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Is Imposing Autonomy On Public Universities A Way To Stifle The Humanities?

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The University Grants Commission (UGC) in March 2018 granted (read imposed) ‘full autonomy’ to 62 higher educational institutions including JNU, BHU, AMU, TERI and UoH.

The effort was also to make some colleges under Delhi University autonomous including St. Stephens and Hindu College which was greeted with utmost shock and resistance.

On the UGC decision, DU professor Rina Ramdev said: “Astonishingly enough, the best public universities thus ‘automised’ are also the ones that have visibly courted controversies in the past few years and have invoked the wrath of legislators.”

Prakash Javadekar, the current HRD minister called the move ‘historic’. He said: “Today is a historic day for higher education in India. These quality institutions will get complete autonomy by which they can start new courses, new departments, new programmes, off campuses, skill courses, research parks, appoint foreign faculty, take foreign students, offer variable incentive packages, introduce online distance learning.”

Now let us try to break down what he said and what all of this entails.

Start New Courses

The effort is on starting more skill-based courses at the cost of cutting funds to humanities courses. Skill-based courses under Skill India may benefit a lot of students in getting vocational training and attaining jobs, which is a good step but the larger perspective focuses on imparting education of technical know-how to students so that they get ready for businesses, factories and companies as labour, as automatons who are rarely taught or encouraged to question and challenge authority and understand various power equations at play. This decision is likely to discourage Humanities and the disciplines thereof because humanities courses have time and again produced questioning, thinking individuals.

New Departments

The new departments will be those of professional, vocational skill-based training courses. The syllabus for such courses will be market-oriented which would encourage a corporate attitude to life and less awareness when it comes to socio-political, ideological, economic and cultural issues that need critical engagement. For example, English departments are told that there is more demand for language and writing skills than Literary Theory and Criticism which is frightening beyond measure.

Research Parks, Foreign Faculty, Foreign Students

These are all expensive pursuits. They’re coming at a time when the government’s subsidy and control on these public universities will be withdrawn. These costly pursuits can mean only one thing: autonomous universities will decide their own fee structure and that can lead to a hefty rise in fees, reducing or scrapping of reservations thereby making these universities accessible to only upper caste, upper-class students which is a terrible travesty of social justice and the right to education for all. Even students from the middle-class will have to take education loans, and if the gains after the degrees are not sufficient, the students will land in debt.

Foreign Investment

In the case of limited government subsidy and financial support, universities will have to find other ways of generating resources. This will include generating resources and accepting finances from companies who will then have a major say in what goes on these colleges. This might lead to direct private control over universities of companies who have been exploiting land, resources, displacing people, and taking away their only means of livelihood like the Vedanta University in Odisha.

Karien Gabriel and P.K Vijayan on their piece on Autonomy write, “‘Autonomy’, in fact, amounts to deregulation, and provides management with more untrammelled powers over their staff and students, leading to the complete de-politicisation of both. By ‘de-politicisation’, we mean the inability to either understand the source of (one’s) disempowerment and/or redress it, since the institutional mechanisms and the moral impulse behind these have been distorted or dismantled.”

The biggest question that needs to be asked is, if autonomy for the sake of the argument means excellence (as the government wants us to believe), who is this excellence for?

The beneficiaries ultimately are only the corporate sector and the ruling elite, who are pushing for this move for their vested interests and unfortunately education will not mean learning, questioning, creativity, inventing, researching and developing sympathetic sensitive human relations but will mean serving the interests of the ruling elite.

Image source: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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