The Modi government is bringing in legislation in the coming monsoon session of the parliament to abolish the University Grants Commission. The UGC has two important roles at present. One is the distribution of funds to colleges and universities; this will now be handled by the ministry of human resource development. The other role is a regulatory one, which will now be taken over by a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). This commission however will have no funds to distribute.
The proposed set-up will immensely increase political control over the academia. The fact that the distribution of funds will now be vested with the HRD ministry is an obvious indication of this…Let us begin with the composition of the HECI. The HECI will have a chairperson, and a vice-chairperson who will be selected by a committee that will include the cabinet secretary and the HRD secretary. In addition it will have twelve members that will include officials from the various “stakeholder ministries”, two serving vice chancellors, an industrialist, and two professors.
The HECI will thus not only be a government-nominated body, but will actually have negligible academic representation. Even if we count vice-chancellors as academics, which need not be the case, only four out of the total fourteen constituting the HECI will be academics. The HECI therefore will in effect be an instrument through which what happens in the academic world would be decided by a bunch of government officials answerable to their political masters, and a few others appointed by the government of the day...
As if this was not enough, there is an advisory council that is proposed to guide the HECI which will have the HRD minister as its chairperson and which will meet twice a year...To be sure, the UGC itself, though originally visualised as an autonomous body consisting of academics, nominated admittedly by the government, has of late taken on a political character.
The BJP government which insists on appointing RSS nominees, no matter what their credentials, to all important posts in all bodies, has not left the UGC alone. But the HECI gives an official imprimatur to this phenomenon of political interference. If the direction in which the UGC has moved is wrong, and is contrary to the original spirit of the UGC Act, then the HECI actually makes that direction the official desideratum. The HECI will not only be an unashamedly government-controlled body, it will also be endowed with far greater powers than the UGC ever was. At present if a university disregards the UGC’s directives then all that the UGC can do is to stop its funding. But under the new set up, if an institution disregards the HECI’s recommendations then the HECI can simply close it down…
Clearly therefore while the HECI will rule with an iron fist in the domain of public institutions of higher education, it will grant recognition with alacrity to private institutions, and its relations with such institutions will be marked by a benign tolerance. The recent move to have “autonomous colleges,” where those who can raise their own funds will be allowed more or less to do what they like, is in line with this benign tolerance towards private institutions, and implies a massive privatisation of the sphere of higher education.
This is the direction of movement that neo-liberalism dictates; and the reason why several committees have been advocating an end to the UGC is because that institution is a product of a different era, the post-independence dirigiste era, when it was recognised that the government had to play a major role in the sphere of higher education, that education in India had to be different from what Cambridge or Harvard provide, and that it was meant to serve a social purpose specific to our country which a mere clone of a metropolitan university could not possibly serve.
What is now being visualised in short is a duality within the education system…The direction that higher education in India is now officially slated to take is one that represents the convergence of the interests of neo-liberalism and Hindutva. A major consequence, among others, of the education system fashioned during the dirigiste era in India, which was presided over by the UGC, was the emergence of a whole segment of highly articulate, thoughtful, brilliant and socially committed students from dalit and other marginalised social groups. The UGC arrangement can legitimately claim credit for it, notwithstanding all the faults of that particular institution. The effort now is to put an end to this process. That effort must be resisted.