Where’s the autonomy? UGC-IIM bout over one-year degree shows IIMs still not free

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Published: July 9, 2020 4:30 AM

Stifling regulation is a big reason why India’s position has worsened in global university rankings. Most universities, including IoEs, have slipped in the latest QS rankings.

It is only now that the government has allowed the top-100 universities to teach online; so far, this was restricted to a few, and even this handful had to seek UGC approval to do this. It is only now that the government has allowed the top-100 universities to teach online; so far, this was restricted to a few, and even this handful had to seek UGC approval to do this.

The UGC scuttling the IIMs’ plans to introduce a one-year degree programme—this has even forced the Union HRD ministry to intervene, as per The Economic Times—is exactly the kind of heavy-handed regulatory approach the IIM Act 2017 was supposed to bypass. The law was supposed to give India’s premier management education institutions substantial autonomy over academic, administrative and financial matters. Indeed, the law could well be thought of as the template for the Institutes of Eminence (IoEs) which were to enjoy similar autonomy. So, the UGC telling the IIMs that they can’t have one-year degrees because a post-graduate degree has to be of a two-year duration makes it seem like the government has again lost the plot on higher education reform. After having talked widely and often about overhauling higher education regulation—indeed, that vision included shutting down the UGC, with the introduction of the HECI Bill—the government has neither let the IIMs be meaningfully free (they have to, among other things, have reservations) nor has it retired UGC yet. The higher education regulator, meanwhile, has deepened control with unfruitful regulatory discretion.

It is only now that the government has allowed the top-100 universities to teach online; so far, this was restricted to a few, and even this handful had to seek UGC approval to do this. It is odd that the government should think nearly 900 universities in the country are fit to offer classes in a brick & mortar setting, but not via digital media. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UGC has redeemed itself in some measure by championing online education, but it also added to uncertainty with its flip-flops on conducting exams, which led to a lot of distress among students.

Stifling regulation is a big reason why India’s position has worsened in global university rankings. Most universities, including IoEs, have slipped in the latest QS rankings. India still counts three universities in the top-200 rank, but their position has worsened from last year. India now has only five universities in the top-500—Delhi University slipped out—as against six last year. The government has mandated that all 20 IoEs should figure in top-500 till 2028, but this could prove very difficult if uncertain and heavy-handed regulation remains the order of the day. Although the government is mulling increasing its spending on education, this would not work unless top-notch universities and institutions are free to manage their affairs by themselves. A significant reason for the UK and the US universities faring well is the degree of control they have over their administrative, academic and financial matters. While the UGC has advised universities to take a cue from their peers abroad on rolling out education on digital platforms, the government needs to take a cue from the regimes that govern elite universities abroad.

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