Radhika Krishnan

It has been a tumultuous period in several college and University campuses across the country. We were recently confronted with horrific images of students in Panjab University being brutally beaten up by the Police for protesting against a massive fee hike. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, of course, has been the epicentre of several attacks. Over the past year, students at JNU have battled sedition charges; they have been dealing with shocking disappearance of a Muslim student soon after he was publicly beaten up and threatened by some ABVP activists. More recently, there has been a massive UGC-mandated seat cut in JNU’s various research programmes, coupled with a targeted assault on various elements of JNU’s inclusive admission policy. Academic life has been crippled for some months now, as thousands of students stare at an uncertain future.

Besides, JNU and Delhi University are now facing the threat of massive cuts in their fund allocation from various State bodies – all in the name of ensuring their ‘autonomy’. In Allahabad, the University has been trying to conduct raids in various students’ hostels, ostensibly to identify and remove ‘illegal’ residents. Students in Wardha have been battling against the open protection being provided by the administration to an accused in a sexual harassment case. Clearly, institutions of higher education, in particular those which have emerged as sites of resistance to RSS-BJP’s corporate-driven and communal agenda, are battling against a dangerous game-plan which seeks to refashion the very idea of universal, affordable, quality education.

Panjab University: Saga of Fee Hikes and Brutal Crushing of Dissent

Take the ongoing crisis in the Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh. What was the trigger for the latest round of protests? A contentious fee hike was announced in March 2017. The fees for the B. Pharma course, for instance, were raised from Rs 5,080 to Rs 50,000 (a massive 10-fold hike). For MA (Journalism), the fees were hiked from Rs 5,290 to Rs 30,000 (a 5-fold hike). For PU’s dental course, the fees were increased from Rs 86,400 to Rs 1.50 lakh. Even though there has been a steady increase in the fees in the University, this one was clearly unprecedented. In some courses, the fees have been hiked by a whopping 1100 per cent.

Needless to say, these moves would effectively close PU’s gates for a vast majority of students, apart from of course fundamentally changing the existing student demography in the University. Given the nature of higher education in the country, and the nature (or rather the absence) of employment opportunities in the social sciences, precious few students would be able to avail of and pay back student loans. In a society where access to education remains one of the few means of social mobility, one of the few means to circumvent existing structural inequalities, this is an assault on inclusion and democracy. It is an assault on the already beleaguered lack of access and diversity in PU.
PU’s annual budget is currently more than 500 crores. It is jointly run and funded by the Centre and the Punjab government, with 60 per cent funds allocated by the former and the rest by the state. For the past 15 years, the Punjab government has however not paid up its share; it has contributed a mere 20 crore each year. Since 2014, the UGC has similarly frozen its contribution to PU’s funds, and has refused to pay more than 176 crore per year. In other words, both the Punjab and Central governments have washed their hands off PU: they have made it clear that PU is not their responsibility anymore. The massive fees hikes announced this year is the culmination of this dereliction of responsibility – a dereliction which is being paid for by students of the University.

The protesting students were brutally dealt with. 66 students were charged with no less than sedition, besides being accused of rioting as well as causing damage to public property. Students’ slogans against the PU administration, UGC and MHRD were trotted out by the Chandigarh police as proofs of ‘sedition’. A national outcry followed, and the ludicrous sedition charges were subsequently withdrawn. But not before repression were unleashed upon the protesting students. Students were lathi charged, tear gassed and treated to water cannons and several were arrested. This brutal repression failed however to dampen the protests – students, youth and civil society across Panjab have been since been holding demonstrations across the state against the fee hikes and the state repression.

What Does ‘Financial Autonomy’ Mean?

Close on the heels of a massive UGC-mandated seat cut in JNU (a cut of 83% in the various M.Phil/Ph.D programmes of the University), yet another assault seems to be in order. Top ranking educational institutions such as JNU, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Delhi University, Lady Shri Ram College and Shri Ram College of Commerce (all those institutions which have been ranked A, A+, A++ by the government’s own National Assessment and Accreditation Council) have been informed they might soon get ‘full operational autonomy’, including in financial matters. (The management of St. Stephen’s College of Delhi University has already applied for autonomy, overriding protests by its own students and teachers against this move.) This proposal to grant ‘autonomy’ has been recommended by the NITI Aayog, and essentially argues that ‘well-performing’ institutions should raise their own resources independently and have the ‘freedom’ to ‘hire the best talent’.

In other words, this will mean de facto privatisation of JNU, DU, BHU and others – characterised by a roll back of low fees, fellowships and infrastructural facilities such as hostels, and by a complete demolition of inclusion, reservations and affirmative action. This recommendation of the Niti Aayog is in keeping, of course, with the broad contours of our education policy. Over the past 2-3 years, there have been paltry increases in the total higher budget allocation for higher education – which have been swamped and more than offset by inflation. The end-result has been an effective decrease in funding, which the PU experience for instance brings clearly to light. However, other trends also have to be understood.

Within higher education too, we are seeing a skew in allocation patterns. In 2017-18, the share of allocation for premier engineering institutions (IITs and NITs) increased from 25% to 33% (pointed by Janaki Srinivasan in http://indianexpress.com/article/blogs/what-ails-panjab-university-campus-geri-culture-students-4617727/). Most of the purported increase in budget allocation for higher education is going to the IIMs, IITs and NITs. There is moreover a greater emphasis on setting up parallel infrastructure for ‘skill-development’, rather than on strengthening existing institutions and infrastructure. Online and part-time courses are being encouraged – partly because the infrastructural costs would be lowered through these mechanisms, and partly as a means to institute fee hikes. These trends can no longer be ignored, ominous as their implications are for higher education.

What does the PU experience, and the latest move towards ‘financial autonomy’ of our best Universities tell us? One, that governments and institutions of the State are openly showing their reluctance to hold the responsibility for higher education. Two, that it can now be ‘seditious’ and anti-national to speak of these matters. To argue that the nation needs higher education, that institutions of the State need to shoulder this responsibility of ensuring that the poor and the marginalised get access to higher education, can now be termed ‘anti-national’. These are indeed trying times, when, as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, meanings and metaphors are turned upside down.