At a time when many campuses across India are on the boil, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced on March 20 the grant of autonomy to 60 higher education institutions including eight colleges.
These include central universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), state varsities such as Delhi University, Jadavpur University and Panjab University, and private institutions such as OP Jindal University.
“A liberalised regime in the education sector and autonomy would mean facilitating the quality of the Indian education,” Union minister for human resource development Prakash Javadekar stated, calling the decision “historic”.
In the first wave of “revamping” the education system, the institutions were given autonomy on the basis of performance parameters determined by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) score.
Colleges and varsities were divided into Type 1 and Type 2, with the former having an NAAC score of 3.5 and above, and the latter having a score of 3.26-3.5. The categorisation determines the degree of autonomy the institutions may enjoy.
What does ‘autonomy’ entail?
In simple terms, ‘autonomy’ would mean more freedom for institutes to start their own courses, create new syllabi, launch new research programmes, hire foreign faculty, enroll foreign students and give them incentive-based emoluments.
“Graded autonomy gives institutions the freedom to start new courses, new departments, off-campus centres, research parks, appoint foreign faculty, admit foreign students, pay variable incentive packages to their teachers and enter into academic collaboration with the top 500 universities of the world without seeking the UGC’s permission,” Javadekar told reporters.
So far so good. But here’s the problem. The move has already divided the academia.
Some are lauding the freedom institutes would get from UGC’s administrative hassles, but many others see it as a systemic crisis within higher education in India.
The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) holds the central government’s announcement as an “erosion of rights to get higher education”. Its president Rajib Ray has launched a petition against “privatisation of education” – a petition that garnered 13,000 signatures in a day.
Problem kya hai?
The protesting teachers and students, from JNU, DU and some other institutes, see the move as a step towards privatisation and commercialisation of public-funded institutes and government’s slow withdrawal from funding higher education. Public expenditure has already been slashed across the prestigious IITs, IIMs, TISS and some other institutes of learning.
Contrary to the government’s claims, the Centre’s move merely gives financial autonomy to managerial trusts and college administrations, which means they will be independent in determining the fee structure, previously regulated by the UGC.
There will be more financial pressure on the institutions, however, as they may just have to garner funds themselves to launch ambitious infrastructural or educational projects.
The Centre’s announcement also needs to be understood in the context of social justice. Once fee in an educational institution is hiked, it will adversely affect students from marginalised sections, who will be less able to afford expensive, privatised education.
“Moves like the 70:30 funding formula (whereby institutions are expected to generate at least 30 per cent of additional expenses on revision of salaries due to the 7th pay revision), the shift from grants to loan-based funding for infrastructure and expansion through the Higher Education Funding Agency and the push to introduce self-financing courses through the Autonomous College Scheme, forcing universities into graded autonomy whereby they will have the freedom to invite foreign faculty and introduce market-friendly courses are bound to have an escalating effect on the cost of education and bring down the quality,” Ray says in the petition.
The ‘autonomy’ move is also being viewed as one that can significantly affect diversity within university spaces, which may further shrink space for dissent. Writing on the autonomy move, DU professor Rina Ramdev comments: “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.”
Javadekar was quoted as saying by NDTV on Sunday: “The autonomy being granted to JNU and others is in no way a step towards privatisation of education as is being suggested by some quarters.”