Mridusmita Deka|Feb 8, 2023
Explainer: How will the proposed HECI change higher education?
HECI Bill: Education ministry is expected to table the Bill for HECI, which replaces the UGC, in the winter session of Parliament.
NEW DELHI: After almost four years, the ministry of education will soon set the ball rolling on establishing the Higher Education Commission of India, or HECI. A Bill to set up the HECI to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) is reportedly set for tabling in the winter session of parliament.
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The Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill 2018 which seeks to repeal the UGC Act and provides for setting up of HECI has been revamped to give it more teeth as well as representation from states. The HECI Bill is a key reform in higher education under the Narendra Modi-led government that will create one overarching body to regulate both technical and non-technical educational institutions.
In line with National Education Policy (NEP 2020), the focus of the proposed commission will be to transform existing higher education institutions into large multidisciplinary universities and research universities. The Bill proposes to provide the commission with steep penal powers against violators of its provisions as well as separate the academic and funding aspects in higher education.
In May this year, the education minister Dharmendra Pradhan held extensive consultations with senior officials of the ministry. Pradhan said that HECI should focus on “employability, job creation and global outlook. It should ensure global academic standards and provide more academic autonomy to the higher education institutions”.
What is HECI?
The HECI Bill, first drafted in 2018, was not finalised due to major criticism of its clauses that concentrated powers at the centre. Earlier in 2008, Yash Pal committee had suggested restructuring the higher education regulatory framework by merging various arms under one body. In the 2019 Budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the plan to establish HECI and later said that it will be implemented in Budget 2021. However, it was not implemented. Since then, the Bill has been placed in the public domain for comments and reworked to align it with the NEP 2020.
Within one “overarching autonomous umbrella body” – the HECI – the proposed structure includes four different verticals that eliminate concentrations of power. These four structures are the following:
National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC)
National Accreditation Council (NAC) for accreditation
Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) for funding
General Education Council (GEC) for setting academic standards
Each of these councils will perform their functions independently.
The NEP document talks about “light but tight” regulation in matters particularly related to financial probity, good governance, and the full online and offline public self-disclosure of all finances, audits, procedures, infrastructure, faculty and staff, courses, and educational outcomes. All education institutions – public and private - will be “treated on par” within this regulatory framework.
What powers will HECI have?
According to The Indian Express, the revised Bill provides the HECI with considerable teeth. It will have the penal powers to impose fines of up to Rs 5 crore and also penalise heads of educational institutions found to have violated provisions. The UGC, which is the apex regulatory body on higher education, can only issue a list of violators and impose a fine of Rs 1,000 for violations like setting up fake universities.
With rising instances of such violations, the Bill will include a separate section on offences and penalties that will clearly state the fines depending on the nature of violation. For minor violations, the commission may issue notices and seek clarification. When issues are not resolved, the violators may attract a penalty of minimum Rs 10 lakh. There will be a fine of Rs 30 lakh for “intermediate contraventions” while for “grave contraventions”, penalties up to Rs 5 crore and jail term of up to five years, reported IE.
In the current structure, the UGC conducts periodic inspections. However, the new structure intends to eliminate “inspection raj” by prescribing norms on academic performance. The HECI will not conduct inspections but recommend closure of institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards without affecting students’ interest.
The Bill empowers the commission to grant or revoke authorisation for starting of academic operations of all universities and educational institutions on the basis of their compliance with norms of academic quality. The UGC’s power was limited to withholding grants and publishing a list of fraud institutions. The HECI, on the other hand, can penalise an institution's management with up to three years of jail.
Under the HECI framework, accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) will become mandatory for all institutions. Thus far, the accreditation was only voluntary except for public institutions relying on certain types of grants and schemes such as the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). Education minister also stressed on bringing all institutions under accreditation and National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). In August, the education ministry constituted a committee to create the ‘meta-accrediting body’, combining the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Board of Accreditation (NBA).
The Bill, as per The Indian Express, also seeks to bring legal and architecture education within the purview of the HECI and limit the roles of the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Council of Architecture. Other professional councils, including Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), Veterinary Council of India (VCI), NCTE, Council of Architecture (CoA), and National Council for Vocational Education and Training (NCVET), will act as “Professional Standard Setting Bodies”. These will continue to design curricula, lay down academic standards and coordinate between teaching, research and extension of their domain or discipline, but as members of the GEC.
The HECI structure has been redrawn to include greater state representation, absent from the first iteration of the Bill. In the new draft, the HECI will have at least one state university vice-chancellor and two teachers from the state higher education council. Members from states have been added to give it a federal structure instead of concentrating powers at the centre. The number of members has increased by one from the 14 in the first draft.
Overall, the HECI composition will include a chairperson, a vice chairperson, vice-chancellor of a central university, higher education secretary, finance secretary, a legal expert, and an experienced person from the industry. It is also likely to include representatives from technical education, teacher training and the accreditation body as the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) will cease to exist after HECI comes into effect.
As per the 2018 draft, a five-member search committee will appoint the office holders including the cabinet secretary, higher education secretary, and three eminent academics. For the appointment of the vice chairperson and the members of the HECI, the search committee will include the HECI chairperson.
The previous draft allowed the government to remove a member from the commission if a member has been “convicted of an offence which, in the opinion of Government, involves
moral turpitude”. Retaining the provision, the new Bill reportedly allows removal only after an enquiry led by a sitting Supreme Court judge.
The Bill aims to promote autonomy of higher educational institutions. However, certain provisions that are reportedly in the Bill do not meet this stated objective, its critics have said. Instead of providing for greater autonomy, the Bill provides HECI with extensive regulatory control.
While the Bill replaces the UGC, it does not include any provisions regarding disbursal of grants. Currently, the UGC has the power to grant funds to central institutions out of its own budget. The HECI, on the other hand, will not have any financial powers. As per the draft, the ministry will solely have the authority to grant funds. Previously, the UGC has had to release funds from its own budget for many schemes owing to cash flow shortage from the ministry.
Under the existing framework, degrees are awarded by universities set up by an Act of Parliament or state Act. These institutions do not require further approval from the UGC. However, the HECI Bill states that all higher educational institutions will require permission from the HECI to begin academic operations within three years.
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