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Co-Written by Amit Kumar & Skand Priya

Ever since the MHRD made its intentions clear to grant autonomous status to institutions of higher education as a result of which 60 institutions have already been granted autonomy including 5 central universities and 21 state universities, teachers’ movement at University of Delhi has become extremely charged and committed in its fight to save higher education from passing into private hands. DUTA—Delhi University Teachers Association—contends that granting autonomy to higher educational and technical institutions including DU i.e. withdrawing public funding to a maximum of 70% while 30% resources being generated by the institution alone, will deprive a large section of Indian students from availing affordable education at thousands of government-funded colleges and institutes all over the country especially those belonging to the underprivileged sections. Besides, participation of private hands and corporate houses will commercialize higher education to its maximum, a market-oriented profiteering enterprise with focus on large gains, thereby outstripping higher education from its social purpose of bringing equality and parity among diverse socio-economic sections of Indian society. In short, higher education should be treated as fundamental human right of every citizen of India as directed in the Constitution of India irrespective of their socio-economic background.

In its defense of autonomy in higher education, MHRD has clarified that autonomous status to institutions of higher education will raise the level of Indian higher education at global stage and Indian universities and colleges will be at par with foreign universities in terms of quality, standard and efficiency. One might wonder if higher education has been substandard and shoddy so far that intervention of private players shall bring a magic stick and turn things upside down! Also, have there been no private autonomous institutions of higher learning existing in India till date providing quality education to their students and enabling them to compete with their global counterparts that autonomy for all higher educational institutions will change the face of India in dispensing quality and standardized education? Nevertheless, the MHRD has sought to assuage fears of teaching community at DU and other places by stating that granting autonomy to universities and colleges shall not be interpreted as minimum or no-role of the government in extending financial and other assistance to institutions or as something that would allow free-play of private players in higher education. Rather it would keep a close watch over the functioning and management of educational institutions and would extend all help required to them in times of need and emergency, provided it is intimated well in advance.

Assuming  these assurances to be trustworthy, one gets this impression that MHRD will not withdraw from its responsibility of funding higher education and provide all necessary help both monetary and otherwise as and when needed. But a close reading of its draft issued on 12th February, 2018 casts such placative assurances in suspicion. One can clearly see a big gap between the spoken and the written word of the MHRD as stated in its draft. Point no. 4 and 5 pertaining to ‘Dimensions of Autonomy for Category I and II Universities’ state that a) Universities or colleges may start fresh courses without approval from the UGC, but no fund shall be released by the government in any situation whatsoever; b) Universities may open new centres of learning within their geographical jurisdiction without seeking approval from the UGC provided they are able to meet the would-be expenses on their own, without any financial assistance from the government; c) Universities may think of introducing skill development courses/programmes without approval of the UGC, provided they are able to self-finance such courses. Such terms and conditions go on and on unabashedly for autonomous or soon-to-be autonomous institutions of higher learning. As is apparent, it clearly shows that decision-making at upper-echelons with respect to higher education has been quite hasty and haphazard without taking into account the practical and structural problems the institutions will be faced with once made autonomous. Furthermore, the  decision-making at the Centre smacks of sheer lack of sensitivity and political apathy to higher education and the future of students at large who would be badly affected with such shoddy policy-making not in national interest.

Higher Education as Social Capital

Higher education in India is closely linked with social capital which forms a larger network of relationships among diverse sections of people living and working together, thus helping the society function effectively. It provides opportunities of growth and mobility to economically and socially vulnerable sections of society on the principle of equity and access in higher education which is enshrined in the Constitution of India. Forcing autonomy on institutions of higher education will have dire repercussions for this deprived section which has just started to realize their potential and role in founding a cohesive and inclusive nation. In other words, autonomy will annihilate and considerably disturb the social fabric of the nation with irreparable costs. It would further widen the gap between the privileged and underprivileged sections of society thus stratifying the society in water-tight compartments with no possibility of mobility up the socio-economic ladder.

Loans instead of Grants

There has been a fair play with the language while formulating the draft on autonomy. Like the term ‘green cover’ can never take the place of ‘forest cover’ as has been a recent trend in metropolitan cities to make up for the wiped out forested areas, in the same way the implications of the use of the term ‘loan’ from ‘grant’ by MHRD needs to be examined critically. Under the 70:30 clause of funding in higher education, there is provision of loans through HEFA—Higher Education Funding Agency—which would provide loans as per the needs and requirements of the institutions which are to be repaid in a stipulated time period. The term ‘grant’ has completely disappeared from the official documents or statements of MHRD and UGC both. Grants are money borrowed from a funding authority, until now UGC, as per the needs of the borrower which is not to be paid back but returned if lying unutilized. Whereas loans are money the borrower is offered depending upon his/her assets which may include movable and immovable property both and which must be paid back in a specific time period with interest. This simply means that those possessing higher value of infrastructure and other assets like land, equipments etc. will be able to draw handsome loans from the funding agency while those in possession of less or poor infrastructure will be getting loans in accordance with their mortgagable assets. The corollary is that institutions with poor infrastructure will be at a disadvantage as their existing value of assets would not allow them loans as per their needs and requirements and force them to move towards complete privatization. Since NAAC and NIRF rankings accorded to universities and colleges are already in place, they will also play a major role in determining how much money is to be loaned to institutions and on what terms and conditions. As a result, the institutions will be under pressure to increase the fee-structure and other routine charges like maintenance of libraries and laboratories which will directly impact both the middle and underprivileged classes of students as the fee hike would go up from several thousands to several lakhs, especially if one is seeking technical education. Also, it is not just the institutions which will be forced to take loans but also students as the fee structure will not be in their capacity to afford. Such a scenario would result in both the institutions and students playing in the hands of private players who would benefit the most from such helplessness.  Thus, the universities and colleges will turn into shops and outlets where education will be on sale and every person will have the democratic right to attain it provided they have got ample money in their pockets.

Commoditization of Education in Neo-Liberal World

The Supreme Court in Mohini Jain Vs. State of Karnataka case has held that the right to education is a fundamental right under article 21 of the constitution, which cannot be denied to citizens by charging higher fee. Also the Constitution gives duty to the state to provide free education to the children below age of fourteen under article 45. The makers of the Constitution envisaged education as service and a tool which can bring opportunities for the citizens. It is only from the 1990s that the state in India under the guiding directives of WTO and GATT has brought various neo-liberal reforms, and within the pressure of global economy education has ceased to be a public service and legally become a profiteering private enterprise. Within this context the recent notification of the MHRD on graded autonomy for higher educational institutions has to be located where one can gauge the intensity of complex nexus between the state and corporations. To whom does this government wish to benefit through privatization of higher education is a question which raises serious interrogations on its role and nature, which surely seems to be moving away from welfare state to comprador bourgeois state.

Standardized and quality education is the main target which the government claims that it wants to achieve through privatization as lack of funds and resources has remained together with other factors an important causative factor so far for its perceived ‘below standard and below quality’ level. This brings two interesting issues in the discussion. Firstly, the problem of defining any education or knowledge as standardized or vice versa. There is no universally accepted definition of quality education. A state may or may not characterize any knowledge system as standard and qualified depending upon its need for legitimacy and validation. And more problematically, it’s the obsession of Indian state with Western educational form which constantly pushes and shapes the Indian system at par with the Western one.

Secondly, is the standardized and quality education equals the commoditized education? The primary claim of the government is that it cannot fund a large number of public higher educational institutions and thus more participation of private sector is needed to meet the requirement. In this process what actually happens is that the encroachment of capitalism in the educational system leads to the rise of what Andrew Freenberg in 1991 called knowledge economy. Rajan Gurukkal, professor of Contemporary Studies at IISc explains the process through which knowledge is turned into commodity in knowledge economy. He argues, “Knowledge Economy turns knowledge into a commodity that acquires multiple forms, each of which differently priced on the basis of its market demand. Let the beneficiary pay for acquiring knowledge is the neoliberal approach to education. Knowledge, as the philosophic means to a better life, is contrasted with knowledge as a commodity under capitalism. Commoditisation of knowledge is a process of transformation of knowledge into an explicit, standardised, codified, and priced object of exchange value. Commoditisation is conversion of results of human labour into commodities to be transacted by the market. It has been a process integral to the growth of capitalist economy. In a strategic process it could facilitate the conversion of social products of use-value into objects of exchange value, namely commodities in the market, and make it uncritically accepted by all with a sense of obsessive devotion. It is this phenomenon that Karl Marx called as ‘commodity fetishism’ – an ideological veil of capitalism within which we have today a whole discipline called economics constituted. Progress of commoditisation of knowledge, detaching it from the (user) person and making it an independent economic entity, has given rise to the phenomenon called capital fetishism from which, arose the practice of owning and controlling knowledge as intellectual property.”[i]

In this context it becomes certain that the close relation between state and corporations has been constantly shaping the contours of knowledge system in general and higher education in particular, and this commoditized version of education is being established as standardized form.

[i] Interview of Rajan Gurukkal published in Tattva-Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2.

Amit Kumar, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Vivekananda College, DU

Skand Priya, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Shivaji College, DU

3 Comments

  1. A B Quadri says:

    Besides Reservation, how the 10% Upper caste in this Country are managing to corner almost 100% of the remaining seats in government, Public sector and private sector jobs and seats in educational institutions ? Are they So brilliant ?? and the remaining Lower caste and Minorities are all Buddhus(fools), fit for nothing ?? Dr B R Ambedkar anticipated this day, hence proposed reservation —- Since India is a Secular, Democratic Republic with a functioning Constitution — The entire resources of this Country should be shared between all communities and groups as per their population and not cornered by a few through dubious means —,

  2. Dr. Manoj Kumar says:

    Excellent!!