Not withstanding the events surrounding the arrest of student leaders in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in February and the death of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad, or Hyderabad Central University (HCU), in January and the debate on nationalism and patriotism that these events have sparked, the Central government appears to have conveniently sidestepped the issue of university autonomy.
Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani defended her Ministry’s intervention in issues concerning university campuses on the grounds that such intervention had been sought by Members of Parliament from time to time, especially in the case of JNU and HCU. But the fact that the appointment of Vice-Chancellors by the government, which undermined the autonomy of universities, was in itself an interference was overlooked.
Replying to the debate on the arrest of JNU student leaders and Rohith Vemula’s suicide in the Rajya Sabha on February 25, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley pointed out that the core issue was not one of “academic licence”. Defending the right of the police to enter the university campus, he said campuses were not sovereign territories. Apart from whether the police had the right to enter the campus or whether the slogans raised by the students of JNU merited such entry and arrests, there is one crucial problem that both the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government are to be blamed for, albeit in varying degrees: the erosion of university autonomy. The larger question, therefore, has been whether universities are expected to act and react as per the whims and fancies of the party in power.
In the case of JNU, the Vice-Chancellor did an about-turn after giving the students permission to hold an event commemorating Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013 for his role in the Parliament building terrorist attack, while in the case of HCU, senior Ministers wrote to the Vice-Chancellor on the basis of a representation by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
In both cases, the university administration succumbed to political interference in issues concerning the university. The facts, as they appear, were that formal permission was granted by the JNU administration for the event on February 9. The nature and content of the programme was known to everyone concerned and posters were put up, as is the practice. One section of students, affiliated to the ABVP, raised an objection to the holding of the event, following which permission for the programme was withdrawn 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start. But the programme nevertheless took place. The same group of students who objected to the event appeared at the venue of the programme and protested, leading to some heated exchanges, in the course of which objectionable slogans were raised by allegedly unknown persons. After some time all the students dispersed and no violence took place. This was verified by the confidential report of the chief security officer.
What was surprising was that the university’s own processes were deemed incapable of handling the situation. The Delhi Police took suo motu cognisance of the situation and within a day acted on the complaint of an MP of the ruling party.
Meanwhile, video clips showing students shouting “anti-national” slogans were aired by some television channels. Egged on by the Union Home Minister, the police invoked charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against the students. The university administration gave the police free access to the campus to conduct their operations, which led to the arrest of the elected president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar. Under pressure, the university selectively suspended eight students, excluding members of the group that objected to the programme. An orchestrated campaign was unleashed saying that JNU was a hub of anti-national activity and that it should not be allowed to become a haven for such activities. University autonomy in an internal matter such as the one that JNU witnessed was thrown to the winds.
The teaching community and students, who form the core of universities, wonder whether universities and their constituents would be able to function without the fear of consequences under a climate of control.
The situation as far as university autonomy is concerned has never been ideal. The role of governments in choosing Vice-Chancellors, undemocratic governance structures, and the control of university finances have ensured that there is no autonomy. Smriti Irani’s reply to the debate on the floor of the House, outlining the grounds on which her Ministry intervened in universities, whether in the case of the removal of a Vice-Chancellor accused of sexual misconduct or another accused of corruption, was also a reflection of the structures that allow the government to intervene at will. But in recent years, there has been drastic erosion of autonomy as part of the process of undermining public higher education and the increasing conversion of higher education into a privately provided commodity available to those who can afford it.
The hugely unpopular four-year university programme (FYUP) introduced in Delhi University in 2013 when the UPA was in power was defended by the university administration on the grounds of autonomy. But the autonomy it sought to defend was undermined when the subsequent NDA government scrapped the controversial reform in 2014. While the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) opposed the FYUP, the Vice-Chancellor’s supporters were for it.
The Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS) is another programme that was introduced despite serious reservations expressed by the Academic Council of Delhi University.
Sanjay Bohidar, a teacher and former member of the Academic Council of Delhi University, said the HRD Ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC) had asked all universities to implement the CBCS in July 2015. The CBCS, he said, was not discussed at the level of any statutory body in the university. It was merely reported as a reporting item in the last Academic Council meeting and deemed as adopted against dissents submitted by 15 of the 26 elected teacher-representatives in the Academic Council. By the time the CBCS directive was reported, Bohidar said, many elected representatives had left due to confusion. Otherwise the number of dissents may have been more, he added. The CBCS, he said, was not a new reform.
The Centre has been trying to implement it since 2008 in a piecemeal fashion. The forced introduction of the semester system in all undergraduate courses was the first step and then new Central universities, created under the Central Universities Act, 2009, were forced to adopt the CBCS from the very start.
The CBCS was not a feature of the National Policy on Education. Its imposition would have violated existing statutes and Acts of long-established Central universities like Delhi University, which were empowered to plan their own courses and curricula through Committees of Courses and Faculties with the approval of the Academic Council. The HRD Ministry’s intention was to bring all Central universities under one common Act that would supersede the current Acts. The pending Central Universities Bill, 2013, made the implementation of the CBCS part of a common Act for all Central universities, thereby leaving universities with no autonomy to deviate from it even if they found it academically unsound. The amended Bill was finally passed in 2015, making CBCS compulsory.
The UGC offered a sketchy outline of the CBCS in January 2008. No committee had authored the outline. The UPA government could not push this through. With a new government in place, the proposal was made anew. On November 14, 2014, the HRD Secretary wrote to the Vice-Chancellors of Central universities asking them to introduce the CBCS from the academic session 2015-16 and send an Action Taken Report to the Ministry. This, Bohidar said, was not discussed at any statutory body or authority vested with the responsibilities conferred by the Acts of Parliament establishing these universities. The course structure, the examination system and the evaluation system were all under the various Acts establishing those universities and not in the domain of the Ministry or the UGC. In fact, a “retreat”, chaired by the HRD Minister, was organised for Vice-Chancellors in September 2014 where the introduction of the CBCS was discussed. The gathering of Vice-Chancellors was not a decision-making body by any standards.
Delhi University started the process of implementation of the CBCS by executive order without discussing the matter first in the Academic Council or in the Executive Council. Repeated attempts by the Ministry and the UGC to create a common curriculum framework and common syllabi for all universities appeared to be directed towards an extreme centralisation of higher education. Teachers’ bodies such as the DUTA pointed out that it was unconstitutional as it negated the States and regions as independent stakeholders (education is in the Concurrent List of the Constitution) and was authoritarian. The UGC’s mandated responsibility was to maintain standards by suggesting model curricula, but in this case, the creation of structures, syllabi and reading lists, albeit with some 20 per cent room for tweaking them to suit each university’s needs, was perceived as a brazen overstepping of its own brief and limits of power. Such a move allowed for extreme interference of the State in higher education, which was bound to have undemocratic political and ideological ramifications replacing a “critical outlook with conformism”, said Bohidar, who teaches at Sri Ram College of Commerce.
In addition to the existing trends, the current dispensation at the Centre has an ideological agenda and is ready to use its power to support the students’ union affiliated to the RSS in universities, whether at JNU or HCU. As the government is the sole funder of public universities and has a definite say in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors, university reforms have happened at the cost of undermining democratic structures within universities. The community of teachers and scholars, which is what university ( Universitas Magistrorum et Scholarium ) stands for in Latin, is at a crossroads today. Envisaged as independent and self-regulating bodies promoting critical inquiry and learning, even in its medieval epistemology, autonomous institutions, especially Central universities, need breathing space.