Erosion of public universities' autonomy: Is education on the way to become a privilege in India?
How safe are our public universities for religious minorities and Dalits? How accessible are they for the underprivileged who have limited financial resources to support their education? These are some of the pressing questions that need to be urgently addressed.
“…There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India which runs deep,” said the National Knowledge Commission in its report to the nation (2006-2009). Lately, there seems to be an air of absolute disregard to the concerns regarding — access, equity and quality in our higher education system. Since this piece discusses the “privilege” aspect of education, it shall focus on the first two factors — access and equity.
In JNU, students and teachers alike have been resisting the UGC notification, unilaterally imposed by the JNU administration, fearing that it would drastically compromise the unique admission policy of the university, which is far more inclusive than what the notification purports. As per the last admission notice (which was put on hold after strong protests) numbers of M.Phil/PhD seats were to be brought down from 1,000 to just 194.
It is one of the many examples of state’s attempt to erode the autonomy of public universities by trumping the statutes establishing those institutes simply through inordinate notifications or circulars. By government’s own confession the UGC has failed to do justice with its mandate in the light of “massification of higher education”. The review committee (headed by former UGC chairperson Hari Gautam) has thus called for scrapping the regulatory body itself and has averred any reshaping or restructuring of the UGC or amending the UGC Act will be a futile exercise.
There are several other ancillary concerns regarding structural deprivation of vulnerable groups from higher education. Though we have been acknowledging them in our reports and recommendations, we still continue to take a completely distorted route towards our improvement.
The crisis of choice and finance
There is a growing concern that the present market economy is causing an acute devaluation of humanities as an academic currency, leading to what some call – “educational apartheid”. And this apartheid is not limited to India alone; it is the trend in many nations undergoing industrialisation. Placements, as we know them, come more from management and science streams than liberal arts or humanities. Much like British who consciously designed the educational policy of India to sustain their colonial project and create a class that helps in efficient administration of the state, our youth today is better trained to serve the interest of business enterprises (often MNCs) than any other entity. The element of critical thinking and realisation of their roles as individual social beings, potential entrepreneurs or leaders – unfortunately remain untapped. Nurturing hyper-specialised robot like humans compromises the future of post-industrialised Indian society, which would need people capable of “navigating cultural differences” and lead in an increasingly “interdependent, border-collapsing world.”
TISS is an interesting case study of this onslaught. In March 2017, TISS director S Parasuraman announced closure of three crucial UGC funded centre(s) — Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies and the Nodal Centre for Excellence under the Scheme of Human Rights, citing failure of UGC to release the fund for these centre(s). Also, recently the institute notified — it will not be providing any financial aid to SC/ST and OBC students (with family income below government norms). The reason cited was non-reimbursement of the cost borne by the institute by the central and state government despite “repeated requests”.
Therefore, we see exclusion happening at two levels — choice of courses and financial deprivation which is like — teaching the fish to climb the tree and simultaneously depriving her of water so that she can’t swim. As a ramification, angry, even violent student protests have become a common feature in Indian universities. In April this year, Panjab University saw massive protests against a meteoric annual fee hike, surpassing hundred percent in many courses. The demand was simple — to take back the arbitrary increment and not to pass the buck and debt onto the students who in all likelihood would not be able to bear it. Sedition charges were slapped on 66 protesting students for raising slogans against the MHRD, the UGC and the Panjab University administration. Those protesting for their right of affordable access to education became anti-nationals overnight.
TISS, PU and other educational institutes are symptomatic of the decay that has crept into our higher education system. When a socialist state like ours, starts failing to ensure affordable education and succumbs to market pressures, we must know that the very outlook towards the idea of education is changing. As a follow up to the recommendation under the National Education Policy 2016, an agency, recently rechristened as — Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA) has been approved to facilitate private investors push their loans in the higher education sector.
This is reminiscent of the Ambani Birla report titled 'A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education' submitted to the Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry on 24 April, 2000. It says firstly, we must fundamentally change our mindset of – “seeing education as a component of social development” and strive to become a “new information society”; secondly, education is “not a social expenditure” but an “investment” in India’s future; thirdly, the government should legislate a Private University Bill to encourage establishment of private universities especially for courses related to science and technology, management and finance; and finally, the foreign direct investment in education sector must be allowed.
For those with an eye, it is easy to read between the lines of these suggestions.
Language and identity induced bias
We have come off the age when Macaulay asserted - “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” and introduced English as a medium of instruction. Post-colonisation English has grown to be most widely spoken language in the world. Training our young minds in English is important to make them globally competitive but unfortunately, our system is still prejudiced towards socially underprivileged students belonging to villages where education is mostly imparted in vernacular medium. They find it difficult to cope with academic assignments because most of them are in English. This linguistic hegemony (which is not limited to universities) has become a source of denigration for those who cannot express themselves in English. Very few universities make arrangements for remedial classes and run courses for teaching the language but that too is a half-hearted formality in most cases — barring exceptions like JNU, which has a committed and well functioning linguistic empowerment cell.
Further religious minorities (especially Muslims) and those belonging to the SC/ST community face biases in our universities, which though not reflected on paper, but are present in the majoritarian mindset of different university administrations. In a 2013 MHRD report, it was pointed out that only 11 out of 100 Muslims in India take up higher education, which is dismal as compared to other communities. If we look at the overall composition of the student body, according to a survey — SC students constitute 12.2 percent, STs 4.4 percent and Muslims 3.9 percent of the total number.
Even when students belonging to these groups get into public universities, they are more vulnerable to discrimination than any other student. Najeeb Ahmad and Rohith Vemula are two extreme cases of such structural discrimination. Vemula’s scholarship at University of Hyderabad was illegally denied for seven months. He was thrown out of the hostel along with four other Dalit scholars and was asked to stay away from mess and other common areas, merely on the accusation that they attacked members of the ABVP. Humiliated and heartbroken, Vemula committed suicide writing down in his suicide note that he felt “just empty”. After that, the debate was not about what led to Vemula’s extreme step; rather it centered on questioning his very identity — whether he was a Dalit or an OBC? – So that the charges on the authorities can be cut down. And by the way, suspension of all four Dalit students was revoked after Vemula’s suicide.
Ahmad has been missing from his JNU hostel since 15 October, 2016. He was repeatedly assaulted by right wing ABVP activists immediately before his disappearance. The original report by the Proctor’s office recommended strict punishment for Ahmad’s assaulters. With his sensibilities or whatever, the vice-chancellor found it sufficiently strict — to transfer accused assaulters from their existing hostel to a ‘new’ hostel. Chief Proctor AP Dimri resigned because of alleged differences with the administration, fostered since he served a show cause notice to the ABVP members for violently beating Najeeb before he went missing. Like Vemula’s caste was made an issue to divert the attention from actual probe, The Times of India blunder (still available online) suggested that Ahmad, being a Muslim probably had connection with the IS. Judiciary, however, could see what the vice-chancellor, who is yet to find acceptance among students and teachers of JNU, couldn’t. While recently transferring the case to the CBI, the Delhi High Court bench comprising Justices GS Sistani and Rekha Palli noted — “If today it is Najeeb, tomorrow it could be anybody, just because he belongs to some other community or a political body.”
How safe are our public universities for religious minorities and Dalits? How accessible are they for the underprivileged who have limited financial resources to support their education? How supportive are they for non-English medium students? Should students only be groomed and encouraged to opt for market driven courses? Or should they be allowed to pursue their dreams based on their interest, talent and inner calling? What can be the degree of UGC’s intrusion in university autonomy? Or should there be a UGC intrusion in university autonomy at all?
These are some of the pressing questions that need to be urgently addressed.