The recent UGC move to grant autonomous status to 60 educational institutions has been hailed in various quarters. MHRD has praised it, and equated the move to grant autonomous status to universities with “new economic policies of 1991”. The new move has been hailed as a tectonic shift away from the archaic system, a eureka moment for universities. As per this new move, universities that have been granted autonomous status would now be in a position to launch new programs, design new syllabuses, decide their admission procedure, fee structure, enrol international students and faculty members.
When we talk about autonomy, it encompasses academic, administrative and financial autonomy. Academic autonomy is something which the universities have been craving for long, so it must be welcomed. However, the current move is not so much about academic freedom, i.e. teaching, learning and sharing of new ideas, it is more about giving financial and administrative freedom to educational institutions.
The government basically wants to shrug off its responsibility of funding public higher educational institutions. It is basically a step towards privatisation of higher education. The institutions which have been given autonomous status could now launch new courses, design their own syllabuses, open new campuses, enter into collaborations with foreign universities, as long as they are not asking the UGC for money.
Under the new guidelines, the government has devised a 70/30 formula whereby the central government would be bearing 70 percent of the total cost incurred after the 7th pay commission is implemented. The rest of the 30 percent would have to be borne by the university themselves. The government has already slashed down the budget for RUSA (Rashtriya Ucchtar Siksha Abhiyaan) from Rs 1300 crore to Rs 200 crore. The Rashtriya Ucchtar Siksha Abhiyaan is a centrally sponsored scheme which was initiated in 2013 and aimed to provide strategic funding to higher and technical institutions. India’s top research university, JNU saw a massive cut in MPhil and PhD seats. All these moves clearly signify the government’s intentions of withdrawing itself from playing an active role in the state of higher education in the country. Despite repeatedly reiterations by various commission’s on education, including the Kothari Commission, no government till date has spent six percent of the national income on education.
The freedom to launch new courses, collaborate with foreign universities, generate private funding, enrolling international students, the appointment of international faculty – all these moves look quite rosy, but there is a flip side to it as well. One needs to ponder on how all of the above-mentioned will be done.
All of the above could be done by promoting the ‘self-financing mode’ for new courses, hiking students’ fees, admitting more international students who in turn would be charged more tuition fees, asking teachers to take corporate consultancies, making tailored courses so that they are in consonance with the markets, etc. All these measures will take a toll on the much-cherished goals of the Indian education system – access, equity and quality.
Accessibility, equity and quality are dominant themes that reverberate whenever there’s a debate on policies on education in India.
Diversity and plurality are considered important qualities of any university. Universities are spaces where students of different cultures, communities, backgrounds and regions interact. The current UGC move would place these things on the backburner.
Currently, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education in India is 24.5 percent which is lesser than some of the developing countries. The previous government wanted to attain a GER of 30 percent by 2020. The current UGC move could prove to be a deterrent as it would discourage Indian students, especially from the marginalised sections to opt for higher education with increasing tuition fees. The current UGC move would also kill social diversity in public-funded institutions. The government has still not clearly spelt out how reservation policies would be implemented in these so-called ‘autonomous’ institutions.
The biggest defence that has been given in favour of ‘autonomy’ is quality. The question that needs to be asked, as put by Shorbori Puryakayastha on Quint, is: “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.”
It has been argued that quality of education would improve with the coming of foreign teachers as students would get global exposure. However, with the Foreign University Bill pending in the parliament, this move could be seen as a backdoor entry for foreign faculties who are not getting ‘tenured posts’ in their respective countries. A government which keeps on harping about nationalism, this moves seems very hypocritical because it will reduce the existing job pool for Indian academicians.
The move is likely to give a fillip to ‘Contractual Appointments’ instead of ‘Regular Appointments’. We have already seen how guest faculties and ad-hoc teachers are exploited. They have no job security, no increment policy. They are not even entitled to basic rights like ‘maternity leave’. This, in turn, would mean that the teaching profession would no more be considered a viable career option by the youth.
The current UGC move will force universities to reorient their courses in line with the demand of the market. The impact of the current move would be felt more over disciplines like social sciences, humanities and basic sciences, as these do not have a direct link with the market. But one needs to remember that these disciplines perform a very important purpose of creating a critical citizenry which is the lifeline of a democratic nation.
The crux of the matter hinges on what we think of education. If we think of it as a tradeable commodity, privatisation is not a problem, but if it is considered a public good, as a tool for social empowerment and to fight existing inequalities, then this move will prove to be a disaster in the long run. This move is going to dilute the very basic principles of accessibility, equity and quality. The current UGC move would prove detrimental to the two biggest stakeholders in any university – students and teachers.
The author is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies.