Academia in the land of the gurus
It is axiomatic that in responding primarily to the demands of globalising institutions, higher education world-over has been beset with a multitude of contentious issues like dwindling state funding, gnawing bureaucratic interventions and control - reminiscent of corporate organisational patterns together with its paranoia of achieving quantifiable objectives - gripped with the yearning of somehow sneaking into the league tables. Although the Indian higher education system has by and large been able to avoid such tendencies, remaining principally committed to the idea of social welfare, but in the last two decades, the intentions to conform to the global patterns are fast becoming evident, the most apparent of which could be the decision to sign the General Agreement in Trade and Services (GATS) in higher education.
It has been argued that opening of higher education in the form of a tradable service would facilitate the entry of some of the globally reputed foreign institutions of higher learning. This could not only help enhance our gross enrolment ratio but also provide momentum to our premier institutions in competing and catching-up with them. The other benefit of such a move could be in reversing brain drain which has been agonisingly increasing over the years. Such arguments, howsoever appealing, at most, remain predictive and make sense only in the context of a “few” globally reputed institutions.
In the absence of any filtering mechanism to keep out the “not so reputed ones” of their possible commercial mischiefs, the question that begs to be asked is about the potential impacts on a system where state support has neither fully receded nor fully flowing. In such a scenario the need then effectively boils down to taking stock of the robustness of our existing institutions in withstanding, coping, and responding to the potential impacts of such decisions. Learning from the best practices of others makes sense only with a readiness to comprehend that what works there might not work here.
It is well known that one of the most dreadful consequences of India’s accession to GATS in higher education would be felt on the funding patterns of our institutions of higher learning. In the absence of any cross-subsidising schemes, reduced funding would, amongst other things, tremendously hamper the realisation of the cherished goals of access, equity, and excellence. Most notably, the impacts will be felt in terms of a highly reduced number of permanent faculty positions, increased contractual appointments, reduction in fellowships - just to name a few. A cursory look at the budgetary allocations of higher education in the last two years confirms this. Compared to a budgetary allocation of 26,855 crore for higher education in the Union budget 2015-16, the allocations went up to 28,840 crores for the financial year 2016-17. However, the increase of 1985 crores actually implies lower allocations if one were to offset it against inflation and GDP growth rate.
In the context of achieving the objectives of an enhanced GER as well as social justice and empowerment, such developments are bound to escalate unease on campuses across India. The heightened uneasiness and despair on campuses become even more perplexing when seen in conjunction with the growing dissatisfaction, amongst members of the academia with the kind of life they have in universities across India. Without access to the most basic of profession-related facilities like personal work space, well-equipped libraries, stationery, computers, and support staff, not to talk of the service-centric facilities and perks like on-campus housing, health schemes, liberal travel and research grants, the academia, is expected to heartily put all its efforts in achieving some of the most pious and coveted tasks.
The pauperisation of the academic profession in India has not happened overnight and is attributed to the systemic apathy and neglect in the hands of successive governments and its insensitive bureaucracy. It is equally amusing that whilst the generalist bureaucracy has remained massively privileged in laying down its own service conditions – globally compatible with the most royal and pompous work styles, it has been the most mean-spirited and contemptuous, to say the least, in framing rules and service conditions of one of the most specialised professions as academics.
The recommendations of the Sixth Pay commission related to the pay parity of the teaching community with other governmental employees in equivalent grades were implemented w.e.f 2006. However, even after a decade and the resulting announcement and constitution of the statutory seventh pay commission, the issues related to the service conditions (read promotions) under the sixth Pay commission are yet to be settled. Between 2008 and 2016 the University Grants Commission has come out with at least four regulatory orders on service conditions - each regressively overriding its predecessor. The latest in the line is the third and fourth amendments of the Service Conditions 2010, which in the name of promoting qualitative teaching and research have sought to introduce a host of measures including the most contentious Academic Performance Indicators, (API). It is worth noting that the distrust amongst academia for the APIs has been widely expressed and recorded even in universities abroad where they apparently seem to be working well. The general understanding of API is that they promote a very crude and selfish display of activities undertaken just to quantify one’s own scores and in so doing ends up neglecting other equally important activities that inherently characterise and constitute the worth of the academic profession. Be that as it may, equally baffling is the idea of its retrospective implementation which means that all thousands of college and university teachers who became eligible between the years 2009-2016 will have to be a John Titor in travelling back in time to collect these points.
In my innumerable social encounters and debates with friends in bureaucracy and corporate world, over issues related to pay and service conditions of the academia, the only advice, dare I say, warning, given to me has been regarding the undesirability of comparing service conditions of an academic with that of any other profession. It is also true, however, that despite my retributions, I have had unwillingly and reluctantly shut up, especially when confronted with instances of teachers absenteeism. In the last few years, the taunts and chides for not being among the top 200 or 500 universities of the world have only grown stronger. It is true that some of the members of academia have failed us in standing up to societal scrutiny but isn’t that true of other professions as well. Isn’t bureaucracy known to be infected with corruption, and nepotism? Doesn’t it suffer the curse of slow file movement? Doesn’t that amount to inefficiency and work-shirking? But for all these generalised accusations and the general social distrust, has it ever been penalised?
It is strange that the brunt of the general social distrust has been so conveniently and collectively handed over to the academia alone in the form of ever increasing stringent service conditions, to be achieved, in most challenging, and appalling conditions of work. If that is being done to achieve the results of a market-driven higher education system within the framework of a state-controlled system, then to me it appears quite flummoxing. It is precisely against such an approach of indifference, callousness, and contempt towards the academia that noted sociologist Edward Shils (1969) once remarked, “in the land of the guru, the profession which has taken over its obligation is held in low esteem both by those who practise it and by others”.
(The writer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Hindu College, Univesity of Delhi. Views are personal.)