Higher education has always been limited to only a few in this country and the recent policy moves by the Government has increased the threat of education becoming more exclusive. The threat loomed on primary education first and now has moved onto higher education. Large number of young people in India, who depended on Government run or aided colleges and Universities for affordable and decent education, might be soon thrown out of the system, as Government announces plans for major fund cut in higher education.
This is being done in the name of what the Government of India is calling as grant of ‘Autonomy’ to institutions of Higher Education. Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, on March 20, announced a plan for granting autonomy in the sphere of Higher Education. The Regulations were declared earlier in February, as Gazette Notification titled ‘UGC (Categorization of Universities for Grant of Graded Autonomy) Regulations 2018’. 62 institutions, including 5 Central Universities, 21 State Universities, 24 Deemed Universities, among others, have been announced ‘autonomous’.
The Regulation divides colleges and Universities into different categories depending upon their national ranking. Category I are institutions with higher ranks. As the ranks drop, colleges successively keep coming under Category 2 or Category 3. These categories are primarily gradations for providing different schemes and extent of financial autonomy to be given to public funded or deemed colleges and Universities. Depending upon their Categories, colleges have been asked to start either their own programmes, introduce self-finance courses, research parks, distance education courses, own admission process, fess structure, and freedom to fix fees for courses at the level of the institution. As per the Regulations, new courses should be opened so far as ‘no demand for funds is made on the Government’. In other words, in the name of ‘autonomy’, public funded colleges and Universities have been asked to raise their own money.
While universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Banaras Hindu University(BHU), Aligarh Muslim University(AMU), Jadavpur University, Hyderabad Central University(HCU), Kurukshetra University, English and Foreign Language University(EFLU) , Pune University, and several others have been enlisted in the list of proposed ‘Autonomous’ institutions, several other colleges and Universities have also been engulfed into the fold. Though Delhi University is not yet enlisted, it too has been asked to follow a 70:30 formula, where it has to raise 30 percent of fund on its own.
This indicates a huge restructuring of higher education system in India, where a substantial section of the youth depends on public funded colleges and Universities, withdrawal of Government from such funding and asking colleges to self-finance, raise their own funds, could directly mean increase in fees, and shrinking opportunity for affordable public education for the masses.
The ‘Autonomy’ move is part of the larger scheme cutting down the budget and reducing public spending on education by the Government of India. While the demand might have been a desired allocation of at least 10 percent of the budget on public education, it has come down to a 3.48 percent of the budget. According to Comptroller Auditor General(CAG) reports, total collection of Rs 83,497 crore, collected as tax under Secondary and Higher Education Cess, during 2006-2007 to 2016-2017, remains unspent. Public spending on education is becoming less that 1 percent of the Gross National Income.
Withdrawal of Government spending on education paves the way for more private players, Corporates, to invest and intervene in education. This would make higher education more and more costly, more introduction of high cost courses, loans, and job bondage and liabilities, even within the sector of public education. As it is, more than half of higher education is already privatized. According to All India Survey on Higher Education, 2016-17, more than 67 percent students in India and 77 percent colleges are in the private sector. The 2016 T.S.R. Subramanian Committee Report on the New Education Policy pointed out that between 2000 and 2015, six new colleges set up every day in India are mostly private. The new policy on financial ‘autonomy’ is only a boost in that direction, where even Government colleges would be asked to act like ‘private’ bodies.
The attack we are under is two-fold. On one hand the state has been trying to undo the public character of the university as it emerged in the decades following independence. The public character implies a commitment to provide good quality education at low cost to people and to create such knowledge that will enable the greater good of society. Not just the present regime even previous Governments from UPA-II to BJP led NDA Governments have consistently reduced fund allocations for higher education.
The second point of attack targets a specific aspect of the public university: its recently diversified demography. Numerous struggles have been waged over decades by historically marginalised sections – women, Dalits, the poor and the working classes – for inclusion in education. These struggles have shaped the ‘public’ nature of the institutions, culminated in the 2000s in various forms of affirmative action including reservations and scholarships. It has enabled the youth in India to minimally imagine a seat in a pubic college and seek affordable education in the fast-growing pool of private colleges with their hefty course fees, big security deposits, followed by uncertainties of employment. Once included, they have rightly started using the college and university space to articulate more egalitarian political futures and have challenged the order which keeps education as the preserve of the few and the privileged. They have resisted privatisation of education citing high fees and the lack of affirmative action in the private sector. But they have invited the wrath of the present Government. The recent plans towards re-structuring of higher education, the policy on autonomy and self-finance colleges and courses being part of it, is a direct attack on this ‘public’ vision of education.
As it is, among the highly accredited colleges and Universities, most of which now find their way into the list of ‘Autonomous’ institutions, many have been pushed towards closing in with global markets and Corporate designs. Already existing (knowledge) networks of Corporate publishers, journals, pay and use portals, dominate and set standards of output for our higher education system. The knowledge we create derives heavily from ideas that exist in the English language and circulate in the form of over-priced books that few can access. The act of creating knowledge itself is reduced to one’s ability to withstand deep alienation, in addition to the agility in operating trans-national conference and journal circuits. In fact it is the success of universities like JNU and Tata Institute of Social Sciences(TISS) in toeing this line that makes them powerful brands – the centres of excellence that the global market is looking to create.
As policies of autonomy and increasing privatization roll out, not just our struggles in any individual campus or college or University, our determination to creatively re-imagine public education awaits us.
The declaration on ‘Autonomy’ comes along with arguments on ‘freedom’, ‘reputation’ and ‘quality’ in higher education institutions, as Minister Javadekar claims the emphasis is on ‘linking autonomy with quality’. What would this quality entail? The Government wants these institutions to start newer courses in order to strive for excellence and reputation, provided, they do not ask for grants from the Government. If the Government withdraws, and such courses are still floated, and becomes medium for institutions to generate their own funds, then who pays? If the Government stands aloof, either the private enterprises come in or students pay. As rightly put by the Minister, this proposal of ‘Autonomy’ takes ahead the vision of ‘liberalised regulatory regime of PM Modi’. The question is whether the young and the poor students in India – standing in long queues for admission in some or the other institute, looking for some decent and affordable education and employment – stand liberated in this vision of ‘autonomy’ and self financing?