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Govt of India seeking to "centralise" all higher education powers: Proposed commission will be just an advisory body

By Gautam Thaker*
The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India's draft enactment for forming Higher Education Commission (HEC) by scrapping the University Grants Commission (UGC) is meant to concentrate on educational matters in the hands of MHRD by placing all financial matters under the direct control of the Ministry. This means that MHRD will decide whether or not to give grant, or how much grant to give to an institution. This will result in direct intervention by MHRC.
Such a situation is dangerous for the autonomy and independence of higher educational institutes as well as overall independence in the field of education.
The Central government’s motto is “Together with all, Development for all” (sabka saath, sabka vikas). Yet, it gave just nine days’ time to react to the draft Act on the proposed Commission. When the government convenes so many official meetings for preparing the draft education policy, it is difficult to understand as to why is it in such haste to pass an Act for higher education.
It appears that the government is looking for obedient or yes-men as faculty in colleges and universities, and is desirous of passing the Act without necessary discussions on it. And by notifying the draft Act and calling for suggestions, the government is merely aiming to pretend that it follows high standards of transparency, participative involvement and good governance.
Highly dangerous provisions have been made in Articles 24 and 25 of the draft Act. An Advisory Committee is proposed to be constituted in accordance with Article 24, and its Chairman will be minister of Human Resource Development.
This committee is proposed to consist of Chairman/Vice-Chairman of this Commission, as also Chairmen/Vice-Chairmen and members of state-level Councils of Higher Education. In Gujarat, the Chairman of this Council is the chief minister.
The Advisory Committee will meet every six months and it will coordinate the working of State and Central governments for higher education. It will look into issues of coordination for the implementation of projected targets of higher education and will find solutions.
The Commission’s implementation will be based on the advice given to it by the Advisory Committee. Notably, as regards implementation, the word “shall” is used instead of the word “may”. This means that the Commission has to compulsorily implement whatever advice has been given to the Commission by the Advisory Committee. This poses the question: What is the need of the Commission? Clearly, the Commission, as proposed, has no autonomy.
Article 25 of the proposed Act also deals a severe blow to the autonomy and independence of the Commission as also institutions of higher education. Article 25(1) stipulates that the Commission will function only in the context of the directions given by the Central government on the national objective related to policy matter issues. Moreover, the Article 25 (2) provides that, in case the Commission is in disagreement on the decision of the Central government, the decision of the Central government will prevail.
The mention of policy matter is made and under Article 25(2) alongside ‘any matter’. Clearly, the Commission itself will not be able to act as an autonomous body but will have to act as if it is a sort of a department of the government. Further, in this Article, it has not been stated as to who the Central government is.
It can either be any secretary, any minister or Prime Minister, or even an employee, and his/her advice will be binding on the Commission. The Commission will have to abide by it, otherwise it can be viewed as denigration of duty, and the Central government, if it so wishes, can dissolve and nullify the Commission. This means that all the powers are vested in the Central government and the Commission would have no powers to exercise.
In a press statement, it has been stated that the proposed Act would apply to all institutions of higher education, but not on institutes which have been declared by the government as institutes of national importance.
This way, higher education institutes have been divided into two categories. There will be a handful of research and teaching institutes of national importance, but majority of institutes will be without any national importance, with whom the government will deal in a discriminative manner. Obviously, majority of colleges in villages, towns and major cities will be bereft of the “national importance” category.
Strangely, even a non-resident Indian can become a Chairman of the Commission. This means that, just as one American Indian was the first chairman of the Planning Commission, this can also become applicable in this case. The question arises is, how can one, who has stayed abroad for many years, be aware of the situation actually prevailing in the country?
The Article 42(2)(E) of the Act states that any member, even chairman or vice-chairman of the Commission, can be terminated from his/her post on charges of moral turpitude. If they have committed any crime and the court has found them guilty then, it may treat as a moral turpitude.
But if the government does not consider it so, then it may not sack them! Thus, the government has kept the window open to function in an arbitrary manner. As per its definition of moral turpitude, the government can do anything it pleases, to any person, and at any time.
Article 15(4)(J) stipulates that, in order to bring transparency in the decision process and management of institutions of higher education, and to bring about efficiency, the Commission can recommend to formulate faculty-centric administrative structure.
Here, the word ‘recommend’ has been used and not ‘direct’, which means that the Commission will be contented merely by offering recommendations to colleges and universities. Everyone knows how much is the participation of faculty members in the administration of institutions of higher education.
Further, the word ‘regime’ has been used in place of the word ‘administration’ or ‘management’. In the ordinary meaning of the word, ‘regimes’ include basic elements of transparency, accountability, decentralization, participation, rule of law and human rights. Concern of none of the elements, anywhere, has been taken care of in the draft Act.
With the use of this Act, it is claimed, control can be exercised on bogus institutes, which cheat guardians and students, or on colleges or universities which are neither functioning as per the norms of UGC, or those that do not have infrastructural facilities conforming to its norms.
There cannot be any objection against punishment or penalty imposed on those establishing and managing such institutes. This task can be done by the existing UGC Act, or by bringing in an amendment. But it is a common knowledge that it has not been done, because those establishing such institutes are having strong political clout.
It is a major question as to why UGC has given approval or registration to such institutes for awarding degree or diploma. In the guise of imposing punishment or penalty to such criminals in the higher education front, swooping on the autonomy of all higher education institutes and their faculty is a matter which contravenes the educational freedom and autonomy.
The proposed Act is being introduced to annihilate whatever educational freedom that is prevailing in colleges and universities. Pursuant to this Act, the Commission has been given powers to close down on-going colleges or universities; those which would be established hereafter can also be closed down at any time, which as a matter of fact shows the conspiracy on the part of the government to tighten its control on higher education.
It appears that, with the implementation of this Act, whatever little liberty is being experienced by all the institutes of higher education in the context of State governments and universities established by laws passed by State Legislature Assemblies, will come to an end.
Under the Section 7 of the Constitution higher education is also the task of the State governments. Hence, it is not at all reasonable if the Commission or the Central government take over almost all the powers of higher education vested with State governments. This should be a major reason why State governments should oppose the proposed Act.
The Central government believes that it can enslave universities, colleges and research institutes and it alone is the sole carrier of thinking power and intelligence, and all others should follow it. The only desire of the Central government is to reduce faculty members to the category of insects.
Such is the mindset of the present government that it always boasts of creating something new; it is such mindset alone, which is behind its effort to capture all powers of higher education through the proposed Act. Indeed, it resembles Rowlatt Act, a black law of colonial times, and it should never be enacted. The Gujarat Social Watch demands that the draft of this Act should be withdrawn.
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*President, Indian Radical Human Association. Based on author's representation to Prakash Javdekar, minister, Human Resource Development, Government of India

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