May 31, 2015

Warning Bells for India’s Public Higher Education1


INDIA’S higher education is going through a tumultuous period. A series of hastened ‘reforms’ are putting the very foundations of our public higher education at the brink of collapse. In last November, UGC had sent guidelines forcing all universities to implement the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) from the 2015-16 academic session. It has now been followed by a ‘Make in UGC’ approach of preparing centralised syllabi for undergraduate courses, with universities being given just 20 percent deviation while preparing their own syllabi. These ‘model syllabi’ have only confirmed the apprehensions of students and teachers that CBCS is nothing but Delhi University’s now-scrapped FYUP in a three-year package, only at an all India scale. Most of these ‘model syllabi’ are exact copies of the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) syllabi, which were heavily diluted and loaded with sub-standard foundation courses.

CBCS isn’t the only danger lurking in front of our higher education. The Central Universities Bill (2013) seeks to erode the autonomy of the universities even further. It puts in place a model of ‘corporate university’ with ample room for privatisation and commercialisation allowed within the Act itself. It leaves no place for stakeholders in the decision-making bodies and denies even the basic democratic rights like distributing leaflets or pasting posters to the students.

Piecemeal Approach to

Academic Re-(de)-forms

It is important to understand that these various policy level changes are not discreet and independent of each other. Rather these are integral part of a piecemeal approach to academic reforms that is carefully being pushed over the last one decade or so.

There has been more or less continuity in the reports of various education commissions which have come during the erstwhile NDA regime or the decade of UPA regime. The Birla-Ambani report during the previous NDA regime argued for easing the entry for foreign educational institutions, student mobility based on credit transfer and ban of political activity on campuses, among others. Similarly, the National Knowledge Commission, headed by technocrat Sam Pitroda, pushed for semesterisation and CBCS during the UPA-I regime. The Gujarat government had pushed CBCS in the most systematic manner, with elaborate preparatory workshops starting way back in 2009-10. It should be not surprising hence that the current UGC document bears striking similarity with the Gujarat government’s document on CBCS.

One must keep in mind that the Indian government had agreed for ‘Market Access’ in ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’ to WTO way back in August 2005 as part of the Doha Round Trade Negotiations which started in 2001. These have not yet become ‘commitments’ as the trade negotiations could not be concluded for the last 10 years. But now with a fresh momentum in the negotiations, there are plans to expedite the process of the ongoing trade negotiations in WTO from the coming July and successfully conclude them in the ensuing Tenth Ministerial Conference to be held at Nairobi, Kenya from December 15 to 18 this very year. The ongoing policy level changes hence are clearly coupled with the sell-out to international finance capital.

Rashtriya Uchhtar Shiksha Abhiyaan (RUSA), which was introduced by the Congress-led UPA-II government and has been carried further by the BJP-led NDA government, demonstrates this piecemeal approach very clearly. It replaces the pre-existing multiple funding mechanisms with one centralised mechanism. The funding then is linked to a set of conditions failing which the institutions/states won’t be eligible to receive funds. These conditions include implementation of Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), semesterisation and compulsory accreditation among others. The same document makes it clear that the funding under RUSA will be norm based as well as performance based. This basically means that the state governments or universities won’t have any room to modify the system according to their specific conditions and all powers to determine their education are snatched away from them. Funding will be linked to performance of the institution based on set criteria (which would include student-teacher ratio, infrastructure, examination results etc.). This would effectively spiral into increasing the already existing inequalities. For example, let us consider St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and Rajendra Mishra College in Saharsa, Bihar. If funding is linked to accreditation, then St. Stephen’s College will continue getting more funds every year due to better ‘indicators’. Rajendra Mishra College, which needs more funds to enhance its infrastructure, will actually keep on getting less and lesser funds every year. Hence, this performance based approach to funding will actually widen the existing gulf. RUSA has provision to divert funds to even such institutions which do not fall under section 12B and 2(f) of the UGC Act. This translates into provision of diverting the public money (tax collected from the working class and other toiling sections) to fund the private institutions, which are anyways free to charge exorbitant fees.

Delhi University has been a laboratory of these reforms over the last 5-6 years. Semesterisation and FYUP were building blocks in this ‘reform’ agenda which ultimately sought to create a homogenised higher education system. Similar exercises were attempted at a smaller scale in Kerala and Tamil Nadu too. The experiences everywhere suggest that these measures far from achieving the stated goal of ‘removing the deficiencies plaguing the higher education system’  have gone on to accentuate them further. RUSA and other such recent ‘Tughlaqi farmaans’ from UGC have only expanded this process.

Semesterisation, CBCS or other such exercises, which seek to create a homogenous higher education system to ensure so-called ‘seamless mobility’, are not experiments limited just to our country. The entire European higher education system has undergone similar homogenisation exercise over the last decade or so under the Bologna reforms. Education ministers from 29 European countries met in Bologna in 1999 to sign the accord which ‘was designed to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher education qualifications’. This period has seen “violent imposition of a neo-liberal model of university education and the restriction of access to a more fortunate class whose membership is shrinking by the day.” Bologna process has seen withering of campus democracy, steep fee hike, changes in curriculum at the diktats of the big capital and ruthless repression of student movements.

The ruthlessness of the current processes and the experiences from across the globe suggest that these academic ‘reforms’ are intrinsically linked to the profit motives of the private and foreign capital. ‘Homogenous system’ and ‘seamless mobility’ are pre-requisite for this. Today our public universities and colleges are facing acute infrastructural crises with inadequate classrooms, poor student-teacher ratio, insufficient labs and libraries. The fee hikes, along with complete shirking of the colleges/universities from responsibilities like providing accommodation facilities to the outstation students, has meant that cost of higher education has risen exponentially in the last two decades, so as making education one of the biggest expenses of most of the families. This spate of reforms is going to completely weaken the teaching-learning process, ruin the public institutions and ultimately create space for aggressive proliferation of the private institutions.

The clamour for vocationalisation and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) among our policy makers, when seen along with the overall picture, demonstrates the higher education model which our ruling classes desire. With increasing privatisation, the specialised academic training will be possible only for those who will be able to shell out a hefty sum as fees while the majority of the students will have to undergo vocational courses and training through MOOC that can only prepare them for low-paid jobs. It is not incidental that many of the desired skills in the annual reports brought out by FICCI and CII, now find mention in UGC’s list of vocational courses.

The linkages between education and the requirements of the capital is nothing new. Neither is it something which is bad per se. But, what is being offered today in the name of skill development, is actually preparing students for low-paid jobs like data processing, without giving them lifelong skills like analytical skills and reasoning. Such an approach of ‘skill development’ based only on the immediate needs of technology, creates a situation wherein the young workers (current students) will be forced to go through a new series of skill training at a later stage, when their skills start to lag behind the technological advance. Hence, the current model of ‘skill development’ is actually a recipe of creating precarious labour force, with minimum social consciousness.

Brewing Protests

Resistance on campuses across the country has started brewing over the hastened implementation of these disastrous reforms. Teachers of Delhi University, who have had a historical role in shaping the teachers’ movement at national movement, are on the war path once again. Staff associations of 52 colleges, along with Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), have unanimously decided to oppose CBCS and the Central Universities Bill. Teachers across Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar and many other places have also expressed displeasure over the hastened reforms.

Students in Himachal Pradesh have been waging a brave battle for the last one year against the disastrous impact of RUSA, steep fee hike and ban of students’ union elections. The militant march to Vidhan Sabha on March 18 had seen unprecedented violence from police. Fourteen student activists were put behind bars under fabricated charges, five of whom got bail just a few days ago, after spending 52 days in jail. Similarly, the students in Assam were brutally lathi-charged when they were marching against the semester system and its disastrous academic consequences. In Delhi, students-teachers movement is again following the trajectory of the anti-FYUP protests two years ago.

The student community of the country is on the move. They are today facing forces which have come to power invoking nationalism, but are denying the opportunities of education to the youth of that very nation. The struggle against these policy offensives on higher education today has become intrinsically linked to the kind of education and employment opportunities that Indian youth will get; and for this very reason it doesn’t remain isolated to the colleges and universities.