The new regulator proposed will focus largely on regulating quality of higher education while the grant function under the UGC system will likely be vested with another new body.
Given how the University Grants Commission’s (UGC’s) pronounced failures mark higher education regulation in India, the move to repeal the UGC Act, and make way for the constitution of a new higher education regulator, is a welcome one. The government has posted a draft Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill for public feedback. The new regulator proposed will focus largely on regulating quality of higher education while the grant function under the UGC system will likely be vested with another new body. Higher education quality has suffered under the old regime—the number of Indian institutes/universities featuring in the list of global top universities is a low single digit. Against such a backdrop, the HECI will not only lay down the desired learning outcomes, it will also set the standards for factors that will influence the outcomes of learning, including curriculum development, teaching, assessment, etc. It will also be tasked with promoting autonomy for higher education institutions to foster “innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship”—a big departure from the inspector raj of the past. The draft HECI Bill recognises the need for higher education to also provide for industry’s talent needs. Hence, while the earlier UGC simply allowed for a member to be chosen from industry, HECI explicitly states that one member must be an “industry doyen”. The power to grant recognition/authorisation to universities for award of degrees/diplomas, as under the UGC system, will remain a core function.
That said, there are some irritants that the government needs to get rid of. The proposed advisory body that will include the Union HRD minister and chairpersons of all state higher education councils as members will help the regulator address specific pain-points of the states. However, given the HECI is obligated to “take steps to implement the advice rendered by the Advisory Council”, the regulator may not get vital autonomy. Similarly, the proposed law retains the over-arching shadow of government interference that marked the UGC system, since it “shall be guided by such directions on questions of policy relating to national purposes as may be given to it by the Central Government.” These are points the government must carefully consider before finalising the HECI structure.