What started as a glimmer in the eyes of the IIC-frequenting bureaucrat, the industrialist with profit-making dreams and the politician with an obscenely large government house in Lutyens’ Delhi is now a raging reality. Pick up any newspaper or magazine and check out the number of advertisements for private universities. Do a Google search for the latest news reports on committees on higher education. If you have the time and patience, go through all the government documents on higher education in the past 8 to 9 years, almost neatly coinciding with the exit of Arjun Singh as Human Resources Minister and the entry of Kapil Sibal. Speaking of Mr. Sibal, if his cheerfully unapologetic blundering on the 2G scam is anything to go by, we should have an idea of the kind of subtle and layered approach he has in mind when he spoke of ‘reforming the education system.’
So why do we need a subtle and layered approach one may ask. Isn’t there an utter rot in higher education? Simple answer, NO. The very fact that you as a reader are able to read and understand what I’m saying here is in all likelihood because you went to college in India. We MUST ask why the Indian Government now feels the need to launch a full-scale attack on everything that had existed in the past in terms of higher education. Why must the very system that produced the policy makers of the UGC and the HRD, not to mention the armies of workers and CEOs in the private sector wait for death by a thousand cuts? Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe teachers should have never produced bureaucrats and industrialists. We are participating in a system that is so deeply hierarchical that it is used to kicking away the ladder it climbed on. Further, as a nation, we are increasingly habituated to disregarding our past, even hating it and feeling ashamed of it in some twisted Freudian way. Everything that is associated with our childhood, with the culture of scarcity and indigenous invention we are so familiar with, must be destroyed without ceremony or sentimentality. That includes the simple school desk, the adored teacher and the opportunity for epiphany in the midst of a revered, slightly mysterious process called education. There is a whole battery of experts and leaders, captains of industry and lieutenant colonels of bureaucracy that have lined up to tell us that to be attached anything ‘less’ than ‘global standards’ is laughable, pathetic. But I’m being deliberately obtuse and psychoanalytical here perhaps, because, indeed the reasons are quite simple. MONEY. Let’s make no mistake; the new universities are for those who can afford them. If the fee of a certain ‘partially-funded’ University in Delhi is a rough indication, we can expect fees in the range of 16,000-30,000 rupees per student, per semester. For an Arts Course!
Among the ‘freedoms’ recommended for the new autonomous institutions is the right to appoint faculty from anywhere ‘irrespective of citizenship’, decide on what fees to be charged from students, invite distinguished faculty from any part of the world to receive honorary doctorates etc. and in general evolve into institutions of ‘higher global excellence’ (whatever that means!). The autonomous institutions will be subject to a “comprehensive review of their functioning once in 10 years by an External Peer Review Board (EPRB), to be constituted by the HRD Ministry from a large panel comprising eminent educationists, scientists, public figures and stalwarts from industry, living in India or abroad.” Apart from wanting to bring in ‘stalwarts from industry’ (What’s their claim to superior judgment in educational matters? Producing wealth?), the report also seems obsessed with ‘academics from abroad’ – why the eagerness to pave the way for appointment of foreign faculty, instead of for instance, investing in faculty development for those living and teaching here? Oh, I forgot – we have been deemed worthless in the brave new world. Our teaching smells of rice and dal.
Given the staggering range of problems that have been and will be activated by the ongoing process of privatisation we need a massive debate at all levels, and a promise of transparency from the authorities about the actual logistics of this process, plus the democratic right to protest and oppose measures where necessary. Instead, what we have is breathtaking pig-headedness, subterfuge, intimidation and strong-arm tactics by authorities. A culture of fear or apathy is being carefully put into place among university teachers, so that even if some feel the need to speak up against some of the obviously destructive or asinine new policies, they are isolated and branded as trouble-makers. In short, apart from the sweeping change in the nature of academics itself, the university system is being sought to be remoulded in the image of the private sector – with silent, atomised workers, bitchy and competitive towards each other, perfectly docile and obedient towards management. The system of teacher evaluation and the recent HC order against striking teachers from Kalindi College are all steps towards the breakup of the one space of dissent and thought that has existed within the system of education in this country, school teachers having already been rendered toothless by their utter devaluation. I and others have spoken earlier about this and related issues.
I want to place excerpts from a few emails circulating among the university teaching community on the struggle against the semester system in order to give wider readers a sense of the actual turmoil within the University system today (unlike the Disney version given by newspapers and television channels), as well as to pay homage to the courage of the hundreds of colleagues all over the country standing up against the dishonesty and hubris of the authorities, holding authorities to account to the most basic of democratic norms evolved over decades within the university system. Before I do so however, I want to address a common response to the privatisation of higher education. This is that we don’t need to get our panties all in a twist because the best laid plans of the HRD, UGC, NKC and sundry other committees and university authorities are doomed to fail. The sheer scale of the enterprise and the short-sightedness of the authorities will ensure that nothing close to the ambitious nature of these plans will succeed. Fair enough, and this is in all likelihood going to happen. My worry is what half-baked monster will be created in the process. The Sixth Pay Commission has already linked promotion of teachers to performance in a ridiculous point system that has been widely critiqued, but it has not been revoked. We can expect it to be used as a whip to silence teachers and to reward a range of extra-curricular behaviours – something that has already begun to happen. The exponentially high student fees even for humanities and arts courses are a reality in several universities (you can multiply that by a figure of x to get a sense of the fees for science and commerce courses, not to mention professional courses). The battle for the semester system has been so fierce that University authorities posted police outside the room where the English Department was holding a GBM on the issue, plus a new practice of taking down names of dissenters (for future punitive action?) has been inaugurated.
It’s war out there, and the war is about privatization, making education accessible only to those who can afford it, and breaking up one of the more successful white collar unions in the country.
Santosh has completed his graduation from GITAM Institute of Technology, Visakhapatnam and currently working at Tata Consultancy Services. He is passionate about bringing change in quality of Education. His other interests include dancing, badminton, cooking, and music.