MHRD’s Death Sentence for Affordable Higher Education – Autonomy
MHRD’s Death Sentence for Affordable Higher Education – Autonomy
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

MHRD’s Death Sentence for Affordable Higher Education – Autonomy

A week ago, the Minister of Human Resource Development, Prakash Javadekar granted autonomy to 62 institutions of higher education – five central universities, 21 state universities, 24 deemed universities, two private universities and 10 colleges.

In an interview to Hindustan Times, Javadekar said,

This is the first time the government is putting in money but still giving all control to the institute, be it the appointment of the chairman or the board of governors.

He also said that this autonomy will in no way affect the fee structure of the central universities that have been granted autonomy.

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What the MHRD’s Autonomy Means

The autonomy granted by the MHRD gives financial freedom to certain university and college administrations to introduce new skill courses, get foreign visiting faculty, “start a new course/programme/department/school/centre in disciplines that form a part of its existing academic framework without approval of the UGC, provided no demand for fund is made from the government.” These newer courses are to be funded by the institutions themselves, resulting in an obvious hike in the fee structure.

Further, under the new guidelines, for central universities, 70 percent of the differential amount after the 7th pay commission will be borne by the government. The remaining 30 percent will have to be provided for by the institution, implying a definitive hike in students’ fees.

For state universities, the case is worse, since only 50 percent of the differential amount will be assisted by the centre for a period of 39 months as opposed to the previous 80 percent assistance for 51 months. Since the pay commission is not binding on state universities, either it can opt out, or fire the ad-hocs, or even halt promotions altogether.

The primary factor behind the protests against this decision in the university spaces, that are taking place currently, is a hike in student fees in public institutions of higher education. Besides that, another disconcerting factor about granting autonomy is that it allows room for private investment in these institutions.

As per the UGC guidelines, “universities may open research parks, incubation centres, university society linkage centres, in self-financing mode, either on its own or in partnership with private partners, without approval of Commission”. By the virtue of which, even an Ambani can fund academic research.

Let's drill into what this autonomy actually means for the diversified masses who depend on public institutions for affordable higher education.

Also Read : UGC Grants Autonomy to 60 Educational Institutes – What This Means

The Terrible Repercussions of a Fee Hike

Education is not a matter of privilege if our livelihoods hinge on it. It is also the potential equaliser that can bridge the socio-economical, cultural gaps if wielded with the right intentions. Public schools and colleges are the only spaces that allow for affordable education for a diverse range of Indian population.

If in India the richest quintile accounts for 45 percent aggregate household disposable income, according to a 2016 survey, then it’s clear that the rich are fully capable of bearing the higher expenses of private education in the country or even abroad. However, it’s not the same case for the poorest quintile which earns barely 7 percent of the aggregate income pie.

The survey also showed that it’s not just the bottom feeders but also those in the middle (between the 20-80 percentiles of income distribution) that were lagging behind in primary education, let alone higher education.

Do all public institutions offer exemplary higher education? No, but neither do all private institutions guarantee the same. However, public institutions trump private ones on grounds of affordability and equality, as they do not cater to the affluent and middle class alone. Public education is the stairway for the less privileged to climb their way to equality through reservation policies, concession in fees or scholarships — something that private institutions don’t offer.

If the complaint is about failing infrastructure in state universities, it is necessary to introspect into the cause of such a decay before assuming that autonomy is the answer to it. Professor Debaditya Bhattacharya who has had the experience of teaching in both state and central universities explains that the problem is threefold.

Firstly, some central universities have been existing for far longer than state universities. They also exist with a history of liberal legacy. Secondly, most of the funds are at the centre. Only 60 percent of the funding for state universities come from Rashtriya Uchchatar Siksha Abhiyaan (RUSA) but the allotment varies depending on the state or UT. The amount of RUSA grants also depends on enrollment targets achieved by the state university.
Debaditya Bhattacharya, Professor

“ The problem is that a lot of states already have a deficit budget, so there’s always a shortage of funds in state universities and colleges. And with failing infrastructures they can’t meet the enrollment targets, which means that their RUSA grants will also be reduced. So it creates a vicious cycle. The third is that unlike most central universities, state universities have to deal with existing feudal structures,” he says.

With no funds pouring in from the Centre, the newly-minted autonomous colleges and universities will feel the pinch, likely resulting in hiring more teaching staff on a contractual basis. After all, contractual hires come with no strings attached – no pensions and no run-ins with the administration for academic rights such as improved library or classroom infrastructure.

“So as the students blame the colleges and colleges blame the students, the main actor that is the state is suddenly nowhere in the scene,” Prof Bhattacharya says.

Also Read : Delhi University Teachers Up in Arms Over Funding Policy, Autonomy

One research showed that the age group of 18-22 will constitute the majority of India’s population by 2025, at 119 million. Another report stated that the GDP devoted to higher education has only been on the downside, lower than some of the developing countries in Asia that are not economically better off than India.

If the assumption is that lesser expenditure indicates that the government is short of funds to ensure better quality and infrastructure in public institutions, forcing it to autonomise state and central universities, a report on The Wire debunks that myth.

Quoting a CAG report tabled in the parliament between 2016 and 2017, The Wire stated that, “...the entire tax collection of Rs 83,497 crore under the secondary and higher education cess (levied since 2006-07) lies unspent. Furthermore, a mere 7.73 percent of the taxpayers’ money accrued under the research and development cess (from 1996 to 2017) has been utilised thus far.”

Is the government hoping for an advancement in public institutions by granting them autonomy or washing its hands off its duties?

In fact, the government’s non-committal attitude towards education makes it look like a ploy to privatise education.

This assumption holds more weight since in 2000 the WTO made the decision to include education under the ambit of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) — which considers education to be a tradable commodity. That was the first step towards liberalisation of the higher education sector. In December 2015, India and other member countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) signed the ministerial agreement. It was proposed that since India has one of the world’s largest youth population, foreign funding would help in providing education but of course, it would be unregulated.

That means quality education will become synonymous to money. And yes, while US has given the world some of the best private institutions, it has also resulted in an enormous amount of unpaid student debt that runs into trillions of dollars.

The MHRD-granted autonomy is a part of this agenda of equalising education to any other service, which will work to the dictates of a profit-driven market thereby weaving all talks of equality into political rhetoric merely.

Autonomy May Mean More Administrative Bullying

As per the guidelines uploaded on the UGC website, the autonomy granted by the MHRD confers power in the institution’s administrative bureaucracy for “promoting and institutionalising excellence in higher education and that the regulatory framework needs to facilitate better-performing institutions towards excellence in higher education”.

Theoretically, the ability to modify the existing education model without the UGC's permission sounds ideal. But let us frankly admit that even without autonomy several universities have already shown themselves to be administrative bullies. So one is skeptical about how they may behave with autonomy.

Only this month, the administration in Jawaharlal Nehru University, (which is one of the institutions that has been been granted graded autonomy) vindictively removed at least seven deans and chairpersons of academic centres who had written to them against the new rules of mandatory attendance that were apparently passed by the Academic and the Executive Councils.

As Kavita Singh, the former dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU points out, even the VC’s own nominee to the Academic Council, Madhu Kishwar said the resolution on mandatory attendance wasn’t passed.

Another example would be how the administration of Benaras Hindu University, another institution recently granted graded autonomy, reacted to the molestation of one of its students in the campus in 2017. The student had alleged that her warden and the chief proctor shamed her for being out late at night when she went and complained against the molestation.

That’s not hard to believe considering the VC, Girish Chandra Tripathi was recorded on camera as saying, “By protesting, you have sold the girl’s (victim) pride in the market.”

What is the Autonomy that Institutions Actually Need

Between those who support this move and those who don’t, it is only the meaning of autonomy that differs.

The autonomy that the universities and colleges actually require is an academic autonomy to be able to have public engagement without being called anti-national or un-patriotic. This is the kind of autonomy that would allow for Ramjas to hold any seminar in the face of political adversaries or a students of JNU to question functioning of the state machinery. This type of autonomy, in fact, requires the curbing of administrative and political powers.

Research projects funded by private partners is bound to be industry-oriented and profit-driven which means liberal arts will take the first blows. Why would one invest in the liberal arts and the sciences if it doesn’t yield tangible “benefits” as the sciences do? In fact, with Japanese universities cutting humanities and social sciences in favour of 'practical' subjects since private funders came to the scene, will India follow suit?

Public institutions need to grant academic autonomy to students and professors to carry on with unbiased research projects. In other words, neither the government, nor any private partner should influence the academic content. The government's role here is to ensure that kind of autonomy. By including private investors into education, the government is trying to disown that responsibility.

Investors have the legal authority to take funding decisions based on profitability of research. When education becomes a part of trade, provisions of subsidies and scholarships can be termed as unfair trade practices. Moreover, there is lack of obligation to the most important stakeholders, ie. students.

If universities take after this model, the very source of this kind of questioning and counter-knowledge production will be directed to profits. So, the only time private funding can work is when there is one exceptional case of a benevolent investor, with no vested interests – if one had to wish the impossible.

Higher Education for Few or For All?

It comes down to a few basics at the end.

Higher fees or private funding isn’t the solution to improving quality. Some of the cheapest government institutions have guaranteed better education than some of the most expensive institutions in the country.

The government cannot be allowed to escape accountability of failing to upgrade certain institutions of higher education and use ‘failing quality’ as a pretext for privatising education. The Constitution guarantees the Right to Equality for people across all classes, which cannot be achieved by the mere utterance of the words. It needs a system that checks both quality and ensures affordability to all, without having profit-seeking stakeholders set an agenda. Granting autonomy is like taping a fractured wall, the weight of which will crush the common masses.

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