Scholars the world over, who are connected with the management of higher education, have been debating the steady shift of universities from educational institutions to corporate-like organisations. The difference between these two set-ups are rather subtle. The institutions are relatively small entities providing education to students driven by a social outlook besides embarking on research for generation of knowledge. Its governance is derived entirely from the faculties, supported by administrative personnel with clear responsibilities. Institutions were once the torch-bearers of a certain culture that required a life-long commitment to learning and research besides social activities.

With the emergence of globalisation and national complexities arising out of a systemic failure to meet the aspirations of youth for employability, higher education has rapidly transformed itself and emerged as an industry. The purpose of education and the institutions has been overshadowed. Universities became organisations which are accountable to public and private sponsors. Since the early 1990s, the central and state governments reduced direct funding to the various activities in the university but proportionately increased control in the name of Regulations. The management of universities by its stakeholders is now a thing of the past. The management and governance is overseen by the central government through various regulatory authorities. As it stands today, every decision of a university is predefined by rules and regulations made not by the university, but laid down either by the state government or by the central government through the UGC, the Ministry of Human Resources Development or through sector- specific agencies such as AICTE, NCTE, MCI, BCI etc.

There is little or no scope for application of the mind by the faculty and other stakeholders to judge situations and interpret them for the institution. The election of representatives of teachers, officers, non-teaching staff has been abolished by the state legislature in West Bengal and elsewhere. Election of students’ councils in colleges and universities has been abolished by law. Even the Deans of Faculty Councils are chosen by the state. Hence the need for clerks to run such establishments. Even the Visitor in case of central institutions or the Governor in state institutions, have to obtain the consent of the HRD ministry before they can act.

One of the biggest casualties in the governance of higher education is the complete withdrawal of academic and other forms of autonomy. The People’s Tribunal on Attack on Educational Institutions held a session at the Constitution Club of India, New Delhi, on April 11-13, 2018. The Tribunal was organised by the People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space in India (PCSDS). The jury panel of the Tribunal comprised Justice (Retd.) Hosbet Suresh, Justice (Retd.) BG Kolse Patil, Prof. Amit Bhaduri, Dr Uma Chakravarty, Prof TK Oommen, Prof. Vasanthi Devi, Prof Ghanshyam Shah, Prof Meher Engineer, Prof. Kalpana Kannabiran and Ms. Pamela Philipose. Prof Romila Thapar was the Chair of the plenary session of the tribunal.

Testimonies of 120 students and teachers from close to 50 institutions and universities spread across 17 states were considered by the jury panel; 49 testimonies were deposed orally at the tribunal. Along with these testimonies, there were 17 expert submissions on all thematic issues. The centrality of higher education to the survival of Indian democracy was the thrust of the meeting. The Tribunal deliberated on (i) roles of the higher education system to be the space where the freedom to think, explore, discuss, and also to dissent, should remain free and unfettered; (ii) its access to all sections of society, particularly those marginalised in multiple ways with equity; (iii) the alarm bells that are ringing loud and clear and (iv) retrieving and rejuvenating higher education to conform to our constitutional values to be the nation’s top priority.

It was observed through presentations made by students, teachers and experts that there is a systematic onslaught on the very idea of higher education in India. The recent decision by the HRD ministry to grant autonomy to public institutions is an example of how the state is seeking to ensure that students from poor and backward classes are driven to the periphery and denied access to equal, quality and affordable education. In the name of autonomy, vocational and market-friendly courses are now being promoted. Across the country, institutions that once had a fair representation of SC, ST and OBC students are now in danger of losing their presence, precisely because these institutions have introduced fee structures that are unaffordable. It was apparent that students are in a state of desperation. The diversity of representation of students in some of these prestigious institutions are in danger of being undermined by unaffordable fee structures introduced in the recent past.

Furthermore, certain entrance models imposed by the Centre have worked against the interests of local students. A case in point is that of a brilliant Dalit student, Anita, from rural Tamil Nadu, who was very keen on studying medicine but couldn’t because of the new model of entrance test, called NEET. This is a deliberate attempt to homogenise access to higher education that disproportionally and negatively impacts SC, ST and OBC students. This is also an attempt to undermine the federal structure. She filed a case in the Supreme Court but lost all hope and committed suicide when she lost the case. Structural adjustments in higher education have had a negative impact on students and teachers. The rising contractual or tenure based recruitment of the teaching staff has created uncertainty among the teachers and undermined critical thinking of both staff and students. There are at present thousands of vacancies in teaching posts. This has severely impacted the quality of education and the capacity for questioning. Ironically, when the state had a lower growth rate, it was spending more on education. The central government has set up HEFA for giving loans to universities. Today, the government is abdicating its constitutional responsibility of funding education. We are witnessing not only the privatisation of higher education but also its corporatisation. This has had an effect on the country’s literacy level which is stagnating at 75 per cent. In the process, state universities have been reduced to examination boards.

The Tribunal noted that along with this privatisation, there has been a rise of sociocultural conservatism. Local cultural resources have been appropriated by the Hindutva forces in order to buttress their own presence in local educational institutions. While essays such as Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas have been removed from the syllabus, the Sanskrit department of Delhi University is undertaking a “thorough” study of history to prove that Aryans were indigenous to India . This is impacting both students and staff. There have been systematic restrictions on student elections and all efforts to form student unions in many states.

From the testimonies given, it became clear that suppression of dissent has assumed various forms such as legal action, disciplinary action, coercion within the universities against students and teachers on the basis of their dissent. This has often taken the form of denial and diversion of entitled funds to targeted students, teachers and departments. This is done deliberately by the authorities to create an atmosphere of fear and terror within the academic community. In many cases, the unprecedented presence of police and intelligence are targeting vulnerable students especially Muslims, Dalits, women and people from marginalised segments.

By placing like-minded people in high posts in the administration, the authorities are trying to execute the commands of the government and attack dissenting students and professors. The academic community has been subjected not only to physical brutalities and humiliating comments, but also to extensive surveillance, inside and outside the campus. The criminal justice system is being used against students and teachers, the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are being systematically violated and any kind of non-conformity is being criminalised under the guise of one version of nationalism. Labels like “anti-national”, “terrorists”, deshdrohi, “enemies of the state” are freely used to intimidate students and teachers.

By denying reservation and scholarships to these marginalised groups, the learning system is being restricted. It is outrageous that the educational funds and scholarships for the marginalised section are being used as a political tool to seek electoral gains. The geographical distribution of the tribal population restricts their access to higher education. As the scholarship polices are being linked to new fiscal policies, it is clear that the banking sector is now being encouraged to provide educational loans to students who are being denied scholarships. These loans will not only enslave students financially, but also reduce them to the position of a bonded labourer for several years. Such trends, unless addressed, pose a profound danger to the very fabric of Indian democracy.

(The writer is former Registrar, University of North Bengal. He can be reached at [email protected])