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Education is a basic right, but almost 60 per cent of higher education in India is privatised, and unaffordable for most. For democracy to be meaningful, education must be free for all so even the poorest can access it on equal terms, with special provisions such as reservation for marginalised sections. The bulk of government revenue comes from indirect taxes on what people buy—it’s their money and education is a tool for the poor among them to break out of poverty. The government, however, has been abdicating its responsibility of funding higher education. We are in the middle of a long battle against the designs of the government that has been steering public universities and colleges towards a self-financed model—an agenda being pushed across the world, and which, at least in many European countries, has been stalled to an extent by student protests.
The revised National Education Policy (NEP), unveiled last month, says the government won’a legislate or regulate anything related to higher education such as courses, student-teacher ratio, fee ceiling, teachers’ qualifications and service conditions. It seeks to achieve deregulation through centralised control—the HRD minister will head the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog that will make sure you deregulate fully! Every higher education institute will have a board of governors to decide everything, including how to handle dissent and which teachers to dismiss for speaking out of line. Two-thirds of its members will be government representatives and “public-spirited individuals” from outside the INStitute, who will likely be picked first by the Aayog, the only other overseeing body, to push a certain line in terms of course content, for example. Each institute also has to find a primary funder, whose representatives will no doubt intervene in deciding on courses, fees and service conditions to ensure a profitable business model.
The idea of higher education as a luxury to be paid for, which came in with globalisation, is at odds with the principles laid down in policies enunciated, for example, through the Dr S. Radhakrishnan Commission in 1948 and the Kothari Commission in 1964, which emphasised that public-funded higher education was the most important means of empowering citizens. No government has followed the Kothari Commission’s recommendation of setting aside at least 6 per cent of the Central budget for education, but fund cuts were sought to be imposed on higher education during the 1990s, when global corporate lobbies were forcing governments to withdraw funding from health and education, and hand these sectors to the market under the garb of “reform”.
A report on higher education by Mukesh Ambani and Kumaramangalam Birla, commisioned by the Vajpayee government and submitted in 2000, paved the way for the UGC Model Act—a blueprint for privatisation. In 2005, at a World Trade Organisation summit, the UPA government offered higher education as a commercial tradable service under the General Agreement on Trade and Services, committing to grant the same privileges and subsidies as any Indian entity to any public or private player from another signatory country that opens a university in India. No wonder we are being forced to lose our subsidies (grants), while public universities and colleges are turned into self-finan-cing institutions. Ministers and vice chancellors have been appointed on the basis of ability to implement this agenda by suppressing the resistance of students and teachers. The proposed regulations also have clauses prohibiting elected teachers unions and elected representation in all statutory bodies.
Since 2009, many deals were signed with the US to bring the universities under loan systems. The National Knowledge Commission outlined this agenda clearly with its recommendations on semester system, credit transfer, fee hikes, autonomous colleges, and private and foreign universities. Bills were introduced to give legislative teeth to these “reforms”, including the UGC’s dissolution. Intervention of teachers associations through all-party parliamentary standing committees stalled this, but the UPA government pushed the semester system, FYUP and private universities by executive order. Since 2014, the NDA government has followed up on these “reforms” with greater vigour and almost seamlessly, with graded autonomy, autonomous colleges, HEFA loans, fee hikes, etc—and now the NEP. It’s as if the agent has changed, but not the masters—the international corporate lobby!
As told to Salik Ahmad
The writer, a former president of the Delhi university teachers association, is professor at st stephen’s College, Delhi