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.