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A project to undermine autonomy

The publication of the draft Central legislation on the constitution of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) lays bare the real objectives of the United Progressive Alliance government in dismantling the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) and setting up a body with overarching powers and responsibilities. (The document is on the website of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, at >www.education.nic.in).

It is no longer necessary for academia to engage in endless discussions on the impossibility of reconciling the vision of academic freedom that Professor Yash Pal put forward with the agenda of neo-liberal reforms that Sam Pitroda was so impatient to implement. The Task Force constituted to aid and advise the MHRD to set up the NCHER has side-tracked the issue by paying lip service to the objective of promoting autonomy and recommending a structure that would centralise planning, administration, regulation and financing of higher education, leaving little room for either decentralised academic activity or federal structures of governance in higher education. It is becoming clear that the orchestrated campaign against the discredited deemed universities was but a ploy to divert attention from the agenda of dismantling federal and democratic structures and putting in their place a highly centralised and authoritarian system that is amenable to the emerging global trends in higher education.

In setting up the NCHER the underlying presumption is that the quality of higher education could improve dramatically if multiple regulatory agencies are replaced by the benevolent dictatorship of an all-powerful and overarching agency endowed with the kind of status that the Election Commission of India enjoys. It is further presumed that a consensus among the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leader of the Opposition would result in the selection of seven wise men or women who are competent and committed enough to innovate and implement academic policies and programmes relevant for this vast country. The presumption, which is obvious enough, is sought to be covered up by the veil of a national collegium of advisers, a structure that will be neither completely within, nor completely outside, the proposed national commission.

Unequal mix

The structure of the collegium is complicated in that it has two types of members: one set of core members and another set of co-opted members. It is not clear from the draft as to who would nominate the core members, how many of them would be nominated, and whether the nomination of the core members would precede or proceed from the constitution of the commission. As the arrangement stands, the collegium has to suggest a panel from which the members of the commission will have to be selected. Obviously, such an arrangement will bring the collegium into existence, at least in part, before the commission is born. But once the commission comes into existence, the collegium will take on the role of an advisory body, the advice of which will not be binding on the commission.

The co-opted members have only a subordinate status in the collegium in that they owe their position to the support of the core members and in that their tenure is limited to five years while the core members are nominated for life. The patronage of a position for a lifetime is an innovation for which the MHRD can take credit! The possible rationale is that it would ensure both continuity and change in the determination of policies in higher education.

Deficit of federalism

The deficit of federalism in the new arrangement to regulate higher education is evident from the mode of appointment and the status of the co-opted members who will represent the States and Union Territories in the collegium. The collegium is only an advisory body, external to the commission, the advice of which is not binding on the commission. The right of the core fellows to decide on the area of expertise that particular States could provide in the collegium could be effectively used to eliminate the possibility of federal dissent. The only right the States have is to propose a panel of five experts, of whom one will be chosen by the core fellows.

An arrangement in which the Central government could nominate experts in various fields and the States representatives of their choice, would have been more in tune with the principles of federalism. This would have ensured the representation of a variety of views and interests in the collegium, while also ensuring due representation of experts. The integration of the collegium into the structure of the commission as its governing body with policy-making responsibilities, and the constitution of a seven-member executive committee from within the governing body and responsible to it (in place of the present seven-member commission) will make more sense, in both academic and federal terms.

The authority of State legislatures to set up universities will be seriously eroded once the commission comes into existence. In the new situation, universities set up through State Acts can start academic operations only with authorisation from the commission. A better option would have been to make authorisation mandatory for the operation of universities beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the legislating authorities.

The Bill provides for the preparation of a national registry of people eligible to be selected as Vice-Chancellors and mandates that Vice-Chancellors of State universities be appointed from a panel of names selected by the commission from the registry. The question is not whether the commission would always act fairly, but whether such an arrangement would be consistent with the principles of autonomy of higher educational institutions, which is touted as the basic objective of the commission. The idea of a registry may not be an objectionable one if States have the option to choose any name from the registry and if the right to appoint a person as Vice-Chancellor from outside the list is not entirely ruled out.

Though the commission is insulated against any intervention by the Central government in its day-to-day administration, the Central government has adequate powers to determine the general policies on higher education and interpret such policy prescriptions. The provision for the exercise of such powers by the Central government has been incorporated to ensure that the government’s right to frame policies and implement them are not delegated to a small agency created by it.

But the Act does not fully recognise the complementarities in the roles of the Central and State governments, universities and other institutions of higher education. The primary objective of promoting autonomy of higher educational institutions has been overlooked by the appropriation of all powers by the proposed NCHER. The roles of the State governments, universities and other higher educational institutions within their territorial and constitutional jurisdiction have either been trampled upon or ignored. Autonomy implies decentralisation of powers and responsibilities and creation of appropriate norms and structures at different levels to ensure accountability. The Act does not apportion appropriate levels of authority to States, universities and other higher educational institutions, and in the process it violates the principles of federalism and autonomy in the governance of higher educational institutions.

(Thomas Joseph is Member-Secretary, Kerala State Higher Education Council. E-mail: >t.thomas.joseph@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 7:25:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/A-project-to-undermine-autonomy/article16813073.ece

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