Ironically, the Draft Bill explicitly mentions employability as a measure of effectiveness of courses and programmes. While employability of graduates is a matter of genuine concern, it cannot be directly corelated with the academic content of every discipline. Students should be given the freedom to combine vocational subjects with academic disciplines, but the reduction of academic disciplines for the sake of employability can only result in extreme commercialisation of courses and a gross undervaluation of higher education as a critical intellectual pursuit. The objective of higher education must be the elevation of intellectual levels. Instead, the primary emphasis here seems to be to produce cogs for the production wheel of the economy. By separating grants or funding from the Commission, the Draft HEI Bill has broken the spine of the regulatory body. Funding is not charity or largesse. It involves the crucial process of determining infrastructural needs, sanctioning faculty positions and staffing, monitoring utilisation of resources and effective implementation of schemes. For public funded HEIs, standards of funding based on student-teacher ratio, research, remedial teaching, library resources and laboratory equipment have historically provided the key basis for growth and quality assurance. The Draft Bill gives independent funding powers to the Government, thereby increasing the scope for arbitrary decisions and direct political interference. Such an overhaul in the funding mechanism will choke public HEIs of required funds while applying the standards of quality and resource mobilisation that only big private corporate-run institutions can meet. This move towards withdrawing assured grants under definite norms and procedures and delinking funding from regulation is the most brazen measure adopted to ensure that public HEIs are rapidly pushed into a state of ‘sickness’, declared unviable and finally sold off to big businesses. It is nothing but a staged script in auctioning off public-owned assets and educational infrastructure. There is a distinctly bureaucratic element to undermine the processes of academic decisionmaking and federalism. The composition of the HEI is heavily tilted towards purely bureaucratic and administrative profiles. It swamps the Commission with Secretary-level bureaucrats of the Union ministries and departments, Directors of other regulatory bodies and accreditation agencies under the central government and Vice-Chancellors of Institutes of National Importance. Compared to the UGC Act, 1956, the number of senior Professors has been reduced from a minimum of four to a maximum of two. This skewed composition will only encourage an administrative perspective on the various issues and challenges that the regulations will seek to address. But the real ground-level challenges of teachinglearning and institutional problems may get ignored or set aside, as has increasingly become the experience of academic communities across HEIs in the country. Clause 26 of the Draft Bill ignores the essence of education being in the Concurrent list of the Constitution. It gives an overriding effect to the HEI Act against the statutes and ordinances of all Central and State legislatures through which various HEIs have been established.
As a result, it overturns the legislative trust invested in each Act through which State and Central universities have been created for diverse and distinct purposes, bringing all of them under one overriding parliamentary legislation. This level of centralisation is not only draconian, but also dismissive of the multiplicity of educational needs in India, a country of huge diversities, in every aspect of human development. Apart from developing employable skills and contributing to knowledge-production, higher education in our country, given the realities of our polity, has also been entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing the essential constitutional values of democracy, secularism and rational free-thinking and enabling a socially-diverse and interactive profile of students that will promote the growth of an enlightened and culturally tolerant citizenry immune to prejudices and with the strength to overcome divisive ideologies that threaten the fabric of the nation. That is why higher education needs to be kept free from political interference and bureaucratic whims and controls. Recent decades have witnessed the unprecedented growth of higher education in India, paralleled only by the growth in common people’s aspirations and demand for access to higher education. With the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) having increased to 25.4 per cent (2016-17), hitherto marginalised sections like women, SCs, STs, minorities and persons with disabilities have gained access to higher education through the public-funded system. Private initiatives can, at best, supplement, but not address the gap in demand and supply of quality higher education that currently afflicts and threatens popular aspirations. The huge expansion of affordable quality institutions required in diverse regions and states of India can only be undertaken through increased public-spending and clarity about the importance of public initiatives in higher education. Clearly, privatisation and commercialisation cannot be the solutions. On the part of the Central Government, it requires a commitment to the overall strengthening of public-funded institutions and the material empowerment of States. Unfortunately, the Draft Bill for the HEI Act does not appear to ensure forward movement. Instead, it appears to be more an instrument to appease corporate interests and attract private sector investment in higher education rather than augment statesponsored education and research, by neglecting the challenges that confront public funded HEIs and by being dismissive of the larger public as a stakeholder in the fortunes of Higher Education. It gets its priorities wrong. It redounds to the credit of the HRD ministry that it invited public opinion by July on the draft Bill which was uploaded in its website. This is one step towards bringing transparency in legislative processes by giving an opportunity to stakeholders to reflect on the proposed Act and send their feedback. Thousands of remarks and suggestions were received by the ministry, mostly vehemently criticising the Bill. Amid rising opposition, both from the academic community as well as political parties in the opposition to the move to replace the UGC with the Higher Education Commission of India, the Union government is learnt to have dropped plans to pilot the ambitious Bill in Parliament in the ongoing Monsoon session. The PMO is learnt to have ruled against it, citing unfavourable public opinion and strong political opposition which are bound to make parliamentary passage rather difficult. The HRD ministry claims that it has already addressed the concerns with changes in the draft Bill which it was planning to forward to the Cabinet. It is learnt that the reworked draft now states that the funding agency would be independent of the Government and shall be set up as a Society under the provisions of the HECI Act. It has also brought in a new clause allowing provision for appeal in case of penalty imposed against an errant institute by the HECI. Following a suggestion by the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare, the ministry has tweaked the Bill to mention that the HECI will work towards the advancement of SC/STs and the socially and economically disadvantaged groups. However, it is reported that these minor modifications are yet to convince the PMO and, as of now, introduction of the Bill has been kept in abeyance. (Concluded) The writer is former Registrar, University of North Bengal.