The proposed higher education regulation framework needs to overcome the many shortcomings of its predecessors, that too in a changed regulatory context.
The government is proposing to create a new higher education watchdog, which has been tentatively named Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA). The contours of the body as well as the draft law to back it are currently being worked out by the government, in consultation with the NITI Aayog. The current regulators, University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), will cease functioning to make way for HEERA.
What will be HEERA’s role and function?
Although the particulars of the functions the body will be assuming are still being worked out, it is expected to eliminate the overlaps in the jurisdiction and remove irrelevant regulatory provisions. It will bring the regulation of both technical and non-technical higher education institutions under one umbrella. Given how both UGC and AICTE have been roundly criticised for their poor handling of higher education so far, HEERA is likely to be structured in a manner that addresses their particular deficiencies.
Is HEERA the first such proposal since the creation of UGC and AICTE?
No, the UPA government had mooted the proposal for the creation of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), and the Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011 had been presented in Parliament for the purpose. The Bill aimed to repeal the UGC Act 1956, the AICTE Act 1987 and the National Council for Teacher Education Act 1993. In its place, it sought to establish the NCHER, a Higher Education Financial Services Corporation (HEFSC), a General Council and a Collegium of Scholars. The Bill required all degree granting institutions to affiliate with the NCHER. Though it provided for separating regulation and grant-disbursal powers, the HEFSC was to disburse grants to institutions based on norms specified by the NHCER. There were other deficiencies also, for instance, on the question of autonomy of top-quality institutions, the proposed regulator’s functions would have impeded this on certain respects. The Bill was withdrawn in September 2014.
A rethink in regulation of higher education was needed because…
The Yash Pal Committee, the National Knowledge Commission as well as the Hari Gautam committee had all highlighted the failures of the UGC and called for its scrapping. The TSR Subramanian committee, which had been tasked with coming up with a new education policy, too called for the scrapping of the UGC and AICTE. UGC has three primary functions—namely, regulation of universities and certain higher education institutions such as deemed universities and autonomous colleges; disbursal of grants; and deciding on and maintenance of education higher education (non-technical) standards—and it has failed on all three counts. With government-run universities (both state and central) and certain deemed universities dependent largely on the grants from the UGC, an inspector raj has flourished. The financial heft of the regulator has only grown since its inception—in 2015-16, it disbursed over `10,000 crore. Though the share of UGC in the government’s overall grant to higher education had been falling over the years, it climbed back to nearly 40% in 2015-16, from a still high 33% in 2014-15.
The UGC has also on many occasions impeded institutional autonomy at top notch universities and institutions—for instance, its handling of the Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programmes (FYUP). The criticisms of the programme aside, the UGC initially allowed the programme to run for a year before scrapping it. Meanwhile, the performance of both AICTE and UGC with respect to upholding educational standards is reflected in the less than stellar ranks Indian institutes and varsities
What are the expectations from HEERA?
The Narendra Modi-led government has largely voiced its keenness for freeing up higher education (except the few but significant instances of pussy-footing). Given the larger view that the government has taken on higher education, it will be important to see how HEERA will fit into the scheme of things. For instance, the government has talked of a graded regulation system, with near-complete autonomy for the top-rung institutions, followed by tempered autonomy for middle-rung ones with government regulation earmarked for the lowest-rated institutions. For this, it has proposed a quality assessment and ranking of universities and colleges by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. HEERA will largely be expected to maintain a distant oversight of the semi-autonomous universities and institutions, while regulating the lowest-rung ones.
As far as the function of funding institutes goes, it is not clear yet whether HEERA will have to do this or not. Given how the government has announced the formation of Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) to fund development of infrastructure in premier institutes, it looks likely that at least part of the funding functions of the new higher education regulator will be hived off.
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There are developed economy templates of regulation of higher education that the government could draw from while designing HEERA. In the US, for instance, regulation is based on a system of self-reporting by institutions and monitoring by regional accreditors. Accreditors evaluate institutions based on the latter’s assessment of themselves—this means a one-size-fits-all approach is shunned. Institutions failing to earn accreditation are not given support for research, infrastructure and other needs.