Another step towards privatization of higher education
On June 29 the central government announced that it will dissolve the University Grants Commission (UGC) and replace it with a new Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), which will become the new regulator for higher education in India.
The HECI will be mandated to focus solely on academic matters. It will not have the power to disburse funds to colleges and universities. At the same time, the HECI is to be vested with a whole host of additional powers of laying down standards of teaching, assessment and research and evaluating the performance of higher educational institutions. It can order the "closure of institutions" and if a university violates any norm which the Commission lays down, then it faces penalty; on not paying the penalty its chief executive can be jailed for up to three years.
The government has justified the scrapping of the UGC and its replacement by the HECI as a step towards achieving its promised aim of “transforming India into a knowledge economy”. It claims that the UGC is a hurdle in the path of the “major reforms in higher education” that it wishes to bring about to achieve its aim.
However, academicians and teachers involved in higher education have cautioned that the aim of the HECI is to give complete decision making powers regarding higher education to the central government, through its Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). It is aimed at greatly curtailing the role of teachers and academic heads of higher educational institutions in proposing higher education reforms. This is reflected in the proposed composition of the HECI - there will be only two teachers/academics out of 12 members in the Commission, which will be dominated by top level government bureaucrats and representatives of leading capitalist houses.
The setting up of the HECI has to be seen in the context of the direction in which reforms in higher education are being promoted and pushed through, by successive governments. It is no secret that each government has been pushing, more aggressively than its predecessor, the agenda of privatization of higher education.
The Indian state has been systematically withdrawing from its responsibility of providing good quality and affordable higher education to the youth by setting up adequate number of institutions in every corner of India and providing the necessary funds, ensuring good quality teaching faculty, staff and other facilities. Government spokespersons have been openly talking of “limited funds for investment in higher education”. On the one hand, the state funded colleges and universities are suffering from lack of funds due to cut-backs in government funding in higher education, from lack of teaching faculty due to government policies of non-recruitment of teachers, non-payment of teachers’ salaries and other benefits. On the other hand, the government has been actively pushing for “private investment” in higher education. Full assistance is being provided to big monopoly capitalist houses to set up private universities. Leading monopoly capitalist houses are even being given special grants by the government to start and operate higher educational institutions “of eminence”.
While the HECI draft lays down various functions of the Commission of a regulatory nature (as elaborated earlier), allegedly to ensure quality in higher education, it also emphasizes “reducing state regulation”. HRD Ministry authorities have openly gone on record to say that with the establishment of the HECI, private capitalists who invest in higher education will be given greater freedom to operate with limited state regulation.
Another “solution” to the problems of access to good quality higher education that is being promoted by the government is pushing colleges and universities to seek “autonomy”. The UGC had already, in March this year, approved the proposal for granting autonomy to 62 higher educational institutions, under the Autonomous Colleges Regulation Act. These include 5 central universities, 21 state universities, 26 private universities and 10 other colleges.
Experience of institutions that have secured “autonomy” shows that once a college or university is granted autonomy, its management will have the authority, unfettered by state rules and regulations, to select students, set fees, recruit teachers, offer courses and raise funds by themselves. For the private capitalist managements of the institutions, the emphasis will undoubtedly be on running these institutions for extracting maximum profit, in the name of “providing higher education”, similar to the private universities. The fees charged from the students will be set with this aim in mind, effectively excluding majority of youth from the working class, peasantry and other poor sections. Exploitation of teachers will be maximized, to ensure the profits of the private capitalist managements. Big monopoly corporate houses who invest in these “autonomous” colleges and universities will determine courses and curricula, not to educate and enlighten youth to serve the needs of society and fight for social change, but solely in order to train youth so that they can be most effectively exploited by these corporate houses.
It is the teachers of higher educational institutions who have been at the forefront of the struggle to oppose privatization of higher education, including the granting of “autonomy” to institutions. They have been repeatedly pointing out how these steps being taken in the name of “improving the quality of higher education” will actually make higher education inaccessible to more and more sections of youth from the working class and toiling peasantry. But the HECI will have a severely limited role of teachers who are opposed to privatization of higher education. Hence it is being widely perceived as a means to enable the private monopoly capitalist interests in the governing bodies of educational institutions who are pushing for “autonomy”, to use their influence within the corridors of power to more easily secure approval for this.
Teachers of Delhi University, JNU, IGNOU, Jamia Millia lslamia University, as well as teachers of other central and state universities across the country have come out in protest actions, against the introduction of the HECI Act and the moves towards privatization of higher education, including granting of “autonomy” to such institutions. They have criticized the HECI as an attempt by the government to push through the program of privatization of higher education, while abdicating its duty of providing good quality, affordable and adequate opportunities for higher education to the youth of our country. They have pointed out that in the HECI there will be much fewer provisions for teachers to participate in taking decisions regarding college and university education. They have criticized the HECI as a move towards extreme centralization of powers in the hands of the state, regarding higher education in our country.
There has also been opposition from the states to what is perceived as domination by the central government over higher education institutions. This has forced the government to reverse the provision of disbursal of funds by the Ministry of Human Resources Development. It is now proposed that the charge of grants to institutions of higher education be given to an independent body of experts.
The attempts of the big monopoly capitalist ruling class to push for increasing privatization of higher education, through the government in power, must be condemned and vigorously opposed. Access to good quality and affordable higher education is the right of our youth. We have to fight for the reversal of the trend of privatization of higher education. We have to demand that the state fulfills its responsibility of ensuring access to good quality and affordable higher education to the youth in every part of the country.