'Autonomy' for Universities: Government's Move To Privatise is Exclusionary

While the government claims that autonomy gives greater academic freedom and allows universities to innovate, students and teachers argue that the Graded Autonomy Regulation ensures disproportionate financial and managerial powers to managing trusts and university administrations to cut costs, raise student fees, and start courses in the self-financing mode. This NITI Aayog-prompted policy is a decisive move towards the privatisation of higher education, and will mean the exclusion of economically and socially disadvantaged sections. 

When the history of public-funded higher education in India comes to be written from the viewpoint of its increasingly beleaguered and vulnerable people 20 March 2018 will be remembered as a black day. Union Minister for Human Resources Development Prakash Javadekar, however, has chosen to describe it as a “historic day.” For it is the day on which the Government of India chose to override all earlier statutory academic and administrative autonomy given to 52 universities and eight colleges through their founding legislations, and introduced new but spurious financial and managerial autonomy, thus freeing these institutions from rules and standards that had hitherto enforced a modicum of public accountability. These 60 institutions presently constitute the grey area along the edges of the critical public–private divide in Indian higher education. These institutions continue to receive public funds for the time being, but are soon expected to implement a revenue-generation model that will force them to increasingly operate as commercial entities and generate their own funds for maintenance and expansion. This slow-burn privatisation will, however, have a rapid and adverse effect on student fees, student–teacher ratios, the nature of administration and decision-making, and the content and quality of new courses and degree programmes that these institutions introduce.

The Devil Is in the Detail

Lest the word “privatisation” suggests a measure of academic liberty, the government has prepared a script to ensure that the entire process is guided through by bureaucrats and financial advisors. This script is the University Grants Commission’s (or UGC) Graded Autonomy Regulation (GAR) (notified through the union gazette, 12 February 2018). It asks institutions to fund their own study programmes, establish their own variable emoluments and incentive structures for faculty and office staff, devise their own service conditions for faculty and staff, and recommends collaboration with other high-ranked institutions, both national and foreign. But it does not insist on any qualitative or quantitative inputs that will ensure equity, access, and quality in the education provided.

The regulation introduces a three-tiered system of graded autonomy for universities and colleges, based on their National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) scores and ranks. For Tier-I (universities and colleges with a NAAC score of 3.51 and above), it insists that all new courses, degree programmes, and centres will have to be run in a self-financing mode. It gives freedom (not needing UGC’s approval) to such institutions to charge fees at will and “open constituent units/off-campus centres within its geographical jurisdiction, without the approval of the UGC, provided it is able to arrange both recurring and non-recurring revenue sources and does not need any assistance for the same from the UGC or the Government” (clause 4.3 of “Dimensions of Autonomy for Category-I Universities” in Part III, section 4 of the The Gazette of India: Extraordinary Notification, 12 February 2018). Additionally, it recommends heavy and intensive use of digital information and communication technology (ICT) to enrol, teach, and evaluate students. Massive online courses (MOOCs) developed by the SWAYAM portal are recommended. The regulation recommends that up to 20% of the faculty may be contracted foreign faculty with variable pay and incentives, however, the resources for this variable pay and incentives have to be generated by the institutions themselves. Similarly, it recommends that up to 20% of student seats may be reserved for foreign students who are expected to benefit from the credit-transfer mechanism. For Tier-II institutions (NAAC score of 3.26 and above, up to 3.50), much of the same is repeated; the only exception is a required periodicity of peer review and assessment through an assessing agency approved by the UGC.

Autonomy as Privatisation

Those who are interested in enquiring into the health of the public-funded higher education sector must look at how the GAR works in tandem with other educational policy decisions being taken by the Narendra Modi government. The last four years’ budget announcements by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reveal a drastic reduction in public spending on education. Public spending on education has fallen to 3.71% of the total union budget in fiscal year 2017–18, compared to 4.68% in 2016–17. This must also be seen against the steady reduction in budgetary allocation from 6.15% of the budget (Rs1,10,351 crore out of total union nudget of Rs 17,94,891.96 crore) in 2014 when the National Democratic Alliance coalition came to power to a drastic cut, that is, Rs 79,685.95 crore (out of a total union budget of Rs 21,46,734.78 crore) in 2017–18.[1] Against this backdrop of fund cuts, the finance minister announced a new funding authority, Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) in collaboration with Canara Bank, shifting the earlier grants-based funding model for public-funded institutions to a new loan-based model. HEFA (established in May 2017) has been tasked with the authority of raising funds through public equity and investing them as loans given to higher educational institutions for infrastructural maintenance/upgradation and research facilities against sureties and accruals of equivalent value (land, buildings, receipts, etc) provided by the loan-seeking institutions. Hence, in order to access additional funding for infrastructure from the government, universities and colleges will now have to mortgage their assets to Escrow accounts operated by the Canara Bank under HEFA.

The government’s own policy think tank, NITI Aayog, has also charted out a course of privatisation for higher education in its NITI Aayog Action Agenda 2016–18. It advocates graded autonomy, loan-funding, self-financing, MOOCs-based assessment of institutions that look at the direct correlation between courses/degree programmes and the job market by referring to placement records. This model of assessment of institutions is slated to replace the earlier, input-based parameters that had allowed the government to enquire into the adequacy of classrooms and building infrastructure, library resources, laboratory infrastructure, faculty, student–teacher ratio, etc. In other words, instead of insisting on quality inputs, the government will allow institutions to be managed in an unencumbered fashion as long as the placement records are satisfactory.

Graded autonomy combines with loan-funding and the other NITI Aayog recommendations to introduce privatisation in all its four identifiable forms. They are, as Fazal Rizvi (2016) has enumerated for us, the following:

  • Privatisation as cost-sharing (public provision and private financing modality)
  • Privatisation through corporatisation of administration and application of business models
  • Privatisation through voucher system (market provision and state financing)
  • Privatisation through the emergence of a non-state education sector

Academic Fallout

The policy framework outlined will inevitably and rapidly lead to a commercialisation of curriculum and methods of dissemination. Modularisation of courses through the introduction of a semester system across undergraduate and postgraduate disciplines and a choice-based credit system with a “cafeteria approach” to courses have already been implemented across central and state universities. The impact of these changes has altered the quality of teaching–learning in fundamental ways. Students feel encouraged to choose courses that do not require great investment of time in study and library work. Applied courses are preferred over theoretical courses in the traditional sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Teachers constantly complain of reduced time for teaching and greater burden of evaluation and examinations. The direct pathway from classrooms to jobs in the corporate sector will mean that traditional disciplines that derive their roots from the epochs of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution will not be able to survive in a competitive scenario wherein they have to run against courses and modules that train students in job skills immediately required by the market. This will undermine the idea of education as a means to develop the critical-thinking skills and knowledge base to empower a democratic citizenry and enable progressive social transformation.

On the other hand, despite the Modi government’s emphasis on skill-based education, the economic slowdown and rising unemployment data suggest that very few students will become economic actors immediately after graduating. In a market where skills become periodically redundant and reskilling is required from time to time, it remains anybody’s guess as to how the nation seeks to reap the benefits of a “demographic dividend.” The devaluation of academics can lead to a medium- to long-term supply crisis in the education sector itself, considering the fact that a large number of postgraduates and research scholars feed the workforce in the education sector. Hence, such devaluation is a potential recipe for disaster, even when it is viewed through a purely market-oriented perspective.

Social Impact

The inevitable fee hikes (since student fees constitute the major portion of internal receipts for all educational institutions) will result in the exclusion of marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, particularly women and Dalit students coming from economically underprivileged families. The exponential increase in cost of higher education will push even students from middle-income families to fund their degrees through student loans. While this may be a clever ploy for extending the financial sector’s reach into the education sector, it will push students into early debt traps. It will impact their confidence levels, erode their ability to question the status quo, or creatively invest themselves in cultural activities and egalitarian social initiatives, make them more anxious about career opportunities, and encourage conformism. Higher education is an important aspiration among the economically weaker sections today, and India’s predominantly young population is its potential beneficiary. However, privatisation and commercialisation is an explosive recipe for dividing the youth and deepening the social fault lines of caste, gender, and religion that already exist.

Impact on the Teaching Community

Teachers have been hit hard by the cuts in public spending and the policy thrust towards commercialisation. Close to 60% of college and university teachers are currently employed on short-term contracts, that is, on guest or ad-hoc bases. They have no job security, no service and retirement benefits, no health coverage, and no study leave. In Delhi University alone, over 4,500 teachers constitute this community. They have been fighting for regularisation through permanent appointments for the last eight years. Despite a standing Delhi High Court order instructing the university administration to fill all advertised permanent positions within a year, the process of recruitment continues to drag on, without any substantial progress. In the last eight years, the UGC regulations on promotions have insisted on a skewed Academic Performance Index system of quantified performance indicators that has denied promotions to most teachers employed after 2000. Recently, the government tried to force central universities to agree to a 70:30 funding formula to meet the financial liabilities arising out of the 7th Pay Commission. This was done through an office memorandum issued by the Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance insisting that universities and colleges meet 30% of the revised expenditure. The government was forced to withdraw this office memorandum on 27 March 2018, after intense agitations by the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA). Even so, the same office memorandum continues to apply on the salaries and emoluments of the non-teaching staff. In 2016, the government had tried to tamper with the workload of teachers by increasing the direct-teaching hours per teacher to an unreasonable 18 hours and 20 hours per week for associate and assistant professors, respectively. If the stipulated direct-teaching hours had been implemented, more workload would have been absorbed among a far fewer number of teachers, leading to massive job losses. Yet again, a teachers’ movement spread over the hot months of May and June, spearheaded by the DUTA, had forced the government to withdraw the draconian regulation. An estimated 3,500 jobs were saved in Delhi University.

The new regulations governing the service conditions of teachers is under preparation; however, a draft circulated by the UGC shows that the government is keen on replacing a “maximum” limit for direct-teaching hours per week with a “minimum” limit, thereby allowing universities and colleges to strike down workload and reduce posts. MPhil and PhD increments have been withdrawn, leading to a grave disparity between the pay-structure of teachers and officers employed in group “A” services of the government.[2]

The government’s sustained hostility towards teachers will drive talent away from the profession. Meritorious students and research scholars are already being forced to seek jobs outside the public sector.

Ongoing Resistance

Prominent central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, and Central University of Jammu feature in the list of 60 institutions with which this drive for graded autonomy has begun. Apart from the continued academic and research excellence of these universities, it is noteworthy that their campuses have also been the sites of vigorous social movements, student activism against injustices, and critical solidarities between students’ and teachers’ unions. Along with the DUTA, the teachers’ and students’ unions of these universities have united under the banner of the Federation of Central Universities' Teachers' Associations (FEDCUTA) to build a broad-based movement against autonomy and privatisation. The national umbrella organisation of state universities and college teachers’ associations, the All India Federation of University & College Teachers' Organisations, has also pledged its support to this movement.

Autonomous medical colleges funded by the centre and state governments, and even private medical colleges wherein close to 300% fee hikes have crippled students and destabilised teaching–learning processes (for example, Shri Guru Ram Rai Institute of Medical and Health Sciences, Dehradun), are expected to join the movement soon. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences students’ union has also been continuously agitating against the authorities and the All India Council for Technical Education for callously allowing fee hikes that have affected students hailing from poor Other Backward Class families and Dalit households in rural Maharashtra, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh. While the immediate demands of students in professional colleges may vary in terms of the authorities they have to appeal to, unions are rapidly rallying around the FEDCUTA’s call to resist the overall policy framework in higher education. The FEDCUTA’s pointed demands are an unconditional withdrawal of the GAR and the suspension of HEFA’s activities pending widespread consultations with stakeholders and proper discussion in Parliament.

Students and teachers have realised that in order to reverse these policies in the longer run, the government must be compelled to withdraw its commitment of higher education as a tradable service to the World Trade Organization (WTO)–General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and other multilateral commercial treaties. To ensure this, public interest and pressure needs to be generated in order to force the government to recognise higher education and research as a public “merit-good” and bring it inside the ambit of the Right to Education Act.

The past week has shown that students are willing to forge spontaneous solidarity with teachers, participate in strikes and protest demonstrations called by the DUTA and the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association, and involve themselves in the public outreach programmes through which the unions seek to spread public awareness on the implications of the government’s policies of autonomy and privatisation. A sustained teacher–student unity is the sole basis on which an effective mass mobilisation of opinion against fund cuts and commercialisation of higher education can be achieved. The accomplishment of such an aim has critical importance, considering the waning fortunes of our democracy and the increasing subordination of the sovereign people’s collective interests to the economic policy diktats of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and WTO in the current climate of policy and politics.

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