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Millennium Post

Autonomous colleges or expensive ivory towers?

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has announced its plan to grant ‘autonomy’ to select elite institutions of the country, including LSR, St. Stephen’s College and SRCC in Delhi University, St. Xavier’s in Mumbai and Loyola College in Chennai. This move, though unsurprising given the role of the Ministry over the last three years, will critically harm the fabric of public-sector higher education in India and undermine its current positive attributes of wider access, freedom for academicians and quality control across university affiliated institutions. Over and above this, it betrays the vision of higher education and its role in advancing the poorer sections of Indian society as envisioned by the founders of this nation, including Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi.
Let me elaborate on the point about access. In a recent interview, University Grants Commission member M M Ansari made it clear that the state plans to recede substantially from providing resources for these autonomous colleges. He laid out the road-map for the entry of private capital in such institutions and for the transfer of considerable additional costs to the pockets of the students making it un-affordable for most. ‘As far as fees structure is concerned,’ he said, ‘of course, quality education is expensive… these colleges…will be allowed to raise more resources, which means that of course they will not remain dependent on the government or the UGC alone, they would be raising resources which would lead to commercialisation (of the seats).’

‘In the current 12th plan,’ he added, ‘the government has already indicated that no more additional funding will be provided to the institutions which have been so far receiving almost 100 per cent of the funding, including the DU colleges. Which means that in the current five year plan, they will have almost 50 per cent cut in their funding in real terms, and therefore with the autonomous status they will be able to mobilise resources as many of the private universities are doing today.’
From a situation in which student fees – that final arbiter of access for education for most in our country – was mandated by the larger, federal university which was always accountable on the question of public access, we are moving to where, as the last UGC guidelines for autonomous colleges states, that the now unhooked college governing body will now ‘[f]ix the fees and other charges payable by the students of the college.’

This, frankly, is disastrous. Having studied in DU 10 years back, in Hindu College, and St. Stephen’s College where I now currently teach, I can safely and with pride say that the best thing in our college classroom was the fact that students from diverse financial and social backgrounds studied together and formed lasting friendships with each other. In our country where boundaries of class and caste keep us from any meaningful association with each other, this unique togetherness was managed only because it was scripted in the vision of public education in our country – of which affordable quality education is the cornerstone.

And this, without the specter of refunding huge education loans that, having already vitiated medical and engineering education in India (and most higher education in the US and the UK) will now affect training in humanities, commerce and social sciences as well. Additionally, bringing autonomy to ‘elite’ institutions in the name of quality control suggests, darkly enough, that a substandard education, such as the FYUP is going to spell out in most of DU, is ‘good enough’ for other students in other colleges, whereas those who can pay for it, can opt for this ‘exit’. I wonder why the MHRD keeps speaking of autonomy as ‘exit’? It seems that these institutions – which will increasingly become the preserve of the rich few, where you might teach a classroom of clones – are indeed exiting into a gentrified stratosphere of their own.     

The founders of this nation did not conceptualise good education to be provided in an expensive ivory tower. For them, access and excellence were bound together. Bhimrao Ambedkar envisioned access to good (not just any) education as crucial to the advancement of the poor and the low-castes.

The first word is his valuable tripartite slogan, his ‘final advice’ in Nagpur, was ‘educate’. Additionally, Gandhi’s view on education dictated that the best education has to be ‘so revolutionised,’ he put, ‘as to answer the wants of the poorest villager, instead of answering those of an imperial exploiter.’
The MHRD and the UGC, if at all they have to keep step with such a monumental vision of those who conceptualised the edifice of India’s higher education, should consider that by bringing autonomy to elite institutions, they are only making them inaccessible to those who need its education the most.

No amount of peppering of ‘need-based’ scholarships and awards, when the regular fees will be exorbitant, is going to reverse the grievous harm of such a policy. Good education for everyone has to be conceptualised as a right, not as a benign charity. Opening the window for an increasing privatisation of our best public educational institutions will be nothing but a betrayal of the majority of the citizens of this country.

Akhil Katyal teaches English literature at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University
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