may be suggested in the interim. Meanwhile, HEERA may absorb some of the extant powers of AICTE and UGC within its regulatory ambit, though the exact nature of its functions depends on the contour of the HEERA Law.
Powers of UGC
UGC, the main regulatory authority governing the provision of higher education in India, was formally established by the government in November 1956 as a statutory body for harmonisation and formulation of standards of university education. It has two primary responsibilities: (1) providing funds to educational institutions, and (2) coordinating, determining and maintaining standards in institutions of higher education. Here is an indicative list of the functions covered under UGC’s mandate:
• Promoting and coordinating education in universities;
• Determining and maintaining standards for teaching, examination and research in universities;
• Framing regulations on minimum standards for education;
• Disbursing grants to universities and colleges;
• Liaising between the Centre, states and higher educational institutions; and
• Advising central and state governments on possible policy measures to improve higher education.
Powers of AICTE
AICTE is a professional council constituted by the government to govern technical education. Its objectives include:
• Promoting quality in technical education;
• Planning coordination and development of the technical education system; and
• Regulation of technical education and maintenance of norms and standards for technical education.
As per AICTE regulations, an institution imparting technical education may only be established by a society, charitable trust or charitable company, or through partnership with the government, and with the prior approval of AICTE. An institution seeking such approval is required to comply with the criteria prescribed in the AICTE handbook, published yearly by the AICTE with the intent of providing guidance to technical institutions. These criteria include preconditions in relation to minimum built-up area, maximum fees chargeable from students, nomenclature of courses, provision of adequate infrastructure and facilities, etc.
AICTE also publishes an annual list of institutions that have not obtained its approval despite falling within its regulatory ambit. This list is meant to apprise potential students of the unapproved nature of certain courses, diplomas, certificates, etc, and to notify the erring institution of AICTE’s awareness of its non-compliance.
UGC versus AICTE
The jurisdiction of AICTE and UGC often tends to overlap. Given that UGC governs universities and prescribes minimum standards for higher education, and AICTE performs similar functions for the stream of ‘technical education’, there are cases where institutions fall under the domain of both; for example, a college affiliated to a university which is recognised by the UGC may also be called upon by AICTE to obtain its approval. This is where the problem of multiplicity (of regulators) arises leading to lack of clarity over which regulations to conform to.
The Supreme Court alluded to this in cases such as Parshavanath Charitable Trust vs All India Council for Technical Education and Association of Management of Private Colleges vs All India Council for Technical Education. It was held that for universities UGC’s regulations should be considered binding while AICTE’s regulations should be considered recommendatory in nature.
We believe that such decisions have contributed further to the confusion over the scope and mandate of the two regulators, especially since AICTE has continued to demand observance of its guidelines from all institutions imparting technical education and has followed the practice of submitting a report to UGC requesting it to take action against an institution which does not comply with AICTE norms. It appears that often the idea of conforming to the respective sets of norms set out by both regulatory bodies can be huge barrier for setting up of nascent institutions. Even for existing institutions, overlapping and complex regulations make regulatory compliance burdensome.
The multiple sets of rules and sub-regulations prescribed by UGC and AICTE, unfortunately, seem to have acted as a deterrent to the development of premier educational institutions. There has been a need for change in the regime governing higher education in India. Industry players opine there has been little room for business development in the area, while state authorities lament the difficulty they have faced in enforcing overlapping, often labyrinthine compliances. Further, the separation between the standards governing technical and non-technical education is seen as unnecessary and illusory. Clearly, there is a need to smoothen existing procedures and ensure their efficient enforcement. It is in this light that the government has proposed to bring HEERA into existence. The introduction of a unified regulator would minimise administrative delays and remove jurisdictional ambiguity. Sponsoring bodies of institutes of higher education would no longer be required to approach multiple authorities for clearances, which is likely to promote ease of development of institutions of higher learning. Further, HEERA is expected to have sharper teeth than the extant AICTE and UGC: the HEERA Law is likely to empower HEERA to take strict penal action against defaulting institutions.
Thus far, both private players and governmental authorities seem pleased with the idea of a single, unified regulator to govern the higher education space. However, these sentiments are in most part contingent on stakeholders’ expectations regarding the manner in which HEERA will function on the ground, once formalised. In the immediate future, one could expect more complexity in an already complex sector once the interim reform measures by way of amendments to prevailing higher education regulations are announced.
By Daksha Baxi, Monika Srivastava & Radhika Kapoor
Daksha Baxi is executive director, Monika Srivastava is principal associate and Radhika Kapoor is associate, Khaitan & Co. Views are personal