The Unwanted Makeover of India’s Higher Education

The UGC's planned replacement and the 'eminence' tag for Jio Institute form part of the shock and awe tactics by which the annihilation of Indian higher education is taking place.

The destruction of Nalanda University in 1193 is something that the Hindutva Right likes to talk about. But an equally consequential destruction of India’s university system is now underway. First, the government announced a new Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) in existence since 1956. This was followed by the unveiling of six ‘Institutes of Eminence’, including the non-existent Jio Institute promoted by Mukesh Ambani. Combined, they form part of the shock and awe tactics by which the annihilation of Indian higher education is taking place.

Imagine a situation where established universities like Oxford or Yale or Heidelberg are told their existing power to grant degrees will last only another three years till “further re-authorisation’. Their powers could be taken away at any point if they are in “wilful or continuous default” of “anything required” by the government. Errant presidents or vice chancellors could be jailed for three years. While all this may sound bizarre, this is precisely the scenario that the HECI proposes. While the UGC combined funding with regulation, the two are now to be separated. The ministry will directly fund higher education, while HECI will oversee “standards”, although any regulations it might frame for this purpose would require the “prior approval of the Central government”. Provisions laid down by the HECI will override all existing acts of parliament and state assemblies under which Indian universities have been established, including those like Delhi University which are almost a century old.

In the past, successive commissions on higher education, like the 1948-49 Radhakrishnan Commission, headed by the philosopher-statesman S. Radhakrishnan, and the 1966 Kothari Commission have highlighted autonomy from government as essential to university functioning, even if their wise words were not always followed in practice. The UGC, accordingly, made the pretence of framing regulations “in consultation” with universities, and at least 50% of its members were required to be from outside the government including from fields like agriculture and forestry, medicine and law. The HECI, on the other hand, will be dominated by government functionaries. Apart from a cursory nod to the teaching community by including two professors, HECI’s board will have a ‘doyen of industry’. By treating industry as the only stakeholder that matters, the government is clearly signalling its vision of education as a mere input for industry rather than a public good in itself.

The UGC, of course, was hardly perfect, and over the years, has suffered increasing authoritarian mission creep. It followed the standard Central government pattern, where all funds are released in February and must be spent by March. Go to any Indian university and you will find a dearth of conferences and research through the year and a glut in February. Direct funding from the government is only likely to make this worse.

One example of how UGC rules comes from Delhi University. In what can only be described as a permanent revolution against faculty and students, instructions are periodically issued to completely transform the curriculum and syllabi. From year to year, faculty don’t know what and who they will teach. These come with no explanation, usually just before the two-month summer vacation, and are to be implemented immediately.

In 2011, we were told to replace the annual exam system with a semester system (leading most departments to simply cut their courses into two), and in 2013 to frame interdisciplinary foundational courses for a four-year undergraduate programme instead of the long running three-year degree. The following year, after students and teachers protested, Delhi University went back to the three-year degree. In 2015, we were told to frame minor and major electives for a new choice based credit scheme (CBCS) at the undergraduate level. Model CBCS syllabi were to be followed by colleges across the country. In 2018, we are being told to design postgraduate programmes with 20 lecture hours per week to make up 80 credits instead of the existing 12-15 lecture hours and 64 credits. One wonders whether bureaucrats and ministers have actually attended college – or whether in the case of the former, they have simply gone through coaching classes. They evidently have no idea what an hour of lecturing involves – for the teachers who have to prepare and for students who sit through the class – and the fact that courses cannot simply be halved or doubled on demand.

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Arvind Panagariya, professor of economics at Columbia University and former chair of the NITI Aayog, one of the self-professed architects of the HECI Act, has described it as ‘pathbreaking legislation’. He has added, however, that the path to foreign private universities should be eased, and that higher education institutions which are not autonomous “may be allowed” to follow the curriculum set by autonomous universities.

This is astoundingly ignorant, since in principle, all universities have so far had the freedom to frame their own curriculum and syllabi. The granting of autonomy to an eminent few while instructing the rest to follow them (which is a problem with the CBCS as well) ignores the very different contexts in which universities work, the expertise of different faculties and the very purpose of having universities with face to face interactions between students and teachers rather than merely online courses.

When the HECI Act talks about ‘developing faculty-centric norms for governance’, it sounds ominous, coming from a government which, more than any other, has destroyed the norms regarding recruitment, student admissions and collective decision making developed by faculty over decades in leading universities like JNU.

The government of India’s obsession with making it into world rankings has completely warped its educational priorities. As Cedric Denis-Remis and Armand Hatchuel argue in the Paris Innovation Review, the world rankings have helped an oligarchy of a few big universities to become even bigger global players, with negative effects for the ecosystem as a whole:

“As for threats, we must also worry about the double penalty suffered by small countries whose universities are “killed” by the rankings – the best researchers, teachers and students will always prefer giants. Money will follow the same path, including public money: investments in local universities will be less and less profitable, less and less relevant, except in the case of hyper-specialization, with, in the case of research, global niche strategies at the expense of useful work for national development.”

Giving Rs 1,000 crore each to public institutes of eminence, while neglecting the basic needs of the vast majority of India’s higher education institutions, is a good example of misplaced priorities. As Ravish’s university series on NDTV shows, colleges across the country lack basic facilities – toilets, teachers, exams and equipment. India has 760 universities and 38,498 colleges. Of the approximately 31.56 million students, over 80% are enrolled in undergraduate programmes, and only 0.67% in research degrees. And despite the image of state control, 78% of colleges are privately managed. What is the government proposing for all these colleges and their students – other than the tight embrace of the HECI? By creating a hierarchy of eminent and non-eminent, autonomous and non-autonomous, the students of all our existing public colleges and universities are now being officially informed that they are children of a lesser God.

Even going by the single-minded goal of attaining a position in world rankings, government policies are so internally contradictory they are bound to fail. While it is evident that this government cares nothing about the humanities, by denying visas to Pakistanis for the Association of Asian Studies Conference held in Delhi in July, they have managed to alienate the entire body of humanists and social scientists working on South Asia. Even if hosted by the ever so eminent non-existent Jio, I don’t see any queues by international association to hold international conferences in India. Lynchings in the name of beef, racist attacks on African students, bans on books by Indian and foreign scholars, and frequent denunciations of students and teachers as anti-national are hardly the stuff on which university internationalisation is founded.

India’s higher education system needs rescuing for sure, but the question is who should fix it – politicians, the bureaucracy and industry, or the universities themselves, on the basis of actual autonomy and respect for academic freedom.

Nandini Sundar teaches sociology at Delhi University.