A path breaking legislation: HECI Bill can uplift Indian higher education, but requires some correctives before enactment

by Arvind Panagariya

A Russian parable has it that a man once visited a natural history museum and returned all excited about some rare insects he saw there. When asked what he thought of the dinosaurs at the museum, he replied, what dinosaurs?

Something similar has happened to the commentary on the recently released Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill, 2018. While focussing on certain legitimate but correctible shortcomings, this commentary has entirely missed numerous path breaking features of the Bill.

To put the matter in perspective, the Bill

  • Vests the power to create new universities in the HECI via a set of transparent criteria and, thus, eliminates the need for legislation for this purpose;
  • Empowers the HECI to confer degree giving power on both universities and colleges based on specified norms thereby paving the way for the emergence of high quality degree granting colleges;
  • Empowers the HECI to bestow affiliating power on both public and private universities provided they meet the specified norms;
  • Provides for a credit based system for the award of degrees thereby ending the current tyranny of forcing a student to repeat the entire year if she fails in even one subject;
  • Promotes enforcement via transparent self-disclosure by higher education institutions (HEIs) with falsification attracting punitive action;
  • Proposes to enforce minimum educational quality standards by empowering the HECI to close non-performing HEIs;
  • Empowers the HECI to specify minimum eligibility conditions for appointments to administrative and leadership positions in HEIs;
  • Denies HECI the function of allocating grants to HEIs, something that has allegedly led to rampant corruption in the UGC;
  • Gives direct voice to the representatives of the states through the Advisory Council.

These are truly major desirable departures from the existing regulatory framework of higher education, bringing us closer to global best practices. If the government can appoint truly outstanding individuals with unimpeachable integrity to HECI, the latter would be in a position to truly transform India’s higher education system for the better.

It is, nevertheless, important to note some remaining weaknesses in the Bill. First, though the Bill seems to implicitly open the door to foreign degree-granting institutions as long as they meet the specified norms, it will be best to make it explicit. This will eliminate the threat of legal challenges should a foreign institution wish to enter India.

Second, the Bill leaves too much detail to be spelt out in the rules and regulations. As long as those writing and enforcing the rules and regulations are motivated by social good, this brevity would do no harm. But this luxury will always not be there. Therefore, there is need to tie the hands of those writing the rules and regulations and those enforcing them just a little more within the legislation.

For example, the Bill must explicitly state that HECI will not write the curriculums of HEIs. Since it empowers the autonomous HEIs to write their own curriculums, other HEIs may be allowed to follow the curriculums of one or more of the latter.

Third, the Bill must make explicit that the flexibility inherent in the credit system would allow institutions to align their systems to a three year bachelor’s degree as in the UK or a four year bachelor’s degree as in the US.

Fourth, there is need for a clear statement in the Bill that once an HEI has been cleared for operation, quality standards will be enforced through accreditation rather than micro-management. The Bill also needs to spell out some details of the accreditation process.

Finally, in the longer run, thought will need to be given to folding the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Teachers’ Education into the HECI. If left untouched, these councils can potentially undermine HECI’s work.

The HRD ministry will also need to follow up with two complementary reforms. First, a separate body is required to assume the function of providing education grants to HEIs. The decision to deny the grant giving power to the HECI is a good one but transparency requires that the function be vested in another independent body and not in the HRD ministry, which is principally a policy making body.

To be sure, the government has disbursed funds to institutions of national importance such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, Indian Institute of Science and others for many years. Likewise, the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan has allocated funds to state institution to promote reforms. In all of these cases, disbursal of funds has been transparent with no allegations whatsoever of favouritism. Yet, a principle of good governance is that this function be performed by an independent, arms length agency.

Second, the HRD ministry must also create a national research foundation. This foundation must be adequately funded and charged with the responsibility to make research a central feature of our leading universities. Additionally, it must phase out the current system of compartmentalising research in research councils and education in HEIs while promoting greater cooperation in research among HEIs, industry and government.