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.
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.
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.
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 They’re coming at a time when the government’s subsidy and control on these public universities will be withdrawn.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.
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.