The Higher Education Challenge before India

Independent institutions like universities are crucial for the effective functioning of democratic societies. Universities are centers of critical thinking and spaces for resisting the hegemony of those in power. Therefore they are amongst the first targets of authoritarian regimes. To preserve the independence and autonomy of university it’s necessary that they must be adequately funded and regulated in a way which respects their autonomy.

The Central Government has
decided to establish a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) in the place
of the University Grants Commission (UGC). A draft Higher Education Commission
of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill, 2018, was
circulated among stakeholders to invite feedback and suggestions. The HECI Bill
will transfer the financial powers of UGC to Ministry of Human Resource
Development (MHRD). The proposed HECI will only have academic power. While the
power to impose penalties in case of violation of its regulations has been made
more stringent, there is no power to conduct inspections. The way government has
proceeded on an important reform like this, which will have a drastic impact on
the way higher education is funded and regulated in India, is an indicator of
its way of functioning. There was no debate on whether the current problems
could have been solved by reforming the existing institution i.e. UGC. Also, a
window of only 10 days was provided to register feedback on a bill of such
widespread consequence. Despite such a short window almost 10,000 responses
were received as feedback. After widespread public opposition, the government
had to back down from some its drastic provision and it also had to postpone
the introduction of the bill in parliament. But many questions and doubts over
the bill still remain.

The UGC was established in
1956 under an act of parliament. It was a result of the recommendations of the University
Education Commission formed by Government of India in 1948 under the Chairmanship
of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a distinguished scholar and former Vice
Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University and who also happened to be the second
President of India. Its job was “to go into the problems and prospects of
Indian University Education and to suggest improvements and extensions that might
be considered desirable to suit the present and future requirements of the
country”. It submitted its report in August 1949.The Report of the Commission
is a seminal document and had a great impact on the debates around the formulation
of education policy in post-independence India. In the present debate on how
higher education in India should be funded and regulated, it is worthwhile to
revisit this seminal document.

The Radhakrishnan Commission
described universities as “the organs of civilization”. The report viewed
universities as “the sanctuaries of inner life of the nation” where the intellectual
pioneers of the civilization will be trained. The report quoted Marx by saying,
“The education of the future will, in the case of every child over a certain
age, combine productive labor with education (unterricht) and athletics
(gymnastik) not merely as one of the methods of raising social production but
as the only method of producing fully developed human beings”. The report
identified the purpose of higher education in a broader sense than to just
provide for livelihood; the major purpose of higher education was envisaged to
be as a way to train citizens in the democratic way of life. But today the
emphasis on placements and pay packages in evaluating the quality of university,
instead of the quality of citizens they produce, is an indication of the
drastic change in the way we look at the purpose of higher education.

The report placed major
emphasis on a university’s independence and autonomy. It stated that, “Higher
education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to
be confused with State control over academic policies and practices.
Intellectual progress demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry.
The pursuit and practice of truth regardless of consequences has been the
ambition of universities.” In the report, the commission was of the view that
the general decision regarding the portion of funds to be allocated for higher
education from general budget could be decided by the government of the day,
but the detailed allocation of the funds should be done by an independent body
of expert insulated from the lobbying and political expediencies of the
government of the day. The government’s attempt to transfer the funding power
from UGC to MHRD certainly goes against this view.

Equality of opportunity was also
a major emphasis of the report. It stated that “in a democratic society, the
opportunity of learning must be open not only to an elite but to all those who
have to carry the privilege and responsibility of citizenship. Education is a
universal right, not a class privilege.” The report identified that there was
no correlation between the ability to profit from an education and the ability
to pay for it. The report advocated for “a large and generous system of
scholarships which will provide a ladder from the bottom to the university
along which any child can climb to the limit of his capacity. These
scholarships should cover not only tuition costs but costs of board, lodge and
other living needs.” The current emphasis on private for-profit educational
institutions and self-finance courses is an indication of the Indian state’s
abdication of its responsibility.

The current challenges
before higher education in India could be traced to major extent in the Indian
state’s refusal to guide its policies according to the vision of this great
document.  Instead of facing the
challenges before higher education, the government itself is creating new challenges
like the proposed HECI.

Nabina Chakraborty