The Union government’s move to expand the scope of the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) is undoubtedly a good one.
The Union government’s move to expand the scope of the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) is undoubtedly a good one. HEFA was formed in 2016 as an NBFC to finance infrastructure development in the IITs and a few other top-rung institutes. As per the Wednesday decision of the government, HEFA’s capital base has been increased from Rs 2,000 crore to rs 10,000 crore, and it has been tasked with mobilising a further Rs 1 lakh crore by 2022. This will be used to extend loans for research and academic infrastructure development—under very soft repayment conditions—to technical institutes, central universities, AIIMSs, Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) and Navodaya Vidyalayas. Given how this will fulfil unmet needs of such institutions, the boost to education will be significant. That said, the government will still need to mend the many chinks in higher education regulation that remain.
The government certainly did well to announce a plan to close down the present higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), and usher in the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The UGC regime, ironically, was marked by both over-regulation that curbed the autonomy of top-notch institutions and under-regulation of academic quality that led to a mushrooming of sub-standard institutions, as also the gross abuse of its funding powers. The draft HECI Bill frames the body as one solely concerned with regulation of academic quality. However, there are a few grey areas that must be revisited if HECI is to prove different from UGC. The draft Bill talks of an autonomy-promoting mandate for HECI, wherein it will lay down the standards, presumably in setting the curriculum, fixing fees, etc. However, the draft Bill only allows already-autonomous institutes to fix their curriculum. The HECI system must make sure that existing non-autonomous institutions, too, are allowed to set their curriculum as they advance towards autonomy. Apart from this, there is also the government shadow on HECI independence, in the form of an advisory council that will be chaired by the Union HRD minister and that will have the chiefs of the state higher education councils as members, as well as the top two HECI officials; the recommendations of the council, the draft Bill suggests, will have to be implemented by the HECI. Also disturbing is the lack of clarity on who gets the UGC’s grant-giving powers. While some news reports claimed that the Union HRD ministry will be assuming these powers, the ministry has said that a final call is yet to be taken and that it is keen to ensure that the grant-giving process is purely merit-based. In keeping with its intent, the Union government must ensure that grant-giving powers are vested in an independent body well before the HECI regime kicks off. At the very least, if the powers do rest with the ministry eventually, there should be an independent advisory body, consisting of eminent persons from across fields, whose advice the ministry should have to consider—and if it goes against the advice, it should have to explain why.