The HRD ministry’s directive to the UGC and the latter’s uncritical submission has raised concerns over the declining autonomy of institutions governing higher education in the country.
In a move that could invite widespread criticism from the academic community, the primary governing body of state-sponsored higher education, the University Grants Commission (UGC), has issued a circular to institutions asking them to join the government’s campaign for a cashless economy. The body issued a circular asking college and universities to award extra credits to students from December 12 for participating in the government’s drive.
The circular was issued following a directive from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Times of India reported. The circular specifically asks the students to educate the common man on different modes of digital payments.
The ministry claims that the directive is a part of the government’s Vittiya Saksharta Abhiyan (the financial education campaign). The human resource development minister Mahendra Nath Pandey told the Times of India in Lucknow that “India has 7.5 crore students. If we are able to mobilise two crore youth to train shopkeepers and those from older generation make payments online, we will make a difference in going digital and boosting our economy.”
He added that the ministry aims to create cashless campuses and the order is a step in that direction. All institutions have been instructed to ensure that credits are given to student volunteers of Vittiya Saksharta Abhiyan.
At a time when both the benefits and limitations of the government’s push for a cashless economy – following the controversial demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes – are being debated, the ministry’s directive to the UGC is being interpreted as a politically-partisan act.
Although the ministry oversees UGC’s functioning, many in the academia felt that the uncritical compliance of UGC has raised concerns over its institutional autonomy. The UGC, a statutory body, was built as an autonomous body to focus on improving and administering higher education in India, irrespective of the government’s orientation.
Therefore, the academics, which The Wire spoke to, said that by issuing the circular the UGC has overstepped its powers and that the administering body should concern itself only with educational matters and not with implementing government’s programmes.
Uma Gupta, a faculty member in Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women, said, “For months now, students have not been given their scholarships. Both the UGC and the HRD ministry has hardly taken any interest. Earlier this year, the government tried to stop the measly stipend they were getting for research. But agility shown by the UGC in this case only shows how the current government is ruling with an iron grip on higher education bodies.”
Some student groups have also raised objections to this move by the UGC. While many think that the UGC’s order to pull impressionable students into the campaign in unethical, some also felt that awarding extra credits for a political programme undermines knowledge.
Sucheta De, the president of the All India Students’ Association told The Wire,“The BJP government’s education policy is characterised by a clampdown on knowledge, research and autonomy of academic institutions. Smriti Irani’s departure from the ministry hasn’t changed matters much.”
“The latest direction by the ministry to academic institutions to give extra credits for promoting cashless economy is just another example of the blatant ways in which the central government has been pushing its own political agenda by misusing offices.”
She added that the government’s demonetisation decision has failed to gain public support and such orders reflect the desperation of the government.
“Black money jumla has now transformed into a rhetoric about the cashless economy. The office of MHRD is being used to push favourable opinion for the government. The cost, in this case, is freedom of knowledge creation and autonomy of academic institutions,” she said.