These days a visitor to the nondescript five-storey typically government-style headquarters of the University Grants Commission (UGC) sited on Delhi’s Zafar Shah Bahadur Marg — also known as the capital’s Fleet Street for the plethora of newspaper offices it hosts — is likely to be impressed by the flurry and buzz of activity on the premises. Fifty years after it was promoted with the mandate to provide development and maintenance grants to universities and colleges, to advise the Union and state governments and institutions of higher learning, and to make rules and regulations for the governance of independent India's higher education system, the commission is making a new beginning under a new logo.

Though the growing number of students fleeing abroad for higher education - which costs an arm and a leg - quite obviously don't have a high opinion of the quality of effort invested by the 650 educationists and bureaucrats employed in the commission, the Indian establishment evidently reposes great faith in the capability of UGC to raise standards in India's 15,600 colleges and 311 universities to global levels. On December 28, 2002 when the commission kicked off its 12-month golden jubilee celebrations, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did the honours. Precisely a year later, the celebrations were concluded at a gala function inaugurated by President A.P.J. Kalam. Speaking on the occasion Kalam expressed "delight" upon being asked to formally conclude UGC's golden jubilee year and commended the commission for having "contributed to the cause of higher education in post-independent (sic) India for the past five decades", and for facilitating the growth of universities which have a "major responsibility in nation building through enriching science, engineering and technology and by providing value-based education to students to make them moral leaders".

Of course on such landmark ceremonial occasions it's not only customary to congratulate institutions and their leaders but also to commend them. Therefore hardly anyone is likely to contradict the swift and faint praise President Kalam bestowed upon UGC in its golden jubilee year. Notwithstanding this cynicism, many of the thousands of compliments and congratulations received by the UGC top brass during its golden jubilee year are warranted.

During the past half century the number of colleges and universities across the country has multiplied from 565 and 25 in 1953 to 15,600 and 311 respectively in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2004. Simultaneously the number of students availing tertiary level education has risen from 0.23 million to 9.28 million while the number of faculty employed in higher education has zoomed from 15,000 to 4.62 lakh currently. According to a study of the US-based consultancy firm Goldman Sachs - which is bullish about the sustained growth of the Indian economy in the 21st century - the reality that India produces over 2.5 million university graduates per year has heavily influenced its backing of this nation as a winner in the new millennium.

We often boast of our IITs and IIMs and few universities whose academia could make top grade anywhere else in the world. But these institutions are oases in the otherwise vast desert of higher education.
However it's possible that the forecasts of the great majority of foreign monitors of the Indian economy tend to be rosy because distance lends enchantment. Back home on terra firma there's no shortage of social scientists and economists who believe that the multiplication of institutions of tertiary education and expansion of the university system has been at the expense of quality. Indeed it is quite commonplace for leaders and managers in Indian industry to rubbish the quality of graduates produced by the university system, most of whom are described as unemployable rather than unemployed.

"We are obliged to rigorously test (graduate) job applicants to determine their IQs and street smartness rather than trust their degree qualifications. We train them, creating our own B.Scs and re-teaching our employees mechanical and chemical engineering," says V.V. Bhat, president (management services and human resources) of the Reliance Group, India’s largest private sector corporation.

Even if somewhat reluctantly, the infirmities of the higher education system are increasingly being acknowledged within the isolated groves of Indian academia, and refreshingly, even within UGC. Delivering one of the UGC Golden Jubilee Lectures Prof. Vrajendra Raj Mehta, an alumnus of Delhi and Cambridge universities and former vice chancellor of Delhi University (1995-2000) lamented that "while liberalisation has opened up the economy, the world of educational services remains shackled to the old order of control and regulations. Our best students can indeed be compared to the best anywhere in the world. But the system has not done enough to address the problems of students at middle or lower levels. Education by rote learning is still the order of the day. There is very little incentive or encouragement for original thinking. The situation becomes worse when one considers the fact that the number of good institutions in the country is extremely limited. We often boast of our IITs and IIMs and few universities whose academia could make top grade anywhere else in the world. But these institutions are oases in the otherwise vast desert of higher education," said Mehta in his UGC Golden Jubilee lecture delivered on September 19 last year at Ranchi University.

Though - for reasons of political correctness and diplomacy - Dr. Arun Nigavekar, a physics alumnus of Pune and Uppsala (Sweden) universities, former vice chancellor of Pune University and since July 2001 the chairman of UGC, is reluctant to find fault, there's no doubting that he is as anguished about the deterioration of academic standards in the great majority of contemporary India's institutions of higher education.

"The name of the University Grants Commission is misleading because the role of the commission is much greater than of giving grants to universities and colleges. Indeed its more important role is to raise and maintain academic standards in higher education, to frame policies to this end and to advise the Central and state governments on the subject of expanding and improving higher education. Unfortunately over 50 years ago when the UGC Act was passed by Parliament two vitally important clauses included in the draft legislation were after considerable debate - omitted from the Act. These clauses would have required all new universities to obtain prior UGC clearance and would have given the commission the power to withdraw recognition. Despite this initial handicap and the fact that allocations for higher education as a proportion of the annual education outlay has fallen from 24 percent during the period 1965-83 to 7-9 percent currently, UGC has done a satisfactory job in maintaining acceptable standards in higher education institutions whose number has expanded exponentially in the past half century," says Nigavekar.

Dr. Rajashekharan Pillai, an organic chemistry alumnus of Kerala University, former vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kochi, former director of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India (NAAC) and currently the go-getting vice chairman of UGC, also acknowledges "the great contribution" of UGC towards the controlled expansion of the higher education system which has provided contemporary India a unique advantage over other developing countries. However he believes that 50 years on, the charter of the commission - the University Grants Commission Act, 1956 - needs to be restructured.

"The grants dispensation function of the commission has hitherto been given too much emphasis. In the new era of socio-economic liberalisation the commission needs to evolve into an academic standards monitoring institution which benchmarks Indian colleges and universities with the best in the world and helps them to sharply upgrade academic standards and systems. Currently only 6,000 of India's colleges qualify for UGC grants and recognition because the other 9,000 lack sufficient infrastructure and/or suitable faculty. These institutions need to be brought up to scratch. This will require the annual outlay for higher education to rise from 0.5 percent of GDP to 1.5 percent by 2007. Right now UGC and NAAC are preparing an action plan to sharply upgrade these other colleges and universities," says Pillai.

Refreshingly, Pillai the heir-apparent in UGC, doesn't believe that taxpayers should exclusively fund the higher outlays required to raise academic standards across the board in India's crumbling higher education system. He argues that all beneficiaries of higher education need to make greater contributions to bring Indian colleges and universities on a par with the pace-setting institutions of higher education abroad, particularly in the US and the West. "UGC has a very important role to play in persuading the student community to accept the logic of higher tuition fees; to advise and incentivise colleges and universities to augment their incomes by way of research and consultancy fees and to persuade industry - the direct beneficiary of the higher education system - to fund research and become more deeply involved with the tertiary education system. For example, UGC is open to the idea of the promotion of private - including corporate - universities, provided industry representative organisations such as CII and FICCI help to regulate and maintain standards," adds Pillai.

The commission needs to evolve into an academic standards monitoring institution which benchmarks Indian colleges and universities with the best in the world and helps them to sharply upgrade academic standards and systems. Currently only 6,000 of India's colleges qualify for UGC grants and recognition because the other 9,000 lack sufficient infrastructure and/or suitable faculty.
But even as the top brass of UGC accepts the need and inevitability of the logic of economic liberalisation and deregulation impacting itself upon the commission to transform it into an academic standards upgradation rather than a mere grants dispensing institution, they stoutly defend its record of the past half century. According to Prof. Ved Prakash a former World Bank and NCERT consultant and visiting professor to Windsor University, Canada and currently the secretary and chief executive officer of UGC, post-independence India’s feat of engineering one of the world’s largest networks of higher education institutions which has "substantially satisfied the socio-economic aspirations of the nation", is a much-envied achievement. "Popular criticism about the so-called unemployability of graduates from the university system is misconceived because the prime purpose of education isn’t employment as much as it is to create aware and knowledgeable citizens. Employability is a secondary objective and requires collaboration with industry which hasn’t been forthcoming until very recently. Now that industry is showing interest in education we have introduced career-oriented vocational programmes since 2002," says Prakash.

As an example of the misconceived criticism to which the commission is often subject, Prakash cites the widespread opposition to the Model Universities Act formulated as a concept paper by UGC. "This Act was conceptualised as a set of guidelines for the country’s Central, state and deemed universities to help them improve institutional governance. It’s a mere guideline prompted by the new opportunities created by the infusion of technology into education and by the possibilities of distance education. Adoption of the Act or parts of it is purely voluntary; hostility to it is based on ignorance," adds Prakash.

Quite evidently suspicion of UGC is prompted by the declared intent of the commission to move beyond its traditional function of doling out grants, to more closely monitoring their end use as also to realise its wider mandate to raise academic standards in institutions of higher education. Well-organised and militant teachers unions in the universities fear that higher academic standards will require greater work­loads and account-ability. This explains the widespread hostility to UGC’s Model Act which UGC spokespersons maintain is a mere discussion paper. However teachers’ unions believe that it is only a matter of time before its adoption is made mandatory. Long accustomed to doing their own thing while each government Pay Commission sharply hikes their pay and perks, and state governments and UGC maintain fund flows, college and university teachers don’t want a change in the comfortable status quo.

But quite clearly the era of lazy and langorous days for faculty in the shady groves of academia is over. With the annual outflow of students fleeing India’s second rate tertiary education institutions showing no signs of abating and a growing number of foreign universities clamouring to establish campuses in India even as government budgetary allocations for higher education are shrinking rapidly, UGC top brass have no option but to focus on their mandate to raise teaching and learning standards in academia and also to teach business illiterate college and university managements to gradually become financially independent.

Certainly with the allocation within the education budget for higher education having been slashed from 24 percent in the 1970s to 8-9 percent currently and the plan (capital) expenditure budget of Rs.3,200 crore of the Tenth Plan and the non-plan budget of Rs.1,650 crore per year required to be spread over 6,000 colleges and universities including 16 fully-funded central universities, grants allocation has become a less important activity of UGC’s top management. For the reasons cited above including intensifying competition from foreign universities, the commission’s managers will increasingly have to accord greater importance to the other hitherto subsidiary mandates of its charter, particularly the upgradation of collegiate education across the board.

This perhaps explains why in recent years the UGC leadership has been increasingly encouraging research activity in aided institutions. Reacting to widespread criticism of the poor research record of the overwhelming majority of aided institutions, the commission has appointed a joint secretary with a specific brief to fund and monitor promising research projects in colleges and universities. "The reputation of institutions of higher education is built on the foundation of their research projects. Therefore the commission funds institutional, individual and departmental research projects after evaluation by subject specialists. Moreover the research grants we fund are generous and could rise to Rs.10 lakh for social science research and Rs.12 lakh paid out over a period of three years, for hard science projects. We also initiate synergistic research partnerships between colleges and industry. During the Tenth Plan period we have budgeted Rs.500 crore for funding research in higher education institutions," says Dr. Renu Batra, former assistant professor at the Haryana Agriculture University and currently joint secretary (research) in UGC.

Boosting research - the weak under-belly of India's higher education system - apart, another promising UGC initiative which is likely to compel college and university managements to pay particular attention to the quality of education they dispense is the promotion of the Bangalore-based National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India (NAAC). Promoted in 1994 (with Nigavekar as its first director) with the objective of assessing and grading institutions of higher education on a scale of one-five, after slow start, teams of academics specially constituted by NAAC have assessed and rated 1,034 colleges and universities across the country while presenting them detailed suggestions for improvement and upgradation of infrastructure and academic standards.

NAAC's growing popularity

In the fiscal year 2003–04 the Bangalore-based National Assessment & Accreditation Council (est. 1994) crossed a historic milestone in its decade-long history by accrediting its 1,000th institution of tertiary education. With its parent body, the University Grants Commission having mandated compulsory assessment and grading of all universities and aided colleges (estimated at 6,000 across the country) and a multiplying number of unaided private sector colleges queuing up for accreditation, the council’s academics and managers are working overtime.

Nevertheless there is lingering suspicion of NAAC within the academic community especially in Delhi University, none of whose constituent colleges have applied for accreditation. "Though the number of colleges and universities applying for assessment and accreditation is rising steadily and there has been a breakthrough in Delhi University as well, there is a widespread misconception that NAAC is a regulatory rather than facilitating agency. But these misconceptions are eroding and UGC’s reliance upon NAAC as its sole academic quality assessment and accreditation agency is a valuable endorsement," says Prof. V.S. Prasad former vice chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University and currently director of NAAC.

NAAC has formulated a three-stage process for assessment and accreditation.

  • Preparation of a Self-study Report by the institution/ department based on parameters defined by NAAC
  • Validation of the self-study report by a team of peers through on-site visit, presentation of detailed quality report to the institution and
  • The final decision on assessment and accreditation by NAAC's executive committee council.

NAAC has identified seven criteria (allotted differential weightages) to serve as the basis of its assessment procedures:

  • Curricular Aspects
  • Teaching-learning and evaluation
  • Research, consultancy and extension
  • Infrastructure and learning resources
  • Student support and progression
  • Organisation and management
  • Healthy practices

Accreditation fees are charged at various levels. Universities pay Rs.75,000-300,000 (reimbursable by UGC) while colleges are charged Rs.25,000-50,000. Individual departments, schools and centres within academic institutions pay Rs.7,500 per subject for accreditation.

Indeed the promotion and establishment of NAAC is a historic milestone in the evolution of UGC from a genial Santa Claus doling out grants to colleges and universities and forgetting all about them, into a facilitating benefactor organisation which provides aid and advice on how to optimise grants utilisation. NAAC ratings and recommendations enable UGC to calibrate grants and also to penalise colleges and universities which don’t make the effort to upgrade academic and co-curricular education standards. And as government allocations for higher education progressively dwindle, the unspoken UGC agenda is to reinvent itself as a mentor organisation which will aid and advise every college and university to become a self-sufficient and autonomous institution of excellence.

This is why of late 'autonomy' has become a popular buzzword within the Zafar Bahadur Shah Road headquarters of UGC. During the Tenth Plan period (2002-2007) the commission has set itself the target of identifying and designating "at least" 25 "universities with potential for excellence" across the country. These high-potential universities will be "funded at a higher level to enable them to attain excellence in teaching and research", says the UGC concept paper Tenth Five-Year Plan in Higher Education authored by Nigavekar. These universities and institutions as well as a "few hundred" colleges will be given full academic freedom to experiment with their curriculums, introduce innovations in teaching, conduct their own examinations and award joint degrees with affiliating universities. "The autonomous college concept would be pursued rigorously with a target of making 10 percent of existing colleges autonomous," within the Plan period, says the concept paper.

Green signal for autonomous colleges

"The only safe and better way to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to delink most colleges from the affiliating structure. Colleges with academic and operative freedom are doing better and have more credibility. Financial support to such colleges boosts the concept of autonomy. It is proposed to increase the number of autonomous colleges to spread the culture of autonomy, and the target is to make 10% of eligible colleges autonomous by the end of the Tenth Plan," says Dr. Arun Nigavekar chairman of the University Grants Commission.

In effect this means that the number of colleges which will be conferred autonomy during the next three years will increase from 140 currently to 600 in 2007. For the managements of the growing number of colleges which have greater reputations than their affiliating universities and which pride themselves for institutional excellence, UGC's active promotion of autonomy offers a golden opportunity to cut loose from affiliating universities which are the happy hunting grounds of local politicians and cronies.

However the conferment of autonomy is conditional upon college managements' academic track records and past performance. Assessment criteria for the conferment of autonomous status include:

  • Academic reputation and previous performance in university examinations and its academic/co-curricular/extension activities in the past
  • Academic/extension achievements of faculty
  • Quality and merit in selection of students and teachers, subject to statutory requirements in this regard
  • Adequacy of infrastructure, for example, library, equipment, accommodation for academic activities etc
  • Quality of institutional management
  • Financial resources provided by the management/state government for the development of the institution
  • Responsiveness of administrative structure
  • Motivation and involvement of faculty in the promotion of innovative reforms

UGC periodically advertises calling upon eligible colleges to apply for autonomous status. Universities also do likewise from time to time. Colleges have to complete a prescribed application form available from the nearest UGC regional office. UGC's approval for the grant of autonomous status is given in two stages. After receipt of the prescribed application form duly completed, the commission appoints a eight-ten strong screening committee comprising a mix of UGC, state government and affiliating university representatives. If the college is short-listed for approval, its request for autonomy is sent to the state government for clearance. If the state government doesn’t respond within six weeks, its silence is assumed as acceptance.

Next, the short-listed college is visited by an expert committee constituted by UGC which submits a report with recommendations. If the report of the expert committee is positive, UGC sends its recommendation to the affiliating university for conferment of autonomous status. Autonomy permits a college to devise its own curriculums, conduct examinations and award a joint degree with the parent university, i.e the name of the college will be inscribed on the degree certificate awarded by the university.

UGC's metamorphosis from a plain vanilla grants disbursement institution into a quality monitoring consultancy organisation committed to raising hitherto neglected academic standards in colleges and universities abandoned to the whims and fancies of grossly unqualified educrats in state governments, has been well received in academia. "UGC is engineering some structural changes in keeping with the temper of the times and is graduating from a mere grant dispensing into a monitoring agency. More changes are in the offing and this is a healthy development for Indian education. It has made the tough NET (National Eligibility Test) compulsory for teachers which will force continuous education upon faculties and rise standards of teaching. Likewise its well thought out junior research fellow scheme has benefited many talented students and its drive for college autonomy has also been widely welcomed," says Prof. J.L. Gupta principal of the highly rated Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi and vice president of the Delhi University Principals Association.

Likewise Dr. Frazer Mascarenhas principal of Mumbai’s top-rung mainly state-government funded St. Xavier’s College, is pleased with the newly emergent avatar of UGC. "We interact with UGC on three fronts. First the commission issues academic and administrative guidelines for all universities to follow which facilitates our relationship with the University of Mumbai. Secondly it provides us with emergency central funding for capital expenditure and research. And thirdly it has promoted NAAC which pushes us to constantly raise academic standards," says Mascarenhas.

The upshot of UGC's new initiatives beyond its funds dispensation function has won it the approbation even of the new genre of self-financed private sector universities. "Though we are a wholly self-financed and financially independent deemed university, we are obliged to follow the infrastructure and capacity norms of UGC. Moreover all our syllabuses, study courses, new projects and twinning programmes such as the Manipal-Melakka Medical College in Malaysia, have to be approved and cleared by the commission. Of late UGC has become very responsive and efficient in clearing projects and granting approvals, often with valuable and constructive suggestions. Our relationship with UGC is cordial and we look forward to greater value-added interaction with the commission," says Dr. H.S. Ballal vice chancellor of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE, which also concluded the celebration of its golden jubilee year in 2003) which over the past half century has built itself a sterling reputation for the quality of professional (medical and engineering) education it dispenses.

Inevitably UGC has its critics. Some of them accuse it of excessive standardisation which ignores the special character of each higher education institution. Others believe that it doesn’t maintain sufficient distance from the Union ministry of human resource development which funds it and that its top brass has been only too willing to do the bidding of Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, the whimsical minister of HRD. Yet others particularly of the Left, believe that UGC is complicit in a vast conspiracy to wholly privatise all institutions of higher education. "Under the guise of liberalisation, vital sectors of the economy like education, water supply, energy and health are earmarked for privatisation. To this end all agencies of government including UGC and the HRD ministry are working towards eroding and dismantling the education system by depriving them of vital inputs and promoting intentional decay. The prime objective is to ensure the higher education system crumbles so that privatisation is facilitated," says Delhi-based environmentalist and social activist Vandana Shiva.

Such criticism by leftists and selfish teachers unions of institutions such as UGC and its subsidiary NAAC among others which are even if belatedly, beginning to address the deep-rooted problems of higher education, assumes the system isn’t already crumbling. Yet the growing number of students fleeing abroad, rising graduate unemployment and scams and scandals in academia are indicators that UGC’s reform agenda is vitally necessary and overdue.

"Though currently the emphasis within UGC is to upgrade the quality of education being delivered by India’s 15,600 colleges and 311 universities, it’s also important to remember that only 6 percent of the nation’s youth in the age group 18-23 enters the tertiary education system. This percentage has to rise to at least 10 percent by 2007 if the country is to maintain a 7 percent annual rate of economic growth. Therefore our effort is not only to raise quality standards in higher education but to simultaneously continue to expand the higher education system," says Dr. Pankaj Mittal a maths and statistics alumna of Delhi University and currently joint secretary (policy formulation, budgeting and planning) in UGC.

With government and public sentiment having swung in favour of repairing the nation’s primary and secondary government schools which are in a pathetic condition, additional outlays for higher education, already down to 8-9 percent of the annual education expenditure, are likely to prove hard to come by. But in keeping with the technical temper of current times, the UGC leadership has drawn up an ambitious plan to expand the reach of the higher education system through a technology-intensive distance education programme.

One of the most ambitious programmes is the establishment of the UGC Information Network. This network which has a 8 mbps backbone will connect every university campus across the country. In addition 16 digital mirror sites have been created within the backbone of the UGC Information Network.
"One of our most novel and ambitious programmes is the establishment of the UGC Information Network. This network which has a 8 mbps backbone will connect every university campus across the country. In addition 16 digital mirror sites have been created within the backbone of the UGC Information Network. These mirror sites will be digital repositories to hold teaching and learning material, e-formatted research journals and support material for governance purposes. The usage of contemporary information and communication technologies in classrooms and laboratories is our strategy to expand the reach and infrastructure of the higher education system. Therefore the creation and maintenance of connectivity and bandwidth by colleges and universities during the Tenth Plan period will be fully subsidised by UGC. Our aim is to make information and study programmes freely accessible to students and teachers," says Dr. Arun Nigavekar chairman of the commission.

While it's easy to be sceptical about the efforts of bureaucrats who invariably tend to promise more than they deliver, there's no denying that there's a palpable current of purposive energy coursing through the nondescript corridors of UGC's five-storey headquarters in New Delhi. With the commission's top brass anticipating foreign competition for India's colleges and universities under GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) in the near future, it is making a determined effort to upgrade academic standards in the country's colleges and universities through its subsidiary agency NAAC. Simultaneously it is lobbying hard within government for larger fund allocations to expand higher education capacity even as it is advising and incentivising universities to swell their non-government income streams.

Half a century after it started funding the massive expansion of post-independence India's much-envied higher education system, UGC is gearing to engineer a quality revolution within India's down-at-heel colleges and universities. It's a desperate and overdue initiative which has to succeed if shining India is ever to become a force to reckon with in the newly emergent globalised economy of the 21st century.