March 30, 2014

Imbibing the Free Market Logic

Dr V Sivadasan

KERALA UNIVERSITY ORDINANCE 2013 "A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people." --- Jawaharlal Nehru THE United Democratic Front (UDF) government of Kerala, led by the Congress, recently issued an ordinance, titled the “University Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2013,” which is intended to give legal sanctity to an executive order giving autonomous status to 13 colleges across the state. It is a clear move to undermine the widely acclaimed model of public education of Kerala. The executive order for autonomous status was issued without any serious public debate and without taking the academic community into confidence, even as the government was prompt enough to hold discussions with big industrialists and corporate bodies. The present article examines the inherent dangers of the concept of autonomy and the threat it poses to the public education system in Kerala. UNFETTERED FREEDOM TO PRIVATE ENTREPRENEURS It is well known that, to its credit, Kerala has unique achievements in the education sector though there are many states that outshine Kerala in terms of domestic product and per capita income. In the education sector, Kerala stands far apart from other states. Starting from literacy to the level of university education, the state’s achievements have been impeccable. In the field of literacy, Tripura is the only state that outsmarts Kerala. Though autonomy is an attractive concept, its possibility has been manoeuvred by the Congress government in the most anti-people manner. The autonomous self-financing colleges, which it is seeking to promote, will be the last nail in the coffin of the society’s role in the education sector. In Kerala, the government and the government aided colleges have emerged as a result of the popular interventions, enabling the children of the common people to receive higher education through these educational institutions. From the annual budgets and expenditure statistics, it is evident that these educational institutions, whether aided or unaided, have the support of the public exchequer. On the other hand, while enjoying the financial aid, college managements are trying hard to commercialise the education sector. Despite this fact, however, these managements are now being offered autonomy on a silver platter. They are to be given a free hand to design the syllabus, collect fees and decide the criteria for admission. They are given unrestrained authority in setting the question papers, conducting examinations, organise the evaluation of answer sheets, and awarding degrees. The Congress government is encouraging private players who are thriving at the cost of our public education system. AUTHORITARIAN ACADEMIC GOVERNANCE The provisions of the abovementioned University Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2013 have been framed in accordance with the commercial interests of the private players in education, and include such strategies as to control the government colleges. The autonomy referred in the ordinance negatively is sure to affect the functioning and development of government colleges, and would also curtail the existing limited academic freedom in these colleges. This is evident from the structure of the governing body proposed by the ordinance for the government colleges. The ordinance says that “luminaries in education” would be appointed as the chairman of the governing bodies. But we have already seen the qualifications of the so called “luminaries” appointed so far as vice chancellors by the UDF government. The experts would be decided by government secretaries. In the absence of the chairman in a meeting of the governing council, it would be presided over by a bureaucrat who would, moreover, be a government nominee. The other members of the proposed governing bodies would include an official not below the rank of deputy director of collegiate education or joint secretary in the education department, three teachers with doctorate degree and nominated by the director of higher education, and a professor from the concerned university or college nominated by the vice chancellor. It would also include a representative from the University Grants Commission (UGC). Leaving all of these apart, the principal would be the only member from the concerned college. Further, the ordinance categorically says that the colleges, except the government ones, are bestowed with the power to constitute the governing body. There is no distinction between the aided and unaided colleges. The chairman of the governing body will be a nominee of the management. The governing body of such a college will include three teachers nominated by the manager, a nominee of the vice chancellor, a nominee of the government, and the principal. There will be no elected representation for the teachers and students. Instead, all will be selected through nomination. The members of the governing body will have a tenure of two years, but the management can re-nominate them for the next term also. The powers of these members are clearly mentioned in the ordinance. These include preparing the proposals for new courses, conducting exams and preparing results, fixing up fees in consultation with the government, and preparation of a calendar for arts and sports competitions. Apart from these, there is provision for conducting programmes which they feel to be appropriate. It would be no surprise if the college campuses are used for irrational religious activities. The case of a college in Gujarat that issued memos to the students who did not participate in a function attended by Narendra Modi may be noted in this context. QUALITY AT STAKE The domination of the management’s representatives in the governing council, board of studies and academic council of a college in future is thus evident. The rulers of Kerala are feigning ignorance about the criteria set by the managements in the appointment of teachers. These managements also put to shame the moneylender mafia in extracting money from the students’ families. Above all, some of the self-financing colleges have appointed principals who are not even eligible to become lecturers. There is no move on the part of the government to ensure that the teachers and non-teaching staffs in self-financing colleges have the requisite qualifications. The deterioration of quality, as a part of this process, will have serious repercussions in the field of medical and technical education. It is a fact that many well-known hospitals in Kerala are reluctant to appoint doctors graduating from some of the self-financed medical colleges. What is pertinent is to ask as to who will decide the syllabus in these institutions. In an autonomous institution, it is the representatives of the management who dominate the governing body that is responsible for preparing the syllabi. It is thus an irony that the people who hold unscientific beliefs are being given the responsibility of preparing the syllabi for physics and chemistry; there are ample examples of this kind. Chances are that such people may glorify the superstitions and social evils in these syllabi, while educational institutions should be the centres of secularism. Our constitution prohibits the use of religious and caste symbols in educational institutions and, in such a country, syllabi should not be prepared according to the whims and fancies of a particular community and religion, as this may destroy the constitutionally mandated secular values in education. At present, conducting an examination is the responsibility of the concerned university. But the government is trying to hand this responsibility over to the college managements in the name of autonomy. Examination is not just a process of collecting fees, setting question papers and evaluating the answers; it has got a creative aspect also. Examinations need to be transformed into an instrument to properly judge the knowledge of the students acquired through the learning process and to create an environment for the continuation of their education. But for the UDF government the slogan of autonomy is meant to make the examinations a source of money for private managements. It is noteworthy in this context that Bangalore University blacklisted 55 colleges accused of unethical practices in regard to examinations. As per the existing university rules, education minister is the pro-chancellor of the state universities. It places him above the vice chancellor according to the university protocol. In such a situation, what would be the sanctity of a committee formed in the university by the minister acting as the chairman? The autonomy approval committee is such a committee that would give the approval to autonomous colleges. What would be the effect of the dissent, if any, the vice chancellor offers against the proposals of this committee? Practically, the opinion of the universities will be immaterial, and the decision of the autonomy approval committee will be final. This is nothing but a tool to surpass the dissenting voices to the UDF’s implementation of its political agenda in universities. SUBVERTING SOCIAL JUSTICE, DEMOCRACY IN EDUCATION Up till now, children of the farmers or of SC, ST and other downtrodden people could get admission to the colleges in Kerala without much difficulty. This was because of the notion of development based on social equality and because of the joint intervention of the government and the people. But the decision to give autonomy to the colleges would disrupt the harmony of the social set-up in Kerala that was based, to a large extent, on the concept of social justice and equality. There are plenty of examples for the devastating effects of autonomy in our neighbouring states. Under the guise of self-financing colleges, private moneylender mafia, real estate mafias and other such groups are intruding into the education sector. They are entering the sector with the realisation that it is more profitable than private finance and real estate businesses. It is clear that money alone will be the criterion for admission to these autonomous institutions. While representation of students in all committees related to education is a necessity, the ordinance is out to completely deny even the existing opportunities to the students. This is evident in the case of the committees meant for framing the syllabi, boards of studies and governing bodies. The ordinance totally curtails the democratic freedom of students about extracurricular activities. There is no mention in the new rule that the elected student unions would oversee such activities. Some argue that autonomy has to be seen as an experiment. But the fact is that a majority of them are spokespersons of the autonomous private colleges. At present even universities are in a process of losing their autonomy. The central government is quite adamant about its orders and rulings that would ruin the federal character of education. No questions are being raised against it. The proponents of autonomy need to understand that autonomy is not a means to create an environment conducive for loot of money by some but as an opportunity for the creative engagement of students, teachers and educational experts NEO-LIBERALISM IN EDUCATION The stance of the central government is that universities should be controlled by a higher education council which, in turn, would be under the control of the Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). The autonomy of the universities is being hijacked through this process. What is being established in its place is the autonomy of the managements. The government is stepping back from its governance role and regulatory responsibilities. It is out to give the colleges limitless freedom to earn and spend money. This strategy of the government to retreat from the education sector is in line with the neo-liberal ideology of a “minimalistic state,” which forms the crux of globalisation. Numerous education experts and commissions have submitted their proposals to the government and the people. Allocating at least six percent of GDP for education is one of those proposals, and it was one of the important proposals made by the Kothari commission way back in 1968. The reason is that we need more and more of government colleges to ensure the availability of higher education for the needy and deprived, and that requires enhanced funding from the government. But the current deadlock in resource mobilisation for the education sector cannot be resolved even if we double the present level of expenditure. Yet the government is going the other way, trying to sabotage even the existing system by favouring privatisation and leaving the education of the poor at the mercy of big corporates. The government of Kerala’s University Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2013 is yet another example for the all-embracing neo-liberal ideology which the Congress governments have been pursuing for the last two decades. Education, perceived to be one of the primary obligations of the state, is being transferred to the realm of the free market. While Kerala, with its high literacy rate and achievements in higher education, stands apart from the rest of the country, the Congress government’s efforts are to annul these achievements. Lured by money, they view education as a business, even though we know that commercialisation leads to marginalisation of the poor. Our secular values in education are also at stake due to crass commercialisation of education. While curtailing the academic freedom in government colleges, the recent ordinance to give autonomy to colleges means unfettered freedom to private managements to mint money by making their own rules and regulations. Taking all these facts into account, the decision to grant autonomy means denial of education to the poor and subvert Kerala’s achievements in education. This can only widen the gap between the rich and the poor in education; the education sector in Kerala is sure to get divided on the basis of quality education for the rich and indifferent education for the poor. The politics of the recent Kerala ordinance has to be debated in this very context.