Uttar Pradesh, especially the National Capital Region area adjoining the National Capital Territory, has emerged as a hub of higher educational institutions in the last decade. As many as 27 private universities have been established since State government brought in policy changes to invite private participation in the field of higher education. Each university was set up with its own Act, which was ratified by the State Assembly.
The Yogi Adityanath government recently decided to bring in an umbrella legislation to control all these universities, as well as those in the pipeline, with the intention of having tighter control over their academic environment and administrative functioning. The Cabinet approved a draft ordinance to this effect on June 18. The ordinance, called the U.P. Private Universities Ordinance was announced at a press conference in Lucknow the same evening, even before it had received the Governor’s assent.
Briefing the media, the government’s spokesperson, Siddharth Nath Singh, said the ordinance was brought to regulate private universities in the State in order to secure the future of students. He said the government had made some new laws to improve the quality of the education in these universities. Some of these universities fail to give degrees at the last moment, he added. The new ordinance will have a say on the fee structure, teachers’ appointments and other matters relating to the management of these universities.
There are around 30-32 new rules for these private universities, including keeping an endowment amount of Rs.5 crore with the government for any lapses, Siddharth Nath Singh said. Besides, the new law will make it compulsory for 75 per cent of the teachers to be appointed on a permanent basis and ensure that these appointments are made in a transparent manner.
The new law has fixed the extent of land that would be needed for the setting up of universities: 20 acres in urban areas and 50 acres in rural areas. The ordinance also provides for reservation of 10 per cent of the seats, with 50 per cent of fees, for economically weaker sections. It will give the State government the power to derecognise any university that is found violating the rules or indulging in gross misuse of funds or frauds. The Uttar Pradesh State Higher Education Board was made the nodal agency to implement and regulate the provisions of the new law and take action if necessary.
Check on ‘anti-national activities’
But what actually made everyone sit up and take note was the provision that each university had to give an undertaking against indulging in, associating with or allowing any anti-national activities on its premises. The proposed law gives the State government the power to revoke a university’s registration if it is found lacking on this parameter. The proposed law also requires universities to give an undertaking that they will “preserve the secular, democratic fabric and aspire for universal brotherhood and tolerance” and promote the ethos of national integrity among students.
Since there was much confusion on this aspect, State Minister for Higher and Secondary Education Dinesh Sharma, who is also the Deputy Chief Minister, clarified on June 19 that the State government had received complaints of “anti-national activities” at some universities that could cause a “disturbance” in the State. “Anything that harms the unity and integrity of the country will not be allowed. We have come to unite the country and are committed to checking such activities,” he said.
Reacting to this announcement, the U.P. Private Universities Association said that while the overall intention of the ordinance was laudable, there was no need for it as there were sufficient laws to check unlawful activities taking place anywhere in the State, let alone on university campuses.
Pankaj Agrawal, secretary of the association, said in a statement: “Why would any university let its campus be used for anti-national activities? We would never let our educational institutions to be used for anti-national activities. We promote strong values among students. The government, in fact, should incorporate nationalism among students in the curriculum from early school days.” Agrawal is also the chancellor of Shri Ramswaroop Memorial University, Lucknow. He said: “We have already incorporated these points in the constitution of our university and abide by it.”
Balvinder Shukla, Vice Chancellor of Amity University, another prominent private university in U.P., said: “There have been no instances of anti-national activity on our campus. We have a strong value system and we celebrate Republic Day and Independence Day with zeal. We have aligned our curriculum that gives emphasis to nation and character building. We teach our students to respect the law of the land,” she said in a statement.
Y.K. Gupta, pro-chancellor of Sharda University, another prominent private university in the State, said: “There are already enough laws to control such activities if needed. Laws to curb unlawful or anti-national activities which apply to all citizens apply to us also in the campuses. So where is the need for having a separate law for universities.”
In view of such wide-ranging condemnation of the proposed law, Governor Ram Naik refused to sign the ordinance. Senior U.P. government officials told Frontline that the Governor had refused consent on the grounds that there was no cause for urgency to bring in an ordinance since the same Cabinet that had approved the ordinance had also approved convening the Assembly session from July 18. “With only a month to go for the Assembly session, an ordinance cannot be promulgated. Besides, the Governor also raised objection to the fact that the draft ordinance did not have the inputs from the Finance and Legal Departments,” senior officials said.
In view of such a categorical rejection of the ordinance, the U.P. government has since decided to move a Bill instead. “Yes, we have decided not to bring the ordinance and will instead table a Bill in the next session of the Assembly. No ordinance should be ideally promulgated once the State legislature has been convened,” Dinesh Sharma told the media in Lucknow on July 4.
Experts in the field of higher education opined that the Bill if enacted into a law would seriously undermine the academic and administrative autonomy of private universities. The provisions of the proposed Bill are such that the universities will be reduced to becoming an adjunct of the government, completely divested of their autonomy.
The representatives of many private universities told Frontline that the government appeared to be in a tearing hurry to bring in a “one size fits all” policy, which went against the grain of academic freedom. A strongly worded note on the proposed law submitted by Sharda University to the government stated: “Once a university has been established, the role of the government should be that of a facilitator, ensuring autonomy of institutions. Universities aspiring to achieve excellence need a free, liberal and facilitative environment. Distrust against private universities may result in a situation wherein they will not be in a position to drive any academic agenda driven by innovation and creativity.”
The note detailed how the current statutes that govern private universities in the State are duly recognised by the University Grants Commission and approved by the State legislature. The note added: “The proposed new law robs the universities of their freedom and autonomy, destroys the free spirit, and academic atmosphere of the campuses and leaves them wholly exposed to bureaucratic control, interference and inspector raj.”
The note also specified that private promoters had ventured into the field of higher education in Uttar Pradesh a decade ago only on account of the “clear and unequivocal understanding, assurance and promise given by the State government that the sponsoring body shall have the maximum autonomy and freedom in the matter of administrating and managing the educational institutions and the State government shall not interfere or meddle in the academic, administrative and managerial affairs of the university”. The note stated that over the years, the universities had made heavy financial commitments on account of such assurances and had done well, in fact better than public-funded institutions. To go back on these assurances and bring in government control at each step, whether academic, administrative or managerial, would amount to “a blatant breach of trust and an antithesis of the ideals and objectives with which they were allowed a decade ago”.
Interestingly, most of the university representatives who spoke to Frontline agreed with the opinions expressed in the Sharda University note but refrained from going on record. “If these universities back out or shift base because of the stifling environment here, can you imagine the plight of the students? How many new universities has the U.P. government established in the last decade?” asked an Amity University official.
This strong reaction from the private universities comes in view of the fact that the proposed law seeks to control not only admission criteria, recruitment of teachers, curriculum, fee structure, and so on, but academic content as well. It gives the State government overriding powers in the form of a regulatory authority, completely controlled by serving government officials, who will inspect these universities once a year and can recommend action without giving the university any chance to reply. “This goes against the very principle of natural justice,” said a senior functionary of Sharda University. Senior State government officials, however, appeared determined to go ahead with the proposed legislation, saying the government was firm on bringing “uniformity” in the standard of higher education.
Amidst the paranoia about “one nation one vote” and “one nation one ration”, the Uttar Pradesh government has gone a step further and come up with “one State, one education”. Good sense should prevail, and the State government should leave education to academics and not let bureaucrats meddle with it.