Resist Privatization and Strive For Democratization of Higher Education!

The current elections to the statutory bodies of the University – Executive and Academic Councils – are being held against the background of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Government of India making a concerted attempt to bring about serious structural changes in higher education. This is being sought to be done through the proactive role of the UGC to create autonomous colleges and to operationalise the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and on the part of the Government to convert the University Grants Commission into the University Education Commission (UECI) through amending the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. Taken together with the government’s steady withdrawal from the social sector, the changes in the UGC Act and implementation of the scheme of autonomous colleges and NAAC spell doom for higher education. All these measures are aimed at privatizing higher education and at creating a multi-tiered system parallel to the school system in the country.

For more than a decade all governments – Congress, the United Front supported by the ‘left’ and now the BJP with numerous allies – have been following the dictates of the imperialist financial institutions to reduce expenditure on the social sector. However, a more marked change is discernible under the BJP with steadfast implementation and accelerated pace of liberalization in all spheres. It is this steadfast and resolute implementation by the BJP of the policies of the past one decade that has brought out on the street so many sections of our society to resist the onslaught of liberalization. It is precisely this new phase of liberalization that is behind the proactive role of the UGC in pushing the creation of autonomous colleges and the NAAC and the government’s agenda of amending the UGC Act. The intention is loud and clear – privatize, raise your own funds, link up with industry, raise fees, have market oriented courses, firm no to introducing traditional courses any more, have self-financing courses without reserved quota, close down Hindi medium sections of social sciences since admissions are falling, reduce expenditure on Modern Indian Languages, keep part-time teachers almost as daily-wagers. The list is almost endless and frightening. This is compounding the already existing crisis of higher education.

Higher education has been crisis for a long time. There has been stagnant, in fact, diminishing infrastructure with increasingly greater pressure on it. For decades library and laboratory grants have not been increased although there has been a manifold rise in the cost of books, laboratory equipment and other materials essential for scientific experiments. Maintenance and development grants have been inadequate; Universities and Colleges are being forced to raise funds privately. On the one hand all this has meant increasingly greater burden on students through Colleges levying fees under multiple heads and on the other hand it has adversely affected the quality of education that is being imparted. Instead of addressing themselves to the crisis of higher education in the larger social interest successive governments have been advocating the Universities and Colleges should raise funds through private sources and by raising fees. Both these proposals are fraught with serious consequences for the nature of higher education as also its availability to different sections of society. Subservience of higher education to industry and landlordism is bound to adversely affect the nature of courses of study and research; larger and long-term interests of social development would lose weightage in the production and dissemination of knowledge. Raising fees is going to deny whatever little access the marginalized deprived sections have had to education.

It is quite remarkable that the arguments pertaining to fee-hike have become so pervasive and their nature so disguised that even those teachers who are otherwise sensitive to the poor and toiling masses, have fallen for fee-hike. It is often argued that everybody is just coming for higher education regardless of their interests in studies, students do not attend classes because it is free education; most beneficiaries of higher education are from the middle and upper middle classes and they should not be supported from the public exchequer; that elementary education is a bigger priority and therefore it is counterpoised for higher budgetary allocation vis a vis higher education, feeships can be given to needy students etc. etc. It is noteworthy that we easily forget that only a tiny percentage of students graduate from school to college education, that the percentage of the students of the college-going age group is ten to fifteen times higher in developed countries in comparison to those going for higher education in India. All advanced countries have and are still spending a much higher percentage of their GDP on higher education than India. Why is it that the self-same advanced countries are dictating terms to underdeveloped countries to reduce expenditure on higher education. Higher education is an integral part of development. Even if we assume that the state has limited resources and hence it is not able to allocate the desired amount for higher education, the remedy is not fee-hike and dependence on industry but to tax the rich students’ parents. It is the bourgeoisie and the landlords that must be taxed for raising requisite funds for higher education. Let there be an education cess but education should be free for all so that it can discharge its progressive role in society without shackles and without dividing students into categories.

Similarly, the NAAC though apparently meant for academic gradation of institutions, is in fact, meant to create situation for gradual closure of the Colleges and Universities. The kind of criterion given for assessment presupposes a highly developed infrastructural support which may not be available even in the best of institutions in the country.

While the teachers’ movement has been resisting the implementation of the scheme of autonomous colleges and operationalization of the NAAC, but the policies out of which they have organically grown do not concern most teachers. Teachers’ movement has been slowly and gradually accepting commodification of higher education. Indeed majority of teachers have welcomed vocational stream and a large number of self-financing courses as well as manifold rise in fees; research projects and laboratories in the University are increasingly getting funded from private sources. The University authorities and a large section of teachers have been in such indecent haste for starting self-financing courses that even questions of academic structures did not get passed from the proper statutory bodies of the university thereby jeopardizing the career of students – Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) being a telling example of this. Arising out of the agitation of BIT’s students for continuation and recognition of their course, when the question of reviewing self-financing course in principle came up for discussion (after conceding the current sessions) in the Academic Council, not only the BJP, Congress and AAD but also the CPM led DTF representatives opposed it. It is not surprising since we have been seeing disconsonance between their professions and actions for a long time; they have not resisted the introduction of self-financing courses in any of the Colleges of the University of Delhi.

The policies of the government aim at doing to higher education what it has done to the school education over the past three decades. Instead of providing a good quality education to all through a common school system, the government has been encouraging and supporting the creation of schools controlled by the private sector. Within its own sphere of action, instead of improving and expanding the existing system, it has been creating parallel structures to meet sectional demands wherever needed: Government Model Schools, Central Schools, Sarvodaya and Navodaya Vidyalayas are examples of this policy. The government schools to which the majority of the children of lower middle class and working people go have become defunct in terms of education. A similar situation is being attempted to be created through autonomous colleges and the NAAC. The UGC would be given enabling power through requisite changes in the UGC Act.

Teachers’ movement has been reacting to the government’s policies in a piecemeal way without striking at the root. It would be extremely difficult to retain, strengthen and improve the existing system without impinging upon the state policy of privatizing higher education. It must be borne in mind that this is already seeking in through myriad ways – introduction of self-financing courses, freeze on traditional courses, establishment of centres and funding research with private money, hike in fees are all components of this. Unless and until we resist each one of these components, higher education would be on the road to selection to market forces and private funding. Let us not forget that the introduction of the Development Fees at the rate of five rupees by the Executive Council of the University of Delhi which appeared as an innocuous step nearly two decades ago, became the initial structural step which paved the way for all kinds of heads under which thousands of rupees are being charged from students today. Resistance to the principle of privatization of higher education is the need of the hour. Already liberalization is revealing its ugly face. With fewer students seeking admission to Social Sciences, Hindi medium sections for the same are being wound up in several women’s college making girls from lower middle class the first casualty to liberalization in higher education. In several college MIL courses have been discontinued; large-scale ad hoc part-time appointments with heavy teaching load with five-day week treating teachers as daily-wagers are all by-products of the privatizing thrust. Each one of these issues is going to require a sustained and protracted struggle.

Concurrently with this it is imperative that we strive for the democratization of higher education through changing colonial language policies and caste, class and gender biases to make higher education more meaningful for the oppressed castes, classes, minorities and other toiling masses. It would mean introduction of more socially relevant and scientific syllabi and courses as also the application of the pedagogy of the oppressed. This would entail much greater expenditure on education and therefore, a larger budgetary allocation to higher education. This demand is not meant at the cost of elementary and secondary education. All levels of education complement and sustain each other. There is need for much greater allocation to education at all levels.

Our emphasis on the ugly face of privatization in education should not make us blind to the internal rot in education. Heavy penetration of money, political and bureaucratic influences have for long sustained corruption in appointments, admission and examination leading to criminalization of higher education. Besides the role of administration, it must be admitted that teachers cannot be absolved of their culpability since they are an integral part of all these processes. Recent example of the appointment of Dr. Pawar as the Principal of Dyal Singh College is a telling example of this. Subverting all norms of constituting a Governing Body and selection procedures for Principal’s appointment laid down in the statutes, the University authorities with the support of a section of teachers appointed a person against whose corruption DUTA had successfully waged a struggle for his removal. Appointment of Bhimsen Singh, as the Principal of Kirori Mal College, with a big record of corruption and absenteeism, is another instance in this matter.

Teachers too have been guilty of contributing to the ongoing crisis of higher education. For a large segment of teachers today academic activity has become secondary to making money through speculation, coaching and many other activities. Due to these reasons there has been a large-scale breakdown of basic academic activity. Different institutions and facilities catering to different strata heave been affected in different ways by this crisis. Pass course and subsidiary teaching and tutorial and preceptorial system have all broken down. In several colleges even teaching of Honours has become part of this break down partly. Statutory attendance rules have ceased to apply as a consequence of which students take double enrolment. Courses they are supposed to be studying in the University have become secondary to their pursuit of expensive courses outside the University. There is rampant student absenteeism. All in all we have full-time university and part-time education.

The teaching and research in the faculties too have not remained impervious to this academic breakdown. Teachers in the Departments often fix their individual timings to suit their convenience in preference to the centralized time-table. They, therefore, come to their departments for limited periods for a small number of days. They are seldom found in their faculties which creates serious difficulties for research students. With a totally internalised system of evaluation at the master’s level, academic collapse has taken place in several departments. Examination system is both corrupt and lacks rigour at all levels.

For over a decade and a half the Forum for Democratic Struggle (FDS) has been trying to underline the need for addressing the crisis of higher education, which is partly due to inadequate infrastructure and partly to internal rot. It was at the initiative of the FDS that the first report on academic reform and accountability was prepared in 1998 under Dilip Simeon’s convenorship. All parties and groups – BJP, Congress, AAD and CPM – conspired to kill the report. This year another report on academic reform and absenteeism has been prepared by the DUTA – again on the initiative of the FDS member in the DUTA Executive Committee. There has been mounting pressure from the government for imposing a code of conduct on teachers. Hence all three major groups have consented to the report this year. We hope that teachers would implement this report in their respective institutions as a first step in checking the academic crisis in the University. Experience gained from its implementation would enable us to go further in this direction. We do believe in an interlocking system of accountability of all segments of the university community, but that should not become a pretext for not subjecting ourselves to democratic accountability. Also due to academic collapse, the huge expenditure on education, which is sustained by social wealth generated by toiling masses, is getting wasted. We have both social responsibility and accountability for stemming the academic crisis.

We have been emphasizing for the past few years the need of a new agenda for higher education Language question is staring us in the face. It has acquired larger proportions, newer dimensions and immediate urgency in view of the ugly impact of commercialization. Teaching in Hindi and continuation of Modern Indian languages need to be protected and expanded. There is urgent need for good quality materials to be made available in Hindi so that students from the lower middle class may have some meaningful education. We must seek removal of the caste, class and gender biases in admission policies, syllabi, pedagogy and research. All these issues have large-scale social ramifications.

On the issue of the university policy on sexual harassment, there has been some success. Work of several groups during the past 4-5 years notably Gender Study Group (GSG) and Forum Against Sexual Harassment (FASH) has borne results. Under pressure from exposure by the FDS, through individual cases of sexual harassment, Prof. Susheela Kaushik resigned from the Directorship of the Centre for Women’s Development (CWD). The University under the new Vice-Chancellor and the CWD under its new Director, Prof. Malashree Lal, have taken serious steps in formulating a fairly sensitive policy on sexual harassment. It is encouraging to note that the struggles of groups beginning with Goonda Virodhi Abhiyan, Swabhiman and now the GSG and FASH have produced some results. However, having the policy is only the first enabling step; struggle against sexual harassment would continue and we do not expect it to be easy.

It is also part of our democratic responsibility to struggle against endemic corruption in the University. Appointments, admissions, examinations all require democratic intervention to contain bureaucratic and political pressures and financial corruption and thereby criminalisation. Corruption survives and increases through a nexus between administration and teachers on this issue. The appointment of the Principal of Dyal Singh College is a revealing instance of this nexus. Dr. Pawar has a strong lobby amongst teachers with a good representation in the DUTA Executive Committee itself. It is not surprising that the DUTA President disallowed discussion on the issue by having recourse to the matter having been taken to the court by the teachers of Dyal Singh College. Any matter being in the court does not preclude discussion on the subject. Manipulations in appointments reached a new height in Hindu College when the Principal decided not to advertise posts last year to suit certain political and pressure interests. In the current year the nature of vacancies was not discussed in the Department of Political Science, Hindu College despite the majority of the members seeking a meeting. The Principal, Dr. Kavita Sharma, abdicated her responsibility. She substantially undermined the rotatory teacher-in-chargeship by denying certain teachers their right to sit on the selection committee by keeping the posts in abeyance. In practice it meant changing the composition of the Selection Committee for political and personal reasons. In all this the Principal had the support of the majority of teachers including the President and Secretary of the Staff Association. The issue has a disconcerting political implication from another angle; interviews had to be postponed because of students’ protest; an emergency Governing Body meeting decided to institute an one man enquiry by a retired judge. Both the Chairman and the Enquiry Officer had already prejudged the issue by taking a position that the two teachers sitting on hunger strike were guilty of creating a law and order problem. All devious ways are being adopted to subvert democratic structures and norms. Teacher’s very right to protest is under threat. It is in consonance with recommendations at very high levels suggesting depoliticization of campuses.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that communal forces have come to gain grip over most institutions of education and research in the country. It is especially against this background that advocacy of effective centralized power for the UGC is fraught with serious political implications. Similar parallel suggestions are being made for the school system also whereby a centralized system of evaluation with a dominant core of "Indian Culture" (by implication Hindu Culture) and a heavy dose of spiritual at the cost of scientific and rational knowledge is being pushed forward.

It is evident that we have to resist the onslaught of communalisation besides privatization. We have to defend scientific and rational thinking against obscurantism. The best way to resist both communal onslaught and privatization is to struggle for the democratization of higher education itself. In the process both issues would get tackled.

Forum for Democratic Struggle
Delhi University Teachers for Academic Reform

11 December, 2000.

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