The government is proposing to create a new higher education watchdog, which has been tentatively named Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA). The contours of the body as well as the draft law to back it are currently being worked out by the government, in consultation with the NITI Aayog. Although the particulars of the functions the body will be assuming are still being worked out, it is expected to eliminate the overlaps in the jurisdiction and remove irrelevant regulatory provisions. It will bring the regulation of both technical and non-technical higher education institutions under one umbrella. Given how both UGC and AICTE have been roundly criticised for their poor handling of higher education so far, HEERA is likely to be structured in a manner that addresses their particular deficiencies.
The Yash Pal Committee, the National Knowledge Commission as well as the Hari Gautam committee had all highlighted the failures of the UGC and called for its scrapping. The TSR Subramanian committee, which had been tasked with coming up with a new education policy, too called for the scrapping of the UGC and AICTE. UGC has three primary functions—namely, regulation of universities and certain higher education institutions such as deemed universities and autonomous colleges; disbursal of grants; and deciding on and maintenance of education higher education (non-technical) standards—and it has failed on all three counts. With government-run universities (both state and central) and certain deemed universities dependent largely on the grants from the UGC, an inspector raj has flourished. The financial heft of the regulator has only grown since its inception—in 2015-16, it disbursed over `10,000 crore. Though the share of UGC in the government’s overall grant to higher education had been falling over the years, it climbed back to nearly 40% in 2015-16, from a still high 33% in 2014-15.
The UGC has also on many occasions impeded institutional autonomy at top notch universities and institutions—for instance, its handling of the Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programmes (FYUP). The criticisms of the programme aside, the UGC initially allowed the programme to run for a year before scrapping it. Meanwhile, the performance of both AICTE and UGC with respect to upholding educational standards is reflected in the less than stellar ranks Indian institutes and varsities
The Narendra Modi-led government has largely voiced its keenness for freeing up higher education (except the few but significant instances of pussy-footing). Given the larger view that the government has taken on higher education, it will be important to see how HEERA will fit into the scheme of things. For instance, the government has talked of a graded regulation system, with near-complete autonomy for the top-rung institutions, followed by tempered autonomy for middle-rung ones with government regulation earmarked for the lowest-rated institutions. For this, it has proposed a quality assessment and ranking of universities and colleges by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. HEERA will largely be expected to maintain a distant oversight of the semi-autonomous universities and institutions, while regulating the lowest-rung ones.
As far as the function of funding institutes goes, it is not clear yet whether HEERA will have to do this or not. Given how the government has announced the formation of Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) to fund development of infrastructure in premier institutes, it looks likely that at least part of the funding functions of the new higher education regulator will be hived off.