The UGC scheme attempts to cut the colleges from the very umbilical cord, which has been providing them with the required buoyancy and vibrancy.
In the scorching summer heat, the University of Delhi is on the boil again. Leading upfront is the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) which, after much deliberation, has given a clarion call to its members to boycott the marking and evaluation process.
While there are many issues underlining the boycott call, the bone of contention in the extant case is a recent UGC proposal, which confers graded autonomy to some of the most coveted (nationally highly ranked) colleges. It is least surprising that if implemented, such a decision will surely alter the nature and the federal character of DU – one of India’s premier universities.
The proponents of graded autonomy tend to argue that the scheme would not only liberate some of the most outstanding colleges of the country from the shackles of regulatory bodies (like the UGC), but would also augment and improve their functioning by providing greater ease in decision-making.
This, they argue, would, in turn, enable these colleges to frame innovative and meaningful syllabi to suit the larger needs of society and the market. It would also allow them the freedom to recruit faculty and enter into meaningful research collaborations with eminent institutions and universities from across the globe.
Implicit, covert designs
It is true that universities and institutions of higher learning must possess considerable autonomy and immunity from political authorities. One of the principles enshrined in Magna Charta Universitatum is worth quoting here. It says that “to meet the needs of the world around it, its [universities] research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power”.
That, unfortunately, is not the case with the proposed graded autonomy scheme. On the contrary, just a cursory look at the provisions detailed by the UGC exposes the implicit and covert designs of corporatisation and abdication of the statutory body’s mandated public responsibility.
As per the provisions of the scheme, liabilities of raising funds for the introduction and sustenance of new courses would rest with the autonomous colleges. In simple terms, it implies a rise in fee levels, but in reality, it could prove to be a sinister move aimed at creating a dual fee structure. This is because the funding for existing courses would continue to be met by the UGC.
Additionally, the onus of raising funds resting entirely on the private management could engender an incessant lure for money, resulting in lowering of academic standards.
The apprehensions get accentuated due to another significant provision aimed at disbanding the staff councils. Unlike the current system where staff councils, comprising faculty members, share responsibilities in carrying out academic and administrative functions, the proposal moots the idea of a hierarchical and centralised academic council, which would comprise members from the management and five senior-most members of the staff appointed by the management/principal of the college.
The end of the staff councils implies the end of the idea of collegiality itself – something so intrinsic to the functioning of colleges.
Needless to say, autonomy of a college from the university would remove the existing buffer between academics and the management (read petty businessmen) and place them at the mercy of the latter. This is also a covert way of emboldening the management’s illegal stranglehold on the sprawling real estate on which these flagship colleges are located.
Most significantly, the top-down, one-size-fits-all nature of these reforms neither looks into the specificities of the problems that each one of these colleges may be facing, nor does it delve upon the intersectionalities that characterise the universities to which they are affiliated.
For instance, if colleges like Hindu or St. Stephens have indeed performed well all these years, then the contribution of the DU, to which they have been affiliated, couldn’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. Instead of looking into certain good practices that may have enabled these colleges to achieve prestige and fame, the scheme unfortunately attempts to cut them from the very umbilical cord, which has been providing them with the required buoyancy and vibrancy to act in prudent ways.
Case for public-funded higher education
Having outlined a few of the flaws of the scheme, let me now put forth six basic reasons in defence of a public-funded system of higher education, particularly in the Indian context.
First, any scheme of higher education must cater to public interests and, therefore, must be provided with state funding. Second, civic virtues, which are essential for the maintenance of citizenship rights and sustenance of open democratic deliberations, necessitate the creation of a non-partisan and conducive teaching and learning environment, which could best be maintained through public funding.
Third, public funding of institutions of higher learning is a must for removal of socio-economic inequalities, and ushering in a truly plural and an upwardly mobile, egalitarian social system. Fourth, from an ethical perspective, public funding ensures an egalitarian distribution of resources between public institutions, which impart similar levels of teaching and learning. This is crucial in the Indian context, where a large share of that responsibility is shouldered by state universities, which are all united by the common issue of severe resource crunch.
Fifth, a privately funded university, even if following the best of the practices, would eventually look at education as a consumer good and a student as a consumer – a practice which is morally indefensible and unacceptable. Sixth, public funding ensures appropriate levels of parity between a diverse number of subjects, academic and non-teaching staff, who collectively account for the raison d’être and the charm of the community.
Chandrachur Singh (PhD from Birmingham, UK) teaches political science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.