Delhi University's Hindu College Resists New India's Higher Education Policy

The staff association of the college has alleged that the head of the college’s governing body misused his proximity to the PMO to attempt to secure “deemed to be university” status for the college without seeking the consent or mandate of its staff council and governing body.

New Delhi: Professors and students of Hindu College in the National Capital Region are agitating for the removal of key managing trustees and for the undergraduate college under the University of Delhi to be transformed into a “university-run” institute. The move comes little over a month after a meeting between stakeholders of the college and Union minister of human resource development Prakash Javadekar regarding “autonomous” status for the institute resulted in a deadlock.

On Tuesday, July 3, the Hindu College Staff Association (hereafter, the staff association) passed a motion unanimously, declaring “lack of confidence” in officiating principal Anju Srivastava and the head of the college’s governing body, S.N.P. Punj. A statement released by the staff association alleges that Punj, who heads the college’s 15-member governing body and is chairperson emeritus of Punj Lloyd Limited, misused his “proximity to the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]” to attempt to secure “deemed to be university” status for the college without seeking the consent or mandate of its staff council and governing body.

An 18-point resolution passed by the teachers’ body calls for Srivastava’s and Punj’s impeachment and for the college to be placed under the control of the University of Delhi. It demands greater representation for teachers and academics on the governing body, to have the Comptroller and Auditor General review the college’s financial records and for the threat of “disciplinary action” initiated against office bearers of the teachers’ union to be withdrawn. The staff association has decided to launch a dharna for seven working days while students are on leave for the summer to bring attention to its concerns over the future of the 117-year-old institution.

While the management has not responded to the demands raised in the resolution, it has issued “showcause notices” to two of the agitating professors for writing to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) regarding unsanctioned appointments and financial improprieties alleged to be made by the management over the last five years. A petition with signatures of 101 professors and over 600 students has been submitted to vice chancellor Yogesh Tyagi raising these concerns. The MHRD and the university’s authorities are yet to respond.

Questionnaires sent out to officiating principal Srivastava and chairperson Punj over text and email did not elicit a response.

Legal hurdles, workarounds

Like several colleges of similar size and repute under the University of Delhi, Hindu College is overseen by a governing body (an “educational or charitable trust” registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860) while 95% of its operational expenses are borne by the University Grants Commission (UGC) through “deficit maintenance grants”. The remaining sum is raised by the management from various sources, public and private.

This formula for public spending on the university’s “trust-run” colleges was affixed in 1993 on the basis of recommendations by the Justice Punnayya Committee on UGC Funding in Higher Education, shortly after the balance of payments crisis in 1991 and the consequent “liberalisation” of the Indian economy which led to the contraction of public spending on education.

The continuation of this financial arrangement between managing trusts of colleges and the Union government has become uncertain today, ever since the MHRD’s proposal to shut down the UGC was recently released for comments. The proposed legislation intends to do away with a nodal authority for academic, administrative and financial matters in higher education and install a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) which will take over the UGC’s role in accreditation and ranking of institutes while its financial powers are handed to the MHRD. Predictably, the announcement has led to fears of political interference in funding, administration and syllabus design being voiced by academics and students.

MHRD minister Prakash Javadekar. Credit: PTI

A slew of recent changes, including the decision to introduce “graded autonomy” for over 60 higher education institutes in March earlier this year and the approval of budgetary allocations for a “lender” to public colleges and universities called Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) last November, is in line with a vision of higher education set out in a policy document produced by the NITI Aayog in 2017. The government think-tank envisaged a hierarchised framework for higher educational institutes in the country with the degree of governmental regulation varying by tier –colleges belonging to the uppermost tier (such as Hindu College, as per the National Assessment and Accreditation Council’s ranking) were proposed to be deregulated to provide them the “freedom” needed to meet “global” standards and “compete for research projects from industry”. Doing away with the UGC and introducing legal safeguards for an institute’s position within the three-tiered hierarchy are part of this policy.

However, existing legal provisions have prevented such an overhaul. Those present at a meeting of stakeholders of Hindu College and its neighbour St. Stephen’s College (also under the University of Delhi) with the MHRD minister which took place on May 22, earlier this year, point out that the decision to grant “autonomous” status to the two colleges had been shelved at the time as it would require an amendment to be brought in to the Delhi University Act, 1922.

Clause 9A under Section 4 of the central Act mandates that the consent of the University of Delhi and the college slated for “autonomy” must be sought “in the manner specified by the [university’s] Academic Council”, an unlikely prospect given the current composition of the academic decision-making body.

Regarding the meeting with MHRD, Atul Gupta, associate professor of Commerce and one of the staff association’s office bearers handed “show cause notices” by the administration, said, “St. Stephen’s [College] and Hindu College escaped autonomy due to Clause 9A [of Section 4] in the Delhi University Act. The [Governing Body’s] chairperson’s nominee wanted to remove this clause to privatise the college as early as possible.” He alleges that the proposal to scrap the UGC would be a step in the same direction.

Section 26 of the draft Bill stipulates that it would have an “overriding effect” over any other law in force at the time of its enactment. In effect, getting the HEC up and running could bulldoze legal safeguards for the financial integrity of public colleges, such as those protected by the Delhi University Act, along with the UGC.

In short, having failed to enforce its vision of a hierarchised education system through the legislative route, the Union government seems to be pushing ahead by throttling institutes’ finances through the MHRD’s more overt intervention.

The case of Hindu College illustrates the role played by managing trusts of our public colleges in aiding the government on its path.

Secret meeting with the PMO

A Right to Information request filed with the Prime Minister’s Office has revealed that S.N.P. Punj, the chairperson of Hindu College’s governing body, had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years earlier to seek “deemed to be university” status for the institute, allegedly without the knowledge and consent of its staff council or governing body. The college administration has maintained that no such meeting ever took place.

A letter signed by Punj, dated August 5, 2016, is addressed to Tarun Bajaj, joint secretary to the prime minister. It refers to discussions held with the PMO previously and outlines a proposal for expanding the college’s operations once “deemed to be university” status was granted. The plans laid out in this letter are significant as they resemble several of the MHRD’s own proposals for top-ranking colleges under the “graded autonomy” scheme.

Punj’s letter suggests introducing new courses on a “self-financing basis”, that is, without any grants provided by the government, such as BSc in Hospitality Management, “BSc in Actuarial Sciences”, “BA in Financial Services” and for opening a new “School for Fashion and Designing”. As for how the courses would be structured, it recommends offering modular courses through a semester-system. The objective, as stated in the letter, would be to “stagger the physical demand for infrastructure” and maximise the number of students taken in every year.

The letter also proposes setting up a chain of colleges under the “banner” of Hindu College, that is, using the name and goodwill enjoyed by the institute. These colleges would be spread across states neighbouring the capital city and offer shorter “certificate or diploma” courses. While they would set their own “fee structure[s]”, subsidised land rates and funds for infrastructure and initial revenue expenses were sought from the government.

The staff association alleges that these steps would promote “market-driven” and application-based courses to the detriment of fundamental research in the sciences and humanities. Its statement concludes that Punj’s appeal for “deemed to be university” status was driven by “the rawest commercial motives” and not the purported objective of improving the institute’s quality of learning and research output.

At the university level, the letter recommends adopting standardised entrance tests, providing “financial autonomy” to managements, reserving 15% of seats to be filled at its discretion and providing faster approval for disciplinary actions taken. It advocates for removing the existing five-year-term limit for managing trustees and setting up a “forum with representatives of private managements” of different colleges under the University of Delhi. Notably, it claims that religious minority-run institutes are unfairly given a freer hand by the university.

Teachers allege that the letter takes a “prejudiced view” of the college staff. In the letter, Punj urges the prime minister to grant “deemed to be university” status to the college through executive order to steamroll any opposition that might arise from the University of Delhi or “other stakeholders [who] will put hurdles in the process” of expansion, presumably a reference to the college’s students, professors and non-teaching staff.

The staff association claims that the draft Bill proposed by the MHRD to introduce the HEC is “solely determined to get around the kind of ‘obstacles’ raised in Mr Punj’s proposal”. They warn that once passed in the next session of Parliament, this piece of legislation will potentially facilitate an “overnight change of status to hundreds of such institutions”, similar to Hindu College.

Sourya Majumder is an independent researcher.