Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan looks to dust off draft bill on HECI

A single regulator for higher education, arguably the biggest and most needed reform for the sector, has yet to become a reality despite repeated promises to implement it.

That may be changing as newly appointed Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan is planning to move forward on the draft Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill, ET has learnt.

It was the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that talked of a single regulator for the higher education space to cut down on red tape. The BJP also promised it in its 2014 manifesto and declared plans for the same in 2018.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the National Democratic Alliance government’s intention to put in place the HECI in the 2019 budget and said in her 2021 budget that it would be implemented this year. The 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) had also underlined the urgent need for a single regulatory body for higher education instead of multiple authorities like the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

ET has learnt that meetings on the HECI Bill have once again been initiated and inter-state consultations may be lined up soon to build consensus before piloting it in Parliament.

In fact, most of the groundwork on the legislation had been completed last year itself.

The education ministry held many rounds of meetings through 2019-2020 to finetune the structure and framework of the HECI to align it with the NEP. The fine print has also been closely overhauled to avoid any political opposition.

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A reworked draft of the HECI Bill has, in fact, been ready for over a year and was even taken up for inter-ministerial consultations.

The composition of the 13-member HECI itself has been reworked in the draft Bill to make it more representative and reflective of an academic, rather than administrative, body, as critics had pointed out.

The plan was to take the reworked draft to the Union cabinet for approval and then to Parliament by the winter session of 2020.

The timeline, inexplicably, did not work out. Pradhan now plans to take it ahead, sources in the ministry said. The Bill could be the biggest reform measure under the Narendra Modi government with a potential to change the face of higher education.

It would eliminate all existing overlaps in jurisdiction of different regulatory authorities and do away with regulatory provisions that may no longer be relevant to India’s changed higher education scenario.

The HECI is envisaged as an overarching body with independent verticals for Accreditation (National Accreditation Council), Funding (Higher Education Grants Council), and Academic Standard Setting (General Education Council).

Significantly, the body also promises to pave the way for the entry of foreign universities into India through a special Clause 20(4) — another long-pending plan to draw in both Foreign Direct Investment and foreign varsities.

HECI’s ambit will be wide, ranging from setting up rules and regulations towards autonomy of institutions to ensuring inclusion and access for all, evaluation of institutions and even fining them or closing them down in case of violations or deficient performance.

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