Dismantling the concept of board regulation in higher education in UK and introducing market-based model can obliterate the fabric of higher education in UK, India following its master

It is no hidden secret anymore that the higher education system in India has been in a state of turmoil for quite some time now and the University Grants Commission (UGC), the main regulator in the country, has been in the midst of every controversy. It has largely come under fire for tweaking policies to accelerate privatization of higher education system.

The Indian government, according to newspaper reports, has been working on a new law to replace UGC with a single Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA).

It’s similar to what the Britain has done with a new law this year that will lead to formation of a new unilateral regulator. The new British regulation has also faced a lot of criticism for its market-oriented reforms and thus, makes it imperative for us to not go on similar track while we go about the task of regulating higher education.

UGC in UK – Evolving since 80’s

Our colonial masters, from whom we took inspiration to form our higher education regulator, established the University Grants Commission there after the first world war. Last 3 decades in UK have seen the UGC undergo continuous change in its method of functioning. Quite similar to the UGC in India, it has always drawn flak for lack of transparency in the distribution of funds as well as for having no proper criteria to determine the amount of allocation of funds to different universities.

After turmoil for four years, by the time of the second selectivity exercise in 1989, the UGC had been abolished in the UK. In its place, a Universities Funding Council was formed, which also didn’t last long and shut shop in 1992.  Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) replaced the UFC in 1992 and is functioning currently.

The HEFCE is also going to close down soon. Under the Higher Education & Research Act, 2017 of Britain, HEFCE will cease to operate on 31st March, 2018. On 1st April, 2018, the majority of HEFCE’s functions, combined with the work of the Office of Fair Access, will form the Office for Students (OfS).

Moving to single regulator in UK

Forming a new Office for Students has been done to have a single higher education regulator, similar to what is being discussed in India now. 

Until now, regulation of higher education institutions in Britain has been piecemeal, dictated partly by rules, such as health and safety, that govern any large organisation, partly by institutional committees responsible for setting and monitoring standards on research and course programmes, and partly by academic senates, boards of governors and sector-owned bodies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access in UK also act as independent external regulators, monitoring respectively institutions’ financial health and efforts to be socially inclusive. HEFCE also gives contract to the Quality Assurance Agency to monitor teaching quality.

Multitudes of organisations working simultaneously in UK has made it tough to say where the buck stops whenever any deficiency results in higher education. Thus, the demand for a unilateral organization has been there in UK for some time now.

In his Higher Education review, published in 2010, which recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees as well, Lord Browne, the former chief executive of British Petroleum, suggested merging all the regulatory bodies into a single, independent Higher Education Council.

The 2017 act is another big-ticket reform in British higher education, after the one which made student fees, rather than government grants, to provide the bulk of income for many institutions. The toothless tiger HEFCE, which distributes the grants, no longer has the ability to step in and bail out institutions if any one of them is in turmoil. Nor does it have the financial muscle to keep them in check.


Thorny reforms in Britain

The Higher Education and Research Bill had a torturous passage through the Britain Parliament. Following the announcement of the snap election this year, the government ministers had come to a compromise with the Labour party in order to clear opposition and attempt to pass the bill before Parliament was dissolved. With Labour agreeing to withdraw previous opposition to the bill, the government’s new amendments were swiftly approved by both the Houses.

Critics of the bill argue that the new law allows the ‘marketisation’ of education and risks damaging UK’s universities. They point out that it takes them a huge step away from an education that is public and accessible, towards a system of privatisation and artificial competition. The way the bill was rushed through British Parliament with little attendance and disregarding most of the amendments sought by the House of Lords, showed great disregard for the impact of these reforms and students’ and academics’ vehement opposition to them.

One of the stated aims of the act that has generated fear is to “encourage competition between English higher education providers.” Parts of the act that provide the new Office for Students with powers to register and de-register higher education institutions, and allocate degree-awarding powers with low barriers to entry can lead to degradation of standard of education, as it’s argued that majority of private providers do not give quality education.

Students in UK protest against privatisation in education. (Credits: Al Jazeera)

Although many argue that longstanding commitments to quality and comparability have taken second place to the desire to open up the market to the for-profit providers, it has been suggested, on the other hand, that established universities are actually protecting their own interests. Some do suggest it is time to open the “closed shop” that is the higher education sector by removing the barriers that prevent new providers from entering the marketplace and that more competition is a good thing.

UGC under the storm in India

Since 2012-2013, students and teachers have been protesting against various changes that the UGC has sought to bring in to revamp higher education in India. First there was the Four-year undergraduate program in Delhi University, which was decried for introducing a sub-standard curriculum. After 2 years of agitation against it, the new NDA government scrapped it in 2014.

But even after the Four-year program was scrapped, the new Choice based Credit system put in place in the universities has been equally criticized. It has also been seen as a measure that dilutes the quality of courses being taught at the under-graduate level and most-importantly, by aiming to have a common minimum syllabus, erodes the autonomy of universities in India.

Many other decisions of UGC in India in the past two years have led to a lot of controversy and have come under vehement criticism for making education a commodity and less affordable for students coming from marginalized sections of society.

In October, 2015, the decision to scrap all fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students who have not taken the National Eligibility Test was seen as another way to open the higher education sector to private forces. The government was forced to review this order of UGC after students from various universities camped outside the UGC office in New Delhi for weeks on end, demanding its rollback.

Old graffiti near UGC office. (Credits: Occupy UGC Fb page)

On the basis of a notification issued in May, 2016, seats for M Phil and PhD have been reduced by over 80 % in Jawaharlal Nehru University from this year. Also, weightage given to viva-voce in the entrance exam to these courses was made 100 %. This was seen as problematic especially for Dalit, tribal and backward class students as it made it tougher for them to get selected for these courses.

Another round of protests erupted after the Central Board of Secondary Education and UGC decided to scrap the National Eligibility Test (NET) exam which was to be held in July this year. The UGC has made it clear that the NET exam will now be switched to an annual one from the earlier biennial mode. It has been alleged that this will decrease Junior Research Fellowships awarded on the basis of this exam and will be detrimental for students who want to pursue research and teaching in the future.

One or the other issue has been cropping up that has lead to a furor between the students and teachers on the one hand, and the UGC, on the other. Though the bureaucratic apathy with which the UGC works has been there for decades now, but in these past few years, the students and teachers have perceived the decisions of UGC as a scheme to introduce privatization of education that can lead to exclusion of students of marginalised communities from the elite government universities.

On way to replacement

Paradoxically enough, for the past many years, the Indian government itself has sought to either revamp the Commission or form a new one. The UPA 2 government had drafted a bill to create a National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) as an independent statutory body that was supposed to have all powers related to higher education. The NDA government withdrew the bill saying that it was not in sync with the federal structure of the country.

The Yashpal committee on higher education in India, formed in 2008, was also of the view that a holistic view of knowledge would demand a regulatory system that treated the entire range of educational institutions in a holistic manner and all of higher education as an integrated whole. Professional education could not be detached from general education. An all-encompassing higher education authority was envisaged even in the National Policy on Education of Indian (1986) and the Plan of Action in Indian higher education, 1992.

The new government, in 2014, set up a UGC Review Committee, headed ironically by former UGC chairman Hari Gautam. It has been perceived by the Indian government that the UGC’s entire functioning continues to be oriented more towards grant giving rather than regulation and enforcement of minimum standards.

The Hari Gautam committee submitted in its report that the UGC has failed its mandate and any attempt at re-structuring it would be futile. Recommending that it should be scrapped, the committee was harsh in its criticism of UGC’s functioning, accusing it of indulging in favoritism. It also raised questions on selection procedure of chairman and its members.

A high-power committee headed by former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramaniam had also recommended in 2016 that the law that set up UGC be allowed to lapse. It said that the credibility of UGC has been seriously dented by approvals given to a large number of sub-standard colleges and deemed universities.

Though both these committees wanted to scrap UGC, there was no direction as such from the government.

But lately, newspaper reports have come out that claim that the HRD ministry of India and the Niti Aayog (formerly Planning Commission) are working on a new law to replace UGC with Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA).

The main motive is to do away with regulatory provisions that are not relevant, replace UGC and All India Council for Technical Education by a single regulator to eliminate all overlaps in the jurisdiction and end the inspector raj that the UGC is associated with.

Student welfare

There are essentially two problems that the UGC has been criticized for. Firstly, bureaucratic set-up and political interference. Secondly, for framing policies that are increasingly making education less affordable for students coming from lower class and castes. Both quality and quantity of education provided are suffering and have to be looked into.

With Heera as the proposed regulation agency, we seem to be following the evolution of the regulation body in Britain. However, note that after the increase in students fees in public universities in Britain, this reform to establish a new higher education regulator has caused a lot of anguish amongst the academic fraternity. It is therefore important for us to take our lessons.

It is important that the upcoming bill on a new single regulation body takes into account two important factors while framing the act. A lean body can certainly be a welcome step but the government also has to ensure that the new body is given autonomy from political and bureaucratic forces in it’s task of maintaining quality in higher education.

At the same time, it is also essential to ensure that the new legislation doesn’t pave the way for even more commercialisation of education. It will be a travesty of the Right to Affordable Education for the poor and marginalised students of this country, where the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education is still only 24%.


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