Higher Education, ‘Autonomy’ and Social Justice: Keeping the ‘Poor’ Poor

Simin Akhter Naqvi

The ‘autonomy’ being granted to more than 60 higher educational institutions (including 5 central and 21 state universities) by the government is an attack on both, the poor’s ability to send their children to college, as well as on the democratic social character of higher education. Let’s try to figure how.

The ‘autonomy’, we are being ‘granted’ is a misnomer to begin with. While academic institutions actually do need a great deal of academic autonomy, that is, the freedom to design curricula, syllabus, examination patterns, entrance and cut-offs, the proposed 70:30 formula of funding is actually an attempt to ‘privatize’ the cost of education in the guise of financial autonomy, where academic institutions would be required to generate 30% of all costs. This would come primarily from three sources, fee hikes, introduction of ‘marketable’ self-financing courses and cut-down on employees’ wages and benefits.

A higher education funding authority (HEFA) is also being set up for the purpose of making it possible for institutions to borrow from what the government calls, ‘a not-for-profit agency with initial capital base of Rs. 1000 Crore’, announced in Union Budget 2016-17, for building ‘world class infrastructure’, subject to the institutions’ ‘ability to repay’ the debt, obviously again by hiking fees, firing non-permanent staff, cutting down on benefits and contractualization of non-permanent non-teaching positions.

Advocates of the policy also propose that those who cannot afford to pay the increased fees can borrow and thus get into what Noam Chomsky calls, the higher education ‘debt-trap’, where students who take heavy loans to fund their education effectively lose the ability to put education to societal use, while having to focus on landing a well-paying job to repay the debt and thus end up spending the socially most productive years of their lives in servicing corporate interests instead of questioning the status quo. Fee hikes thus serve as a disciplinary technique to silence dissent and condition people to adapt to a general consumerist milieu.

It is not difficult to understand how private corporations, lending and sponsoring higher education and research would also come to determine ‘what is researched’ and more importantly ‘what is not’; taking away intellectual freedom and thus the democratic social space for critical questioning. Roll back of public budgets from higher education not only take away from the poor working masses their right to ‘democratically’ access affordable education but will also severely curtail the very idea of academic autonomy and intellectual freedom. Any attack on higher education and research thus needs to be seen as an attack on democracy itself.

Another casualty of these proposed changes will be social justice, direct attacks on which are also being coordinated and carefully manoeuvred with attempted privatization of higher education. The recent order to implement a 13 point departmental roster instead of the 200 point institutional one significantly reduces the total number of posts going to reserved categories and thus weakens the existing policy for affirmative action and social justice. With roster-violations and second tranche posts lying vacant in most colleges, and almost half of all teaching positions in the university filled on ad-hoc basis, any attempts to privatize of grant ‘financial autonomy’ are only all set to hurt the interests of the deprived and marginalized sections further, making their socio-economic position weaker still.

It is of crucial importance to see the connection between attempted privatization of higher education and its impact on social justice and looking at some data can definitely help us here. Nearly 1.25 billion people are officially poor and live below the one dollar a day poverty line (nearly 77% below the universal two dollar a day standard), with the ‘average Indian’ earning as little as 10,000 per month or 1.2 lakh annually, and is no coincidence that as many as 60% of all poor continue to reside in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where nearly 85% of all Dalits and Tribals live. According to the findings and recommendations of Mandal commission (1979-1990-2007) and Sachar committee (2006) reports, deprivation of education explains the predicament of all marginalized sections to a great extent and improved access to education through direct provisioning and/ or reservations in jobs can significantly ensure increased inter-generational social mobility to those born ‘poor’.

Not surprisingly, Dalits, Muslims, Tribals, OBCs, and Women constitute a vast majority of the ‘poor’ in India and exhibit significantly worse educational attainment rates and workforce participation ratios and job- concentration figures compared to their privileged counterparts, and are the ones to get most severely hit by policies like these. With discriminatory social systems like Caste, Patriarchy and communal social exclusion working to their disadvantage, any notion of a democratic or pro-people state cannot overlook the plight or predicament of these deprivation-groups. The whole idea of a welfare state anyway rests on the state’s ability to ensure access to healthcare, education, nutrition and dignified work for all, and to allow those born poor to work their way up through education and gainful employment. If that doesn’t happen the very nature of the state needs to be questioned and I am proud to say that is precisely what our students are out on the streets for; to defend higher education itself and with that, the democratic, secular and pro-people character of society.

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