Graded or degraded?

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Delhi University Teachers’ Association staging a protest outside the UGC office against granting of autonomy to colleges, in New Delhi on April 26. Photo: V. Sudershan

The MHRD’s rules and regulations for graded autonomy for universities locate autonomy in the financial domain and the emphasis is on steps to facilitate entry and operation of capital.

The Universities Bill if passed into law, will have the effect of restricting the area of education and completely destroying the independence of the universities upon which largely depends their efficiency and usefulness….” None would be surprised if these words came today from the lips of a contemporary critic of the “New Education Policy”, or an opponent of the scheme for graded autonomy for universities and colleges that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) announced in June 2018.

Actually, these were the words which fell a century ago from the lips of Surendranath Banerjea, the nationalist leader, in his speech at the annual session (December 1903) of the Indian National Congress in reaction to Viceroy Lord Curzon’s proposal to “reform” the universities. About this time, similar declarations were heard from other nationalist leaders. Gopal Krishna Gokhale in his Minute of Dissent in the Imperial Legislative Council pointed to the hidden agenda of the Universities Bill (1904) to increase the number of government nominees and to reduce the number of Senate and Syndicate members “possessing the necessary degree of independence”.

Lala Lajpat Rai pointed to the inadequacy of government expenditure on university education because “we, the natives of this country, have no voice in expending the money which is raised from us”. (Proceedings of Indian National Congress, 1903, page 105.) These were some representative statements made a hundred years ago by the political thinkers and leaders of the Indian nationalist movement. That eloquent defence of the universities, their independence and their right of access to public funds, reminds us of a political tradition that we must not allow to be erased or suppressed in our times by a departmental view in the MHRD, which refuses to see the difference between financial managerial autonomy and academic freedom of the university. Let us get to the bottom of this issue of “autonomy”.

The word “autonomy” in the ministerial discourse remains undefined, but the MHRD uses it in the following manner: “Whereas UGC [University Grants Commission] recognises the importance of granting autonomy to institutions of higher education as a way of promoting and institutionalising excellence;....Whereas the complementary relationship between regulatory environment and degree of autonomy has to be mediated by the relative principle of excellence in institutions of higher education;....Therefore, the University Grants Commission hereby makes the following regulations....” These words occur in the preamble to regulations for grant of graded autonomy announced in May 2017. In June 2018, the MHRD reiterated that statement, once again without defining “autonomy”. In these statements, the description of the new system for obtaining and exercising autonomy suggests that autonomy consists of financial authority to initiate new courses of study, employ foreign visiting faculty and admit foreign students, start new departments, centres, and so on, “in disciplines that form a part of the existing academic framework, without approval of the UGC, provided no demand for fund is made from the government”.

The Ministry’s statements on autonomy in undertaking all kinds of business in the autonomous universities seem to be designed to attract capital. “Universities may open research parks, incubation centres, university-society linkage centres, in self-financing mode, either on its own or in partnership with private partners, without approval of Commission” (UGC). This is virtually the language in which business corporations invite expression of interest from other entrepreneurs to expand capital or to open new domains of business.

Thus the MHRD “graded autonomy” rules and regulations operationally locate autonomy chiefly in the financial context. (The other sense in which autonomy is described is the authority to determine syllabi, hold examination, award degrees, and so on, which were powers not thereby created, because these were already possessed by the universities.) The expansion of financial autonomy from now on is very substantial and it is meant to attract capital investment to the education sector so as to make up for the diminution of government funding in that sector. That appears to be the unstated but strongest rationale for enhancing financial autonomy for selected universities. No attempt has been made by the MHRD to argue for the absurd proposition that academic excellence and financial autonomy are so correlated that higher the financial autonomy granted, the greater is the excellence achieved. And yet that is often the implicit assumption behind the effusive rhetoric recommending financial autonomy. In fact, if one likes to play with words one could say that a degraded autonomy is being offered today as “graded autonomy”.

The autonomy of a university has several components, among which financial autonomy is only one. In fact, until recently it was the least of the autonomies enjoyed by universities. I recall that when I happened to be Vice-Chancellor at Visva Bharati University (1991-1995), it was historically the fourth oldest Central university (next to Aligarh Muslim University, Benares Hindu University and Delhi University), and therefore it was supposedly one of the highly privileged universities. But a Central university was as much hemmed in as other universities by regulatory bodies ranging from the Financial Advisory Committee to the UGC and, of course, the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Autonomy in the nineties

To us, in the 1990s, the important components of university autonomy were statutory autonomy by virtue of the Act of Parliament founding the university, and autonomy in academic functioning, particularly in making faculty appointments, approving programmes of study, filling up important offices like the Deans’ in the Schools, and so on. The Act of Parliament provided statutory definition of the rights and powers of the university’s decision-making bodies as well as the relationship between them and external authorities. That provided protection from infringement on the university’s rights and privileges by the powers that be in the sarkari daftar.

The quotidian academic functioning of the university was more open to abuse of power because internal interest groups became involved to sway the decisions; moreover, in the absence of written regulations, conventions guided the older universities, or memory of precedents set by founders and iconic personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Madan Mohan Malaviya; in any event, the issues were not of financial autonomy from regulatory bodies or the agencies of government. Today the emphasis is on freedom from financial control to facilitate entry and operation of capital.

To sum it up, the great difference between the new and the old order, that is after and before the graded autonomy system, is that in the old dispensation, financial autonomy of the university administration from regulatory bodies or agencies of the government was not so much an issue, but in the new dispensation it is a necessity in order to attract capital investment in education. Hence, in place of what used to be publicly funded institutions accountable to the government-supported regulatory bodies, now we have business corporations or fractions of public institutions operating as business corporations in collaboration with private entrepreneurs. Corporatisation is a necessity now for participation in the new system for obtaining development funds from the HEFA. Now what is the HEFA? That is a word out of the new alphabet soup.

I recall that some decades ago, parents who took pride in providing the baby all the best would move heaven and earth to get a new-fangled thing, the “alphabet soup”. That was nothing but a packet of a few dozen alphabets from A to Z made of pasta and ready to be cooked in a soup for the baby. In our times, the MHRD has cooked up an alphabet soup of acronyms of dozens of agencies and departments it has brought into existence. In February 2017, the HRD Minister of State presented, in reply to a Rajya Sabha question, a guide to the new alphabet soup: HEFA (Higher Education Funding Agency), RUSA (Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyan), NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Framework), IMPRINT (Impacting Research Innovation and Technology), UAY (Uchhatar Avishkar Yojana), GIAN (Global Initiative of Academic Network), GRIN (Global Research Interactive Network), and so forth. How many of these survived the year to serve the universities is difficult to guess, but one of them has acquired prime importance, the HEFA. It was introduced to Parliament members in the above-mentioned answer as an initiative “to give a major push for creation of high quality infrastructure in premier educational initiatives”. (Press Information Bureau note from the MHRD, February 9, 2017). Actually, it is intended to replace the UGC as a funding agency, except for routine expenditure like salary, pension, and so on. It holds a very important place in the neoliberal agenda, but its first announcement was quiet and scarcely noticed in 2016. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his Budget speech of 2016 stated that the HEFA was being launched with an initial capital base of Rs.1,000 crore with a plan to leverage funds from the market.

The “Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy”, known by the name of its chairman, T.S.R. Subramanian, elaborated on this later. Its report recommended (paras 7.4.9, 7.4.10) educational institutions as Section 8 companies under the Companies Act; the only regulatory agency that was recommended was that such an educational institution “could be a corporate entity under Company Act with the state or regulator nominating” directors on the Board of Management. This corporatisation process is now being pushed forward under the new financial arrangements with the HEFA in place of the UGC. There seems to be little awareness among decision-makers that the impact of the corporatisation and dependence on bank loans for educational costs would be crippling for the lower-income groups. Some efforts on the part of a small section of the bureaucracy to address that problem have failed. For example, the Maharashtra Educational Institutions (Regulation of Fees) Act of 2011 only sets the limit on the number of times fees can be hiked (only once every two years) but sets no cap on the hike! Or again, the Gujarat Self-financed School (Regulation of Fees) Bill of 2017 did attempt that for primary and secondary schools, but it is yet to be upheld by the court of law where the School Management Association has challenged the proposed law. In any event, these are negligible episodes.

To sum it up, in the prevailing confusion we have an emerging paradigm of educational entrepreneurship on corporate lines. As opposed to that we may look at an alternative paradigm presenting a traditional gurukul model, which also occasionally receives support from the present political regime and the department of government concerned.

Two paradigms

Today there is a hidden contestation behind policy-making in respect of education. One can surmise that conflict from the little bits of information which have come out in the public domain from within the inner circle of the ruling political regime in the last four years. On the one hand, we have the proponents of “traditional” education who recommend vernacular regional language in place of English as a medium of instruction, recognition of Sanskrit as a special and sacred language, systems like the gurukul system and its syllabi and pedagogy, and so on.

On the other hand, this is contested by advocates of “modern education” among supporters of the present government who are recommending English as a medium of instruction, internationally accepted standards of judgment to make syllabi, modern technology in pedagogy, and so on. When one considers the resultant conflict and confusion, one is reminded of the capital fun made by Rudyard Kipling of confusion in the bureaucracy—to which his father, by the way, belonged in British India as a museum director. The distillation of confusion Kipling dwells on in the poems Departmental Ditties (1889) has a parallel in the confounded state of the decision-makers today—consider the “34,000 suggestions” the Minister has received, consider the inputs made by private stakeholders like Jindal University, consider the recommendations of the Subramanian Committee, and above all consider the clash of cultures in the gurukul and corporate models.

We hear less about the first, that is, the gurukul lobby pressure groups, chiefly because they are less visible in the media, especially newspapers from metropolitan cities. Yet that lobby is an important base which brings steady support to the present ruling party during election time, and its existence allows the party a window into its rural constituency. The ideology of the gurukul schools can be traced in their programmatic statements in The Organiser, observations made by leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), reports tendered by functionaries running educational programmes, and so on. In the last few years, activities with orientation towards higher education have proliferated. At a national teachers’ conference in March 2017, Mohan Bhagwat announced a plan for setting up a separate wing of the RSS dedicated to higher education. Prior to that, a wing of the RSS, Shiksha Bharati, was the main advisory body and school education attracted most attention, not college or university education.

The national secretary of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas claims in a statement of December 5, 2016, that RSS-inspired organisations, such as the one he leads, seek to “reinstate the fundamental Bharatiya concepts pertaining to education”, though it is not very clear how Bharatiya values have been reinstated. One point often made is emphasis on the medium of instruction. He claims that Vidya Bharati has established more than 13,000 schools where the medium is “Bharatiya language”—and the Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal, the Bharatiya Bhasha Manch and the Bharatiya Bhasha Abhiyan have been working towards the same end. There are also parallel organisations such as the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalayas formed in 1977 by Eknath Ranade in Arunachal Pradesh. It is also claimed that other organisations like Vidya Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Rashtra Shiksha Samiti run “thousands of single-teacher schools”, building schools in hilly and tribal areas. One may not agree with the agenda of the gurukuls, but the devotion and commitment of those who serve them is beyond doubt. In June 2016 the national secretary of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shikshan Sansthan (an affiliate of the RSS) claimed that his organisation ran 12,363 formal schools and 12,001 single-teacher schools ( 815049). In 2018, the number of schools totalled 12,754, according to the Vidya Bharati website. Between 2016 and 2018 there was a substantial increase in the number of students from 3,206,212 to 3,292, 896 ( The Vidya Bharati motto is: “Indianise, Nationalise, Spiritualise education”. Their national secretary claims that schools are open to anyone; he adds that everyone is free to join and recite Saraswati Vandana and learn the Vedas. It reminds one of the story of Henry Ford’s declaration as a monopolist maker of the T-Model Ford automobile that “customers can have it in any colour, so long as it is black”.

A formidable machinery

There has been no independent external evaluation of the gurukul system as a whole. All we have is the self-attested self-delineation available in institutional reports, that is, information they themselves bring into the public domain. What is taught in the gurukul system? According to gurukul sources cited by their website, the subjects include not only what one would expect, like Veda recitation, yoga, Sanskrit, ayurveda, nyaya shastra, etc., but also courses in malkhamba, martial arts, astrology, etc.; apparently the best students specialise in “Vedic mathematics” ( gurukuls/ 2018/5/11). The gurukul centres sourced for collecting data about their system are their leading institutions: Sabarmati gurukul in Ahmedabad, Nithyanand gurukul in Bengaluru, Maharathi Vedavyasa Pratisthan (with 34 affiliated schools located all over India), Punarutthan Gurukulam in Pune, Prabudhini gurukulam in Chikkamagaluru and Ved Vijnana gurukulam of Karnataka. There are 22 schools directly guided and supported by the Akhil Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal. In neighbouring countries like Nepal (225 schools) and Myanmar, gurukul schools have been founded. In India there is demand for trained gurukul acharyas and the shortfall in supply is met by griha gurukuls, where a single teacher teaches students at his home; the subjects taught in griha gurukul are Sanskrit, gau vigyan (science of tending cattle), agriculture, astronomy and ayurveda.

All this information, when put together, suggests that here is a formidable machine even though, as I said earlier, you would throw caution to the winds if you were solely to trust all of these sources. On balance, it seems undeniable that this machine operates to the advantage of the present political regime in the field of education. Further, it is important in regions where it operates as the nucleus of a political base. It is an entry point into a constituency at election time. And it is a source of manpower in many situations ranging from instant street action during riots to long-term mass contact programmes. A special advantage of the gurukul form of proto-political work is that of combining education of very young impressionable minds with subtle ideologisation right at the grass-roots level. The disadvantage is that the knowledge system propagated through the gurukul may not necessarily equip the practitioners and beneficiaries of that type of education to cope with issues beyond its ken. This shortcoming is exposed when the agenda of the gurukul approach is extended to the level of higher education.

Hence, for instance, the statements one hears from Ministers or political appointees who have become heads of various institutions, attributing modern scientific knowledge (plastic surgery, nuclear weapons, aeronautical engineering, etc.) to heroes depicted in ancient texts and epics. Such statements get media attention, for it is easy to hold them up to ridicule.

A pseudo-history of science is busy creating myths, and as a result even genuine achievements in science in pre-modern India have no chance to find space in the historical imagination of schoolkids and the general reader. What is worse, any attempts to question the authenticity and veracity of such pseudo-science is represented as rejection of “Hindu” culture and “anti-national”.

The freedom to question and debate such issues needs to be asserted. The intellectual tradition from Gokhale, Lajpat Rai and Banerjea onwards demands the same assertion of freedom. Or else, we shall fail to be worthy successors of that tradition.

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