The University Grants Commission, or UGC, which funds half of - and regulates most of-college education in India, has had a busy summer. With Smriti Irani at the helm of the ministry of human resource development, which oversees education, UGC has taken on the venerable Indian Institutes of Technology, Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science and Delhi University in what seems to be an attempt to align all undergraduate courses in the country to a three-year duration.
The IITs are fighting back , even as UGC is facing flak for a somnolent period when it allowed Delhi University to run a four-year undergraduate programme, or FYUP, for a year before scrapping it in June. Those who were closely involved with the scrapping of FYUP, such as Nandita Narain, professor at St Stephen's College and president of Delhi University Teachers' Association, says all UGC wants is to discuss the undergraduate programmes with the colleges and universities. "One of the criticisms that UGC faced when it rolled back Delhi University's FYUP was that it was being inconsistent," says Narain. "UGC does not want to curtail the four-year programme everywhere, it only wants universities to justify their position."
India's 10+2+3 policy mandates an undergraduate course of three years, but many science programmes have run four-year courses for a long time. The IITs, for instance, offer four-year programmes in engineering as well as five-year dual degree programmes. The four-year science undergraduate programme at the century-old Indian Institute of Science, or IISc, in Bangalore had 15,000 aspirants fighting for 114 seats this year.
UGC's reversal to a three-year regime has evinced mixed reactions. The new, privately-funded Ashoka University in Sonepat, perhaps lacking the experience to deal with regulators, complied. It has reduced its FYUP to three years, making the last year optional, and terming it a year of research. Similarly, IISc had decided to add a bracketed addition to the name of its undergraduate course after the face-off. Instead of it being called a BSc, or Bachelor of Science, programme, it will be referred to as BSc (Research).
"The matter is settled now," Anurag Kumar, who took over as director of the institute the day the UGC order challenging the four-year course landed on his desk, told Business Standard from Bangalore.
Kumar refused to comment on UGC's way of functioning, saying, "It is a government organisation. It has a job to do." But others are not so reticent. The regulator's missives have resulted in a sharp clamour for a re-examination of its role, especially since it combines regulation, approval and funding of higher education in India. "As it stands, UGC plays the roles of advising, regulating and funding agency of nearly all universities, and the government in power has huge control over it. This must change," wrote Vishwesha Guttal, professor at IISc, in independent website, The Conversation.
Given its financial power, state-run universities are often beholden to UGC. It also awards private universities the sought-after "UGC-recognised" label. The sort of influence the body can exert in higher education can be gauged from the fact that India has 178 private universities, 165 deemed-to-be universities, 45 central and 317 state universities, besides numerous private colleges.
And UGC is not averse to using its power. The experience of Meera Ramachandran, who was principal of Delhi University's Gargi College from 2005 to 2013, shows UGC's money-disbursing power hung like a Damocles' sword over the heads of colleges. "For anything you wanted to put across, they tended to be a bit threatening," says Ramachandran, and it was only once in a while the head of UGC "saw your point of view".
Currently, UGC is headed by Ved Prakash who has served the government in various capacities, including as director of the Staff Selection Commission, the panel that recruits people for government posts. He offered no replies to the questions sent by Business Standard on e-mail. His office repeatedly said he was out of station and would respond to the numerous phone calls made to him, but he did not.
However, in an interview to The Indian Express on August 25, he said, "Where is the question of encroaching on the authority of IITs? It is a question of ensuring uniformity in nomenclature of degrees."
Giving institutions its stamp of approval also gives UGC undue power. C Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of O P Jindal University, set up with a corpus of Rs 400 crore by industrialist Naveen Jindal, says even though UGC recognition is not mandatory and his university had not sought funds from the regulator, it helps to have UGC's approval. As things stand, he says, "people in India are generally comfortable when something is approved or recognised by somebody."
UGC regulates colleges through a system of inspections, in which teams of assorted experts go and tick off boxes on infrastructure, faculty and student numbers. It then apprises the university or the college of compliance or non-compliance with the norms set by UGC. This recognition process can take up to two years.
"I think that while UGC has, in general, the statutory power to do the job of regulating education, the problem has been implementation and vision," says Philip G Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US, who has worked in India and researched regulation in higher education in other countries as well. "I think that in large part, UGC has failed to effectively regulate Indian higher education."
In the United States, Altbach points out, universities are accredited by regional accreditors that function somewhat like NGOs. They demand a careful self-study from every university in a decade and then visit the institution to evaluate the data. Each institute makes the cut based on its own goals and performance - there is no standard metric. The colleges are not ranked, one either passes muster or doesn't. A university can also be put on probation for a short time to fix its shortcomings.
All of this does not have legal standing, but if an institution is not accredited, it is not eligible for any funding from the government for student loan programme, research and so on. In other words, without accreditation, no institution can work. A small number of institutions do fail to get accreditation and often go out of business.
In India, accreditation, self-regulation and raised entry barriers to higher education can provide a solution. A 2008 committee to review the working of UGC, headed by scientist Yash Pal, expressed concern at the mushrooming of engineering and management colleges of low quality. While stressing the need for private investment, it raised doubts about the funding for such institutions. It felt the money was mostly "unaccounted wealth from business and political enterprises or from capitation fees."
The landscape has changed since then, with a number of high-investment universities being established through the backing of industrial houses and bodies like the Azim Premji Foundation and Shiv Nadar Foundation. The number of students enrolling in low-quality institutes has fallen, indicating that market forces are indeed creating a churn. However, this does not obviate the need for a good regulator. As Kumar of O P Jindal University says, a regulator can "create checks and balances to see that those with a strong philanthropic commitment" get into higher education. Far too many institutes are allowed entry, he says.
Irani's ministry, it seems, is trying to solve the demand for regulatory reform through yet another committee. It will be headed by Hari Gautam, former UGC chairman and advisor to the chairman of a private medical university in Rajasthan. He declined to comment on how he hopes to restructure UGC. The committee has two other members. The lack of equitable representation - it has no members from the southern states - is not the only reason why it is being criticised. "Every time they carry out the same exercise (of forming a committee)," says H Chaturvedi, director of Birla Institute of Management Technology. "A regulator should be like a gardener, it should be supportive. It should promote higher education and focus on how to raise standards."
Instead, many point to how UGC has wasted time locking horns with another educational regulator, the All India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE, over who should oversee business-education courses. While the regulators fight it out, it is perhaps not a coincidence that few Indian universities find themselves making it to global listings of excellence in education.