Higher education: COVID-induced crisis used to push through ‘reforms’ without proper discussion

The pronouncements in the National Education Policy 2020 about increased public investment, autonomy, and equity and inclusiveness in higher education seem to be myths that were propagated to conceal the real intentions.

Published : Sep 26, 2021 06:00 IST

A postgraduate class  in MLB College, Bhopal, on September 15 after the Madhya Pradesh government decided to reopen colleges. Teachers’ unions highlight the absence of any steps “to bridge increasing disparity which ruined the learning experience of a large section of students”.

A postgraduate class in MLB College, Bhopal, on September 15 after the Madhya Pradesh government decided to reopen colleges. Teachers’ unions highlight the absence of any steps “to bridge increasing disparity which ruined the learning experience of a large section of students”.

On September 7, 2020, speaking at the inaugural educational conclave ‘Shikshak Parv’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that the country was fortunate to have a “modern and futuristic new National Education Policy” during a time of great transformation. The reference was to the policy adopted by the Union Cabinet on July 29, 2020. On the first anniversary of its adoption, Modi emphasised the “revolutionary change” that the policy would bring about in higher education with the aid of “modern technology”. He also launched, among other ‘initiatives’, the Academic Bank of Credit (ABC), the Guidelines for Internationalisation of Higher Education, the National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR) and the National Education Technology Forum (NETF). Fourteen engineering colleges in eight States, he said, would introduce studies in five regional languages.

Dharmendra Pradhan, the Union Minister of Education, echoed Modi’s views and hailed the NEP 2020 as a visionary education policy of the 21st century aimed at bringing out the capabilities of every student, universalising education, building capacities and transforming the learning landscape. At least three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, also declared that they would implement the NEP from 2021 itself while Delhi University, the largest Central university in the country, announced that it would do so from next year.

Just a few days before Modi’s Shikshak Parv speech, on September 4, the eve of Teachers’ Day, representatives of several teachers’ unions came together under the banner of the Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations (FEDCUTA) to voice their concerns about the implementation of the NEP 2020. With the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO) also joining in, the unions observed September 5 as a day of protest.

Teachers’ protest was against the backdrop of a slew of steps taken by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in the past year as part of implementing the NEP 2020. Teachers were also upset about the impact of the prolonged COVID-related closure of higher education institutions and the turmoil in several universities caused by Vice Chancellors imposing decisions on teachers and students. The discordant note struck by the teachers’ bodies was at odds with not only the official celebrations but also Modi’s contention in his Shikshak Parv speech that the NEP 2020 was formulated and implemented with the participation of “academicians, experts, teachers”.

When the NEP 2020 was adopted in July 2020, teachers’ bodies and critics expressed doubts about the government’s commitment to increasing public investment in higher education and promoting academic autonomy. They saw the policy as one designed to facilitate greater privatisation of the sector and the promotion of a particular ideological agenda. A year later, they feel their worst fears are being proved right.

At a media briefing on September 4, FEDCUTA representatives said that the pandemic had dealt a blow to the higher education sector and that the Central government had failed “to provide leadership in responding to issues faced by students and teachers”. They highlighted the absence of any steps “to bridge increasing disparity which ruined the learning experience of a large section of students”. In a written response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, on July 29, Dharmendra Pradhan virtually confirmed the teachers’ charge that little had been done to address the disruption in education caused by the protracted shutdown of institutions.

While outlining the steps taken by the government to reduce the loss of students in the lockdown period, all he highlighted was the relaxation of norms for allowing institutions to offer online and distance learning courses. Not surprisingly, teachers interpret the government’s approach as one of using the crisis to push through ‘reforms’ in higher education without any proper discussion of their consequences.

Complaints against Vice Chancellors

From the perspective of teachers, the story of Vice Chancellors in several Central universities is indicative of the problems in higher education. It was only a few days before the anniversary of the adoption of the NEP 2020 that 12 Central universities got new Vice Chancellors and after much delay. The posts, however, remain vacant in two major Central universities located in the capital, Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Delhi University has an officiating Vice Chancellor; the government had suspended the incumbent Yogesh Tyagi in October 2020 before the completion of his term in March 2021. In JNU, the government has allowed the controversial M. Jagadesh Kumar to continue as the caretaker Vice Chancellor long beyond his official term, which ended in January 2021. Both were appointed by the Narendra Modi government, as were two other Vice Chancellors in the thick of controversies—Bidyut Chakrabarty of Visva Bharati University, West Bengal, and H. Venkateshwarlu of the Central University of Kerala. The common complaint against these Vice Chancellors are administrative high-handedness, disrespect for institutional norms, authoritarianism and riding roughshod over the opinions of teachers and students.

Recently, the Central government stopped the sine die shutdown of Visva Bharati on September 1, a decision that was purportedly taken at the behest of the Vice Chancellor himself. The Vice Chancellor had been engaged in a prolonged war with students, teachers and university employees, resulting in the dismissal of nine employees, the suspension of 21 employees and several students, and the issuance of show cause notices to over 150 students.

In representations to the government, teachers and students have accused Bidyut Chakrabarty of centralising power in his hands by keeping several positions such as Pro-Vice Chancellor, Registrar, Finance Officer and Directors vacant and pursuing a policy of harassment of those opposed to him by sealing several offices and deliberately delaying salary payments. Both Visva Bharati and JNU are now embroiled in litigation resulting from the actions of their administrations, but even adverse remarks from courts about their functioning do not appear to have had any moderating effect.

JNU perhaps leads on this count with numerous courts giving verdicts critical of violations of statutory provisions and arbitrary exercise of powers during Jagadesh Kumar’s tenure; some of these verdicts even found the university guilty of violating the reservation policy through a faculty recruitment process. The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA), which had been demanding his removal even before the mob violence against faculty and students that rocked the university at the beginning of 2020, has expressed its unhappiness with the Ministry of Education allowing Jagadesh Kumar to continue even beyond his term and accused him of acting beyond his powers as caretaker Vice Chancellor. The perpetrators of the mob violence still remain unidentified.

A few recent decisions in Delhi University and JNU are seen as reflections of their respective administrations acting as the government’s instruments to impose decisions in line with the NEP 2020 without taking academic opinion into account. In Delhi University, the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) was revived as part of the university’s decision to implement the NEP 2020. The brainchild of Dinesh Singh, the previous Vice Chancellor, this programme was scrapped in 2014 soon after the Modi government assumed office. In JNU, the Vice Chancellor has pushed through the university’s statutory bodies plans to introduce a large number of undergraduate programmes and online degree courses.

One of the ironies of the NEP’s implementation is that its chief instrument so far in the higher education sector is the UGC, a body that itself is envisaged by the policy to disappear. In September last year, the UGC notified the University Grants Commission (Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes) Regulations, 2020, which superseded two previous sets of regulations. On March 25, the UGC notified the Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds Regulations, 2021, known as the new SWAYAM Regulation, superceding the UGC (Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through SWAYAM) Regulations, 2016.

Then in May this year, the UGC issued its concept note on blended mode of teaching and learning. On the first anniversary of the adoption of NEP 2020, the Guidelines for Internationalisation of Higher Education in India, the Guidelines for Multiple Entry and Exit in Academic Programmes offered in Higher Education Institutions and the UGC (Establishment and Operation of Academic Bank of Credits in Higher Education) Regulation, 2021, were issued.

The essence of the UGC’s various pronouncements was the creation of an institutional framework in which there would be “flexibility” in the acquisition of higher education degrees, in terms of combinations of courses that need to be done as prerequisites, the time schedules, locations and modes through which they are completed. While the government seeks to promote this idea of flexibility as something that empowers students and facilitates the promotion of quality and meaningful higher education with equity and inclusion, teachers’ bodies argue that it will have the exact opposite effect— increase the effective cost of education and widen the gap between the few who can ‘afford’ quality education and those who cannot. Curricula will lose internal cohesion and structure, and teachers will no longer be able to shape them in accordance with the requirements of the best learning outcomes of students in specific degree programmes and institutions, they say.

Ideological agenda

The recent controversies surrounding the curricular changes brought about in the humanities at the behest of the UGC and the Ministry of Education exemplify the potential threat to academic autonomy and the manipulation of a centralised system to promote a particular ideological agenda. Cases in point are the removal of specific texts from the English syllabus at Delhi University, and the introduction of a course on terrorism in JNU’s Engineering School.

In the Central University of Kerala, the Vice Chancellor issued a circular on August 30, warning faculty members from delivering “anti-national” lectures and statements and threatened them with disciplinary action if they did so. This followed the suspension (subsequently withdrawn after extracting an apology) of a teacher in the university’s Department of International Relations and Politics after protests from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student wing of the BJP) about his characterisation of the BJP-RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) in a lecture on a course on fascism and nazism.

Even as India’s higher education system is being pushed towards a radical restructuring, the hyperactivity with regard to regulations is in sharp contrast to the lack of evidence of increased public investment. It would appear that the critics of NEP 2020 were right that the promises of increased public investment, autonomy, and equity and inclusion were myths that were propagated to conceal the real intentions behind the policy.

The NEP aims to increase Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education, including vocational education, from 26.3 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2035 and proposes to add 3.5 crore new seats in higher educational institutions. Without matching public investment, this will not be a regular expansion.

There are ample signs of reluctance in accepting the NEP 2020 blindly. BJP-ruled States such as Karnataka were among the first to launch the NEP. However, there were protests in Karnataka on September 15 as some student organisations demanded a discussion on the NEP in the Assembly. On August 20, launching the policy in Mysuru, the Karnataka Minister for Higher Education said that it was not anti-poor, but student-centric. He was at pains to explain the merits of private educational institutions and advised people to change their attitudes towards them and not view them as merely commercial entities.

According to the All India Survey of Higher Education, nearly 79 per cent of colleges and over 66 per cent of enrolment is in the private sector, and the situation in universities is similar. The NEP 2020 has only a theoretical commitment to stepping up public investment in higher education. It has not been matched by actual expenditure.

Until that is done, it is unlikely that the GER will go up as most of the institutions in the private educational sector are out of reach for the masses. In the meantime, all that the NEP will have achieved would be a reinforcement of the top-down, over-centralised approach to higher education, with a greater flexibility for students to quit the system rather than stay.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment