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Letting down the less-privileged

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

Teachers as well as students resist the Tamil Nadu government's decision to give up its role in the running of its 67 colleges, to the detriment of the interests of socially and economically deprived sections of society, particularly women and Dalits.

THE campuses of government-run colleges in Tamil Nadu have been tense in recent weeks. More than 3,500 teachers and about one lakh students in 67 colleges have been agitating against the government's move to relinquish its role and hand them over to universities. Unrest has been simmering since May, when the government introduced legislation enabling the conversion of these colleges into constituent units of the eight universities in the State. College teachers, students and others see the move as part of a process in which the State has been withdrawing from the vital social sector, bowing to the demands of a neo-liberal regime.

The teachers and non-teaching employees of these institutions, 60 of them arts and science colleges and the rest colleges of education, will cease to be ``government servants'' when the Tamil Nadu Universities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2002 and the Mother Teresa Women's University (Amendment) Bill, 2002 get the President's assent. While the first Bill sought to amend the Universities Act to facilitate the creation of ``constituent colleges'', the second aimed to convert the unitary women's university into an affiliating one in order to bring certain government colleges under it. The apprehensions of the teachers and other employees of the government colleges relate to possible losses that they may suffer with respect to seniority and promotion prospects.

For Dalits and women, who form a substantial proportion of the students in these institutions, the change is likely to prove extremely disadvantageous. Given the financial instability that most of the universities today face, they fear that they may be burdened by fee hikes and withdrawal of concessions and scholarships. Most of the government colleges are located in rural and semi-urban areas, and have a better track record in observing the State's reservation policy. These colleges have ensured that socially and economically deprived people, particularly women and Dalits, are provided access to higher education.

More than 90 per cent of the students here belong to the backward and most backward communities and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Many of these students are attracted to government colleges by the relatively low fees, liberal concessions and scholarship schemes. For instance, of the 1,414 students enrolled this year at the Government Arts College at Thiruvarur, 1,389 are from the backward and most backward communities and 403 are Dalits. In the Government Arts College in Chennai, Dalits account for 1,512 of the 2,937 admissions. Of the remaining 1,425 students, 64 students belong to forward communities and the rest come from the backward and most backward communities. Nearly 60 per cent of the 1,463 students at the Government Arts College at Dharmapuri are aspiring to be first-generation graduates. Apart from simple admission procedures and an affordable fee structure, the proximity of the government colleges to their homes has motivated parents to send their daughters to colleges. Although only 19 of the 67 government colleges are meant exclusively for women, 49,591 (54 per cent) of the 91,624 students who entered these 67 colleges in 2001 were women.

Tamil Nadu Government Collegiate Teachers' Association President E.P. Perumal told Frontline: ``Any attempt to even alter this equilibrium will prove disastrous for the poor and the under-privileged.'' Viewed particularly, in the context of growing commercialisation of professional and higher education in the State, the controversial proposal is a backward step by the government in its commitment to ensuring social justice in the sphere of higher education. Already, self-financing educational institutions that have mushroomed in the last two decades, thanks to the patronage of successive governments, have distorted the academic scene in the State. These institutions can be faulted for poor infrastructure, for collecting abnormally high fees and for having totally alienated the common man from the system. Of the 222 engineering colleges, 207 are self-financing and a mere seven are run by the government. Interestingly, all seven women's engineering colleges are self-financing ones. Similarly, 249 of the 477 arts and science colleges 249 belong to the self-financing stream. Only 67 of the arts and science colleges are government-run and 161 of these are government-aided.

Educationists have cautioned against the neglect of the social sciences and the pure sciences by the academic establishment, points out G. Selva, joint secretary, Tamil Nadu State Committee of the Students Federation of India (SFI). Teachers and students fear that under the new arrangement the colleges will stop offering such courses or will charge prohibitive fees for them.

The two Bills, relating to the transfer of assets and liabilities from government colleges to the universities to which most of them are currently affiliated, state that recommendations have been made in order ``to have better academic control over the government colleges and to obtain funds from Central government agencies for improvement of infrastructural facilities in the said colleges.'' Teachers and other employees now in government service will be transferred to the respective universities ``at the same pay and for the same tenure'' and ``the liability to pay pension and gratuity to the transferred persons be the liability of the respective university''.

The teachers' groups were sceptical about hopes of the colleges netting more funds from the funding agencies under the new agreement. According to them, most of these universities are in the red owing to a steady fall in the flow of funds to them over the years. Moreover, agencies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) themselves are cash-starved owing to poor allocations by the Union government. In recent years the UGC has in fact been pressuring universities and colleges to prune their expenditure. Research activities in many of them have been curtailed to achieve this. Two UGC circulars to universities and colleges in 1999 suggest increased working hours for teachers, staff cuts and a slow-down in recruitments. Recently, the UGC has forwarded certain recommendations from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development to these institutions. These suggestions include a freeze on recruitment in all autonomous organisations, a ban on creation of posts at all levels, a 10 per cent reduction in staff size and abolition of all posts that have been vacant for more than a year.

Currently, over 1,000 teaching posts are lying vacant in government colleges. The teachers fear that the recommendations will have a detrimental effect on efforts to fill vacancies. The teachers are also worried over a statement included in the State Education Ministry's Policy Note. This Note was brought before the Assembly in April and for the first time spelt out the proposal to ``convert the Government Arts and Science Colleges and the Colleges of Education into constituent colleges of the respective universities''. The statement reads: ``Further commitment of the Government towards salary component of all the Government colleges will be frozen at the levels prevailing at the time of transferring the colleges to the universities.'' On March 27, while presenting the State budget, Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan said: ``The financial support to universities and aided colleges will be gradually phased out.'' He added that universities would be encouraged ``to focus on internal resources''.

Prof. A. Sankarasubramanian, general secretary, Government College Teachers Manram (Tamil Nadu) said: ``The inference is that the government will not come forward to assist the universities in the matter of filling vacancies and future recruitments. If financial assistance is frozen at the current level, how can the universities, which are already in the red, do this or pay incremental salaries to the teachers? They (the universities) may then resort to retrenchment or redeployment of the staff, or a hefty hike in fees.'' There is also apprehension among teachers and students that some of these colleges may be closed in due course on grounds of ``lack of viability''.

The teachers and students are also worried that under the new arrangement, the universities may not be inclined to implement strictly the reservation norms in regard to appointments and admissions. Said Selva: ``The track record of many of these universities in this respect is anything but encouraging.''

Demanding that the government drop the proposal to bring government colleges under control of universities, All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO) general secretary B. Vijayakumar said that the government is better placed than universities to provide quality education at reasonable rates. The government, he told Frontline, was more capable than universities in the matter of assessing conflicting claims from different regions for starting new colleges. By retaining control of these colleges the government could help fulfil aspirations of the people with respect to their language, literature and culture.

AIFUCTO national secretary B. Parthasarathi did not agree with the government's contention that the proposed arrangement will allow the colleges to benefit from UGC assistance. He said that UGC rules did not prevent government colleges from receiving assistance from the agency

THE teachers and non-teaching employees of the 67 government colleges in the State went on an ``indefinite'' strike from August 21. The students walked out of their classes on August 20, demanding the government drop the proposal. They continued to abstain from classes in support of the teachers. The government declared that it would stick to the proposal, but assured the teachers and students that their interests would be protected. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa told representatives of teachers' organisations, who met her on August 29, that their increments, pensions and terminal benefits would be protected. A three-member committee would look into grievances regarding seniority and related issues, she said. The teachers' organisations ``suspended'' the agitation and resumed work on September 2.

The students whose organisations were not invited for talks, however, continued to abstain. The government announced the closure of colleges up to September 16. Police used force to disperse students who staged demonstrations in Chennai, Madurai and other places.

About 100 students, including 25 women, of the Government Arts College at Melur near Madurai were injured, 24 of them having to be hospitalised. About 1,000 students courted arrest at various places; 11 of the arrested have been remanded to custody. Cases have been filed against a large number of students. Opposition leaders and student organisations demanded the release of the arrested, withdrawal of cases and payment of compensation to the injured. SFI State unit president K. Thangamohan told Frontline that the students were determined to continue the strike. While the teachers and students of government colleges are still wary of the Chief Minister's assurances regarding their future, the basic social issues arising out of the government's resolve to abandon its responsibilities with respect to higher education remain unaddressed.