Who’s Afraid of Public Education?

Much of the government's recent attack on university spaces has been part of a larger plan to privatise higher education.

In the ongoing ‘surgical strike’ – to invoke that aggressive and uncouth phrase popular in certain circles these days – on higher education and the public university, it is important to understand not only what has been happening in the past months but also what the larger implications of these drastic changes are. While my specific examples are drawn from my own university, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), these changes have far-reaching consequences for how we imagine rights, justice and citizenship in India. At the outset, let there be no more confusion about the agenda behind the ongoing changes. In principle, these are about privatising higher education – and the latest move in this direction is the human resource development ministry signing a deal with Canara Bank to set up something called the ‘Higher Education Financing Agency’ that will eventually hold financial powers, leaving the University Grants Commission (UGC) merely as a body that provides certification. This makes apparent, when read alongside the hasty decisions regarding intake and admission policies, changes that are being implemented in universities all over the country, and the direction of change.

At the risk of repeating what has been said several times, there have been gross procedural violations in the academic and executive councils of JNU in the past months, and it is these that have set the stage for the changes that are unfolding now. Briefly, the JNU administration, from the summer of 2016, has been perfecting the art of parallel governance. This has meant the rash creation of committees and informal meetings which are then used as venues for making decisions which are claimed to be legally binding. The implication of this is undermining JNU’s academic council (AC), which according to university ordinances holds critical statutory powers, and also other procedural infringements. Some instances of these are – holding AC meetings during vacations, when large numbers of members are not present, fudging minutes of the 141st AC held in October 2016 and conducting the 142nd AC in unholy haste and declaring agenda items “passed”, when these were not even discussed. Of these, the claim that the UGC gazette notification of May 5, 2016 was discussed and accepted by the 141st AC is not only patently untrue, but has had frightening consequences – namely the attempt by the administration to tamper with JNU’s socially- and gender-just and inclusive admission policy.

Larger implications

The implications of the ongoing crises are at two levels. The first is how it will immediately, as of this coming academic year, affect the intake of students to universities like JNU. The second is the larger impact it will have on the social demography of campuses, with its frightening implications for recalibrating educational institutions as the domain of powerful cliques of ‘upper’-caste, elite Hindu men. The first is linked to the specifications in the UGC notification of May 5, 2016, which, by introducing clauses regarding cut-offs, exam processes and a graded system of supervision, ends up violating JNU’s admission policy. Moreover, it also drastically reduces student intake into the university. Indeed, if this were to go through, several universities like JNU would have no research students for years to come. The larger implication is of course of privatising higher education.

In a recent piece, Pranab Bardhan asks, “what is the point of this higher education system [in India]”, as there is “meagre world-class research going on”?” He then proceeds to spell out the steps by which this failing system can be “overhauled”. The elements of this panacea are worth examining in detail, but in a nutshell some its main ingredients are “vocational training, funded by state and business community”, in which the latter can monitor or recruit those being funded; professional schools – law, medicine, engineering, business – should have “high fees” and “student loans”; no more than 50 public universities in the whole country, where “specialized branches of science and humanities” would be taught and “again the fees will be high, but with availability of a large number of student loans, repayable in the first five years of the student’s getting a job…The top 1% … if they pass appropriate entry tests, will be allowed to enter a World-class Research University, of which there should be not more than two in the whole country”.

With reference to faculty selection, which is increasingly an area of contention in most public universities, including JNU, he recommends that there should be “no state interference” where salaries should be linked to performance, discarding the present system of scales and pay commissions. Universities, therefore, must provide education that links knowledge with “industry” and the “commercial economy”, and the direction for that would be MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses; the present equivalent in India is Swayam). Bardhan ends his template for reform by saying that “In India the default redistributive option for politicians has been caste reservations in admissions to higher education institutions for the disadvantaged. But when these institutions keep on churning out graduates who are mostly unemployable, I believe the consciousness will rise among our poor and middle classes and castes that the way forward is to fight the vested interests and move in the direction of improving education quality, along with access and equity.”

As is obvious, several elements in this blueprint for “reform” of public education in India are in step with the overhaul that has been undertaken in recent years, in both universities and the UGC itself. So what does the attack on higher education, the academic justification for which is evidenced in Bardhan’s outline, mean? In brief, privatisation will obviously lead to the end of state funding, with impossibly high fees being just one aspect of this change. It will mean the undoing of the constitutionally-mandated reservation policy, denying access to poor, underprivileged, students from backward regions of the country, which would in turn have a grave impact on the historically marginalised – especially Dalits, OBCs, Muslims, women and people with disabilities. It would change the character of higher education – from research to skill based – a direction of change that the present government has greatly encouraged in the recent past, with its emphases on the creation of short-term certificates and online courses (and hence the huge push for MOOCS and similar programmes).

Such changes would have a serious impact on the character of the student body, the future of the classroom as the site for teaching and learning, and of student politics on campus. From permanent students who learn the art of argumentation in classrooms and the skills of political life through reading, debate and campaigning, with an exposure to political ideologies and parties – the shift will be to the growth of a shifting population of temporary students coming in for short-term courses, who may not even have a right to vote in campus elections. So a public university system that enabled educational access to the widest section of Indian society, with the aim of creating scholars, researchers, administrators and policy makers from socially marginal backgrounds – which can be the only way towards levelling deep inequalities and correcting historic injustices – will be replaced by an army of ‘skilled’ and docile citizens who can be absorbed into the new economic order.

Private, and self financing, institutions in different parts of India have had an abysmal record in every sense – from not upholding the constitutionally-mandated reservation policy, to pitching fees so high that they price everyone except the very rich out of higher education. In places in India poor and underprivileged students have committed suicide as a result of the pressure this has put on them and their families. The direction we are headed towards – of heavy student loans and their deleterious impact – is something that is being met with by huge protests in those parts of the world where fees are too high and loans crippling (for instance US’s ‘occupy’ and the South Africa’s ‘fees must fall’ movements started by students as a response to such changes by their respective governments’ policies). The shift in emphasis from research to ‘skill-based’ courses will also render education fundamentally anti intellectual and anti political. Amongst the hardest hit will be departments of social sciences and humanities, where research, teaching and knowledge production has increasingly placed great emphasis on critical thought and rethinking received certainties.

Students in public universities all over India have been resisting these changes vociferously. Be it about arbitrary government interference in the appointments of vice chancellors, cutting of scholarships, an attack on dissent and freedom of speech – students movements are making their positions clear. They want public education, universities and everything that this allows them, particularly their right to be heard in an attack that threatens to leave them mute and powerless.  The attack on higher education and the public university in India will deform ideas of democracy forever. And it is precisely for this reason that every concerned Indian must resist now, in order to preserve some of the hard-earned gains of the past decades for future generations of students and citizens, in this country and elsewhere.

Arunima G. is professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, JNU.