Sunday, 31 August 2014

UGC, IITs, and Autonomy

The role of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in higher education is in the news these days. The matter started with the roll-back of the four year under-graduate programme (FYUP) of Delhi University. The matter then went forward to degrees being offered by IISc Bangalore and some other institutions. Lately UGC’s letter to IITs regarding the conformity of their degrees with the ones recognised by UGC has generated controversy and confusion.
According to Section 3 of the UGC Act, “The Central Government may, on the advice of the Commission, declare by notification in the Official Gazette, that any institution for higher education, other than a University, shall be deemed to be a University for the purposes of this Act, and on such a declaration being made, all the provisions of this Act shall apply to such institution as if it were a University within the meaning of clause (f) of section 2.” Section 2(f) states “ “University” means a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act, and includes any such institution as may, in consultation with the University concerned, be recognised by the Commission in accordance with the regulations made in this behalf under this Act”.
So what about Institutions that have been created by an Act of Parliament  that do not have the word “university” in their name and that do not fall under section 3 of the Act?  Section 22(1) acknowledges that there is this third category of institutions and thereby implies that they do not fall under the provisions of the UGC Act : “The right of conferring or granting degrees shall be exercised only by a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act or an institution deemed to be a University under section 3 or an institution specially empowered by an Act of Parliament to confer or grant degrees.” All centrally funded Technical Institutions (CFTIS) created by an Act of Parliament (IITs, NITs, IISERS, and now the IIITS)  fall under the last category of institution specially empowered by an Act of Parliament to confer or grant degrees. So they are not universities and so the provisions of the UGC Act do not apply to them. So there is no need for any controversy or misgiving about encroachment on autonomy on the part of IITs.
 However, Section 22(3) states “For the purposes of this section, “degree’ means  any such degree as may, with the previous approval of the Central Government, be specified in this behalf by the Commission by notification in the official Gazette.” So if we take sections 22(1) and 22(3) together, IITs too are bound to award only those degrees specified by the Commission and this is the only point over which the UGC has a say in IIT matters. So the UGC is right is asking the IITs to follow the provisions of Section 22 of the UGC Act.
What is to be specified by the UGC under Section 22(3) is  however, not given anywhere. In the beginning, the UGC specified merely the names of degrees, viz. B.A, B.Sc, B.Tech, etc. This list would get new degrees added to it as need arose. Thus, when the design discipline becane established, the B.Des degree was added. So this list did not have any adverse impact on IITs or other such institutions. One had only to make a request for a new degree, and in most reasonable cases, the request was accepted (and some unreasonable cases too, if ones goes through the list of 163 odd degrees!). Then in a May 29  2009 notification the UGC added the minimum duration of programmes of the new degrees introduced then ( Under the Act, Rule 8 was framed in 1985 which stated that the minimum duration of a degree programme shall be three years. But this will apply only those who come under the UGC Act). In the latest August 2014 notification  not only has the minimum duration of every degree been given, but the entry qualifications for each degree have also been given. A set of “guidelines” has also been added. Does the Act allow the UGC to impose such detailed restrictions on degrees? A reading of Section 22(3) and the initial notifications by the UGC points strongly to the fact that the UGC has over-stepped its authority in its latest notification. This notification, if applicable to IITs, will render a number of its programmes that existed before this notification “illegal” – dual degree B.Tech – M.Tech programmes, and PhD programmes with B.Tech as the entry qualification, besides the BS degree of IIT Kanpur not being on the list. What is to prevent more restrictions from being imposed through  these notifications in future, if the provisions of the Act are taken to mean “anything” can be specified for degrees by the UGC?
So, is UGC encroaching on the autonomy of IITs and other Centrally funded institutions? I think that has not been the aim of the UGC, but the consequence is that the UGC is indeed doing so. The problem, as should be obvious, is that everyone agrees that  “good” institutions should be given a lot of flexibility with their programmes and degrees as they will then be able to make changes according to requirements of the environment. On the other hand, “bad” institutions need strict monitoring, and many restrictions are needed to ensure minimum standards. But how can one determine “good” from “bad”?  A rule to fit all, therefore follows, and it becomes overly restrictive. The result is this mess.  Is there a way out? The  UGC  should go back to its earlier practice of only listing the names of degrees to meet the requirements of section 22(3). All other restrictions such as  the minimum duration, the entry qualifications, the guidelines, etc.should be issued as a separate Rule applicable only to Universities.While IITs  and NITs will be spared, all universities, good and bad, will still lose flexibility.  Will IISc be happy with this suggestion? I doubt it.
A wider debate is required to decide what is the best way to not allow standards to fall while ensuring that flexibility is also  not lost. Can accreditation also play a role in maintaining standards? Regulation can be reduced in that case. The fact that education is in the concurrent list makes the problem complex.