Higher Education

A battle won

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Members of student unions celebrate in front of Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh’s residence on June 27 following the rollback of the controversial undergraduate programme. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh. He came in for criticism for the unseemly haste with which the FYUP was implemented. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Activists of the All India Students Association outside the University Grants Commission office in New Delhi on June 26. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

B.Tech students protesting against the rollback outside the Human Resource Development Ministry in New Delhi on June 28. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The rollback of Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programme is the result of a united struggle by the university community against what could have marked the beginning of a subsidy-free higher education system in public universities.

THE rollback of Delhi University’s (D.U.) flagship four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) following the directives of the University Grants Commission (UGC), the apex governing body of higher education, to the university in the last week of June involved several twists and turns. As speculations over the FYUP’s future became rife after the UGC set up a review committee in the first week of June, soon after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power, concerns were raised about the Indian education system in the debates revolving around the FYUP experiment.

Towards the end of June, it became clear that the NDA government did not favour the continuation of the FYUP, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised in its election manifesto. After that, it was only a matter of time before the FYUP was rolled back. The UGC’s insistence on rolling back the FYUP through a series of directives and the D.U.’s reluctance to give in led to a bitter tussle, which was reflected in their exchange of letters. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) celebrated the development as “Modi Sarkar’s achievement”. However, what seemed forgotten in the process was the prolonged struggle that several progressive unions of students, teachers and karmacharis had led against the FYUP over the past one year, bringing the questionable nature of the programme centre stage.

The D.U. had faced widespread criticism for the unseemly haste with which it introduced the programme a year ago. The role of Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh, who had full support from both the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the UGC, in pushing through the FYUP was not only criticised as autocratic but also seen as an organised attempt to subvert the largely democratic space of the public university (see “Protest in Delhi University”, September 20, 2013, and “System error”, May 17, 2013).

Save D.U. campaign

The “Save D.U. campaign”, comprising many progressive groups opposed to the FYUP, created awareness among students and the common people against the programme and put up a formidable challenge to changing the nature of the higher education system of India. It showed students and the common people how the FYUP, under the garb of promoting “interdiscplinarity, flexibility, and employability”, was a way to advance private capital’s interests in the higher education system.

Apart from highlighting the ineffective implementation of the FYUP and the sufferings of D.U. students, the campaign proved that the FYUP was an indirect way of putting the financial burden of education upon the students alone. It broke the D.U. administration’s widely propagated myth that the FYUP would encourage more jobs for both teachers and students. In fact, using statistics and information based on Right to Information queries, it proved that the FYUP would entail just the opposite—curtailment of jobs, freezing of employment for teachers and karmacharis, and outsourcing most of the processes of the university to private bodies.

Citing examples of elite colleges outside Delhi, the campaign showed how “granting autonomy” to an educational institute had become the safest way for the government to shrug off its financial responsibilities for that institute. (The FYUP, which was a unique programme, was also brought in the context of “exercising autonomy”.) The movement decried the Vice-Chancellor’s innumerable attempts to exercise his emergency powers to bring in these reforms, making the government’s support he received for his undemocratic style obvious. It campaigned to show that in the long run the FYUP was a drastic, insouciant step that could deprive the poor of higher education.

Understandably then, the rollback of the FYUP, as many D.U. teachers said, was neither because of the UGC’s intervention nor because of the new government at the Centre. Most of the teachers felt that it was the victory of a united struggle of the university community against the FYUP, which, according to many dissenters, could have marked the beginning of a subsidy-free higher education system in public universities.

Unprincipled opposition

This understanding does not seem misplaced because not long ago the UGC authorities publicly lauded the FYUP, hailing it as the next step to put India on the global education map. Such public recognition to the FYUP came from the UGC’s stable despite widespread resentment against the programme within the university. The ABVP joined the struggle only when it sensed widespread anger against the programme in the university. Despite its opposition to the FYUP, it did not take any principled stand against privatisation of education. Its opposition to the FYUP mostly stemmed from its antagonism to the UPA-II government at the Centre. In fact, the National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF), the BJP’s teachers’ wing, had not opposed the FYUP in the statutory committee meetings of the D.U. Only when the resentment against the FYUP became widespread did it oppose the “hasty implementation” .

This unprincipled opposition of the BJP is reflected in the UGC’s directive to the D.U. to roll back the FYUP. Choosing to ignore the widespread resentment among students and teachers and the substandard syllabi of the FYUP, the UGC, in its directive to the D.U., spoke only about the legitimate bureaucratic and legislative violations in the FYUP’s implementation. These bureaucratic violations committed by the D.U. had been pointed out many times by the “Save D.U. campaign”, too.

In its June 22 press release, the UGC says: “...Implementation of the FYUP was considered by the UGC in its 501st meeting held on 13th June, 2014, and after having regard to the various facts brought before it, including the fact that the FYUP was not in accordance with the 10+2+3 system of education enshrined in the National Policy on Education, 1986, the Commission decided to issue an advisory to the University of Delhi to reconsider/review the continuation of the FYUP.”

‘Blended model’

While this seems to acknowledge the problem with the FYUP, it remains vague. The UGC gave a clear directive to roll back the FYUP after the D.U., in its reply to the UGC advocated a “blended model”. In response to the UGC’s order, the D.U.’s Registrar, Alka Sharma, said: “...the university is of the opinion that given the situation where admissions are being delayed, time is the essence and hence this blended proposal submitted by some eminent persons to the UGC and the D.U. may provide the necessary way forward....This proposal entails admitting all students to a three-year undergraduate course with honours and will also obviate the need to call for fresh registrations. We await your response in order to convene the statutory bodies at the earliest in the best interest of the students and the academic community.”

The “blended model” was slammed by most dissenters. While the D.U. said that the rollback would require statutory approvals, its alternative proposal was to reduce the foundation courses that were introduced for the FYUP and award an honours degree with 17 papers as against 18 disciplinary courses previously. It also talked about an optional fourth year where a student was required to do a research paper. In effect, the D.U.’s alternative was an indirect way to retain the FYUP, many teachers told Frontline.

However, the UGC shot back a letter, making its intent clear. “The contents of your letter are contradictory. On one hand you have said that rollback would require statutory approvals and on the other hand, you have talked of a ‘blended model’ which may provide a necessary way forward, which would inevitably imply that it would not require any statutory approvals,” the UGC said.

“Be that as it may, the directive of UGC was clear and unambiguous. It is reiterated that the FYUP was introduced by the University of Delhi without following the statutory provisions of the Delhi University Act, 1922....The amendments which introduced the FYUP were not even submitted to the visitor in terms of the applicable statutory provisions as informed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development [HRD]. In fact, the Ministry of HRD has stated that it had vide its letter dated 30th July, 2013, sought various clarifications from the University of Delhi in respect to the proposed amendments. However, the same was never responded/reverted upon by the University of Delhi,” the two-page letter added.

To add to the drama, the UGC, in fact, went a step ahead. It bypassed D.U. Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh, regarded as an ardent supporter of the FYUP, and wrote to all the constituent colleges asking whether they were in a position to revert to the pre-2013 system. Fifty-seven of the 64 colleges under the D.U. stated that they would ensure adherence to the directions issued by the UGC.

Eventually, a day after the Vice-Chancellor announced the FYUP rollback, the academic and executive councils of the university passed a resolution to implement the three-year structure from the new academic session, amidst negligible dissent. However, many bureaucratic hurdles will have to be passed though. For instance, one of the challenges before the D.U. will be to properly integrate into the three-year course the approximately 55,000 students who took admission in the FYUP programme last year. The UGC has constituted a standing committee solely for the purpose.

Privatisation agenda

It is clear that the UGC did a volte-face under the instructions of the HRD Ministry. And this has raised concerns among many sections of the university about the autonomy of the UGC. Clearly, in this context, the UGC displayed a completely uncritical attitude towards the government’s commands. Therefore, a large section of the “Save D.U. campaign” feel that the autonomy of institutions needs to be protected even as the FYUP is on its way out.

However, some teachers believe that it is not for the first time that apex bodies of education have pandered to the political sentiment of the ruling parties. They stress that opposition to the privatisation of the education sector under the garb of unnecessary reforms like the FYUP should become the crux of the movement against privatisation, and solidarity among students, teachers and workers should be strengthened.

They feel that a large, liberal section of teachers who supported the idea of the FYUP but blamed the hasty implementation for its failure still have a question to answer. How should education be perceived in India? Should it be only something to increase the employability of a student as the FYUP was projected to be or should it also be one of the means of social transformation, integral to India’s political philosophy?

It is in this context that Saikat Ghosh, who teaches English at the D.U., writes in one of his articles: “Regular images of dharnas, protest marches, strikes and violent burnings of effigies in university campuses are the staple of a modern historian’s archive; yet these are disconcerting for a public that has been persuaded to think of education as a sanitised pursuit of global happiness. The sixties fomented some of the most effervescent and radical upsurges in university campuses across the world. These movements spawned new forms of political and civil awareness but also helped to redefine academic enquiry and knowledge. Neoliberal intervention in the last few decades has significantly blunted the impact of the sixties and has helped popularise a new sense of managerial autonomy, replacing the older intellectual and academic autonomy, for universities.

“As a result, it is commonsensical to think of universities as incubation centres for a global knowledge economy, wherein politics should have no role. But neoliberalism has to be read between the lines. Its interest is not limited to curricula and syllabi. It is a comprehensive strategy to overhaul resource management and redefine institutions. It looks closely at every inch of free space within the university campus and tries to create a commercial spin-off out of it. While keeping away from any recognisable micro-political process, it undertakes to accomplish a macro-political agenda. Delhi University’s makeover in the [Kapil] Sibal [HRD Minister under whom the FYUP was first introduced] era is a textbook example of this all-too-subtle intervention.”

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