CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


Behind The Protests Defending Public Education


Understanding fee hikes and the New Education Policy


The current episode of protests by the Jawaharlal Nehru University students was fuelled by the JNU administration's decision to more than double the existing hostel charges and impose norms governing student life.

The Inter-Hall Administration (IHA) unanimously approved a hostel manual without consulting the JNU Students' Union. The authorities increased the hostel mess security deposit from Rs5,500 to Rs12,000. They also increased the hostel fees from Rs20 to 600 per month for a single room, and from Rs10 to 300 for a shared room. Students would also have to pay 1,700 for maintenance services every month.

After weeks of protests on campus and in Delhi, a committee set up by the university decided to give students a 50% concession, with a 75% concession to those from families earning below the poverty line.

JNU is set to become India's most expensive central university with the proposed fee hike. Some 5,500 students of a total above 8,000 stay in the university hostels. Nearly 40% belong to families with a monthly income below 12,000 or an annual income of 1.4 lakh. Over 60% belong to marginalised social backgrounds: the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Classes. It's clear the fee hike will make JNU inaccessible to the poorest social groups.



Now, the primary reason stated by the JNU administration is that currently the university faces a deficit of 45 crore which they attribute to the huge electricity, water charges and salaries of the contractual staff. The UGC no longer allows salary payments to contractual employees of the hostel from the salary head of the budget. The number of such employees in the hostels is over 450. The UGC has given clear instructions to JNU that all shortfalls in non-salary expenditures should be met by using the internal receipts generated by the university. Thus, the administration argues there is no alternative for the IHA than to collect service charges from the students.

This is a massive example of how the state derelicts its basic responsibility. Distributing minimal funds and asking public institutions to pool their own resources are some of the grim tenets of New Education Policy 2019 as well. The draft document released last year talks outright about transforming public education into a commodity through autonomy, and restructuring the whole meaning of public higher education, in Chapters 9 and 10. In this neoliberal order of finance capitalism, education if accessed as a commodity will steepen the inequities and further entrench the existing privileges of the dominant sections of society.

The debates surrounding the proposed fee hike in JNU resulted in divided opinions. On one side of the political spectrum are the scholars, leftists and other civil society actors demanding that the government make quality education affordable to all, whereas the right and ultra-nationalists want to shut down the den of "traitors" that is JNU. The protests in JNU are a symptom of resistance to preserve the existence of state-funded public education so that the vulnerable groups are not kept out by mainstream society.  



Besides the fee hikes in many institutions and the agendas of NEP 2019, which lacks integral democratic processes, a constitutional outlook and a progressive approach, we must also account for the onslaught on education since the 1990s. The formal adoption of the neoliberal reforms programme by the government in 1991 had a far more pervasive impact on the education system. The new policy on education in 1986 and then the Punnayya Committee report in 1993 suggested increasing fees to overcome a shortage of funds. From 1998 on, institutions of higher education were advised to raise their own resources by raising fee levels, encouraging private donations and by generating revenues through consultancy and other activities.

As the millennium turned 2000 was a watershed year for the higher education "sector" in India. The Ambani-Birla report entitled 'A policy framework for reforms in education' was authored by prominent industrialists and explicitly stated that privatisation and commercialisation were the chief instruments for reform in higher education, and that the 'user-pays' principle would ensure profits for investors. With its companion Model Act (2003) prepared by UGC, it demanded the restructuring of higher education on the model of market-oriented enterprises promoting corporate values. Shelved because of strong opposition from academics and teachers and student unions, its basic features continue to provide the framework within which higher education policies are conceived and sought to be legislated today. So it's no wonder that the present government is hell-bent on endorsing market oriented educational reforms that will make education the exclusive privilege of the 'elite' class.  

The ongoing assault on public education also echoes the onslaught on constitutional principles. The Constitution of India requires the state to pursue policies that provide equitable access to public funded education. Article 46 obliges the state to promote with special care the educational and economic interest of the weaker sections of the people and in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and to prevent and remedy all forms of social injustice and exploitation. The state is discarding its duty.  

Much chaos ensued when the government announced plans to scrap the UGC and replace it through the Higher Education Council of India Act, 2018. This body does not find any mention in the draft NEP, which proposes instead that the UGC should be transitioned into a Higher Education Grants Council with sole responsibility for funding everything except for research infrastructure. This will affect the independent nature of the educational body, as sooner or later it will succumb to the demands of political interference.

Another interesting suggestion is the establishment of a Rashtriya Shiksha Ayog, an overarching body to override the mandate of the MHRD directly under the leadership of the prime minister. This is being seen as a move to take away the power and autonomy of the states. Education was once in the state list and was later moved to the concurrent list, and now this is being seen as an attempt to transfer it to the Union list.  

NEP 2019 also envisages a path towards faculty and institutional autonomy, clearly stated in P9.3 of Chapter 9. It reads:  

"Substantial and adequate public funding, with stability, must therefore be provided to public institutions to enable such academic and administrative autonomy. Over time, as financial probity and responsibility is demonstrated by various public institutions, an increasing amount of financial autonomy may be granted so that resource allocations for teaching, service, equipment, and research may also be decided locally to optimise resources by those who understand local needs best; this would, as usual, be contigent on continual demonstration of financial probity through full transparency and public disclosure of all finances. Financial autonomy will not mean a cut in funding, but rather the freedom to decide how best to spend funds to maximise educational attainments."  

This is a further attempt to commercialise and transform education into a marketplace. The same is the case with school education. If the NEP 2019 is implemented it is likely that the autonomous elected school boards will be merged to form larger school boards. These autonomous school boards will be responsible for the decentralised management of school clusters, namely teacher appointments, school structure, academic calendar and timetable, curriculum etc. It is highly impractical for these to be managed under one centralised system given the diversity in different arenas, from geographical conditions and historical experiences to the specific needs of each state. The proposed idea of school complexes completely undermines the diversity of the nation's people and the level of improvement achieved in public education. It will ultimately lead to the closure of many such schools, with the excuse that they were unprofitable or substandard.  

NEP 2019 also claims to bring in autonomy in order to boost innovation and research. However, the agenda is to make higher education profit-oriented and unaffordable to the public, while the government withdraws from its responsibilities to the country's youth. Self-financing or autonomy are code words for the commercialisation and blatant privatisation of schools and universities into businesses, with differential fee structures for the hierarchies of the market, compromising on questions of equity and access.  

The policy also suggests an "innovative" revamp in the arena of research and innovation. It proposes to establish a National Research Foundation which will act as the new apex body to facilitate research. The NRF will be an autonomous body that will establish mechanisms to fund and invest in mentor-research capacity creation. It will also create a mechanism for monitoring and interfering in mid-course corrections. This raises serious concerns over the independent culture of research and innovation. It also undermines the civic and societal role of higher education.

Way back in 2018, students and teachers in the entire country came down to the streets against the MHRD proposal to impose self-financing and fee hikes in the name of "graded autonomy" being granted to higher educational institutions. Unfortunately the NEP 2019 proposes that the graded autonomy formula should continue. It lazily tries to hide the design of self-financing and fee hikes by changing the terminologies of graded autonomy from Category I, II, III universities to Type I, II, III universities. The government must commit to the fact that all new courses in public universities will be fully funded by public money instead of being categorically divided into hierarchies.

Another important aspect to be considered is public expenditure education in India. As of now, the official figure is that governments in India spend just 4.6% of its GDP on education. But investment in human capital is necessary to play a key role in any development strategy, particularly in a country with a large population. The Kothari Commission in 1964 proposed that 6% of GDP be spent on education for an egalitarian education system and a self-reliant India. We have never achieved the benchmark of 6% GDP expenditure. And NEP 2019 instead of committing to education fully funded with public money, makes funds from the government conditional upon increased GDP, an increased tax-GDP ratio and a 10 trillion dollar economy. It should rather have reminded the government of the urgent need to increase the GDP expenditure on education, in order for these dreams to come true.  



The resistance shown by students of JNU ignited campuses all over the country. The AIIMS Resident Doctors Association strongly opposed a government proposal to review tuition fees for students and user charges for various diagnostic procedures. Students at the premier journalism school IIMC Delhi protested against fee hikes and unruly hostel and mess charges. Similarly, the students of the elite IITs across the country are reviving their protests against the 900% hike in tuition fees effected in September. Campuses like TISS and the National Law Schools in Bangalore and Odisha also witnessed mass protests by the students over administrative issues including a fee increase.  

When students are on the streets they have realised this is a historic juncture to defend and build on the ideals of the freedom movement in letter and in spirit, by reclaiming public university spaces to discuss, deliberate and resist. There is an urgent need to defend public education today. With the spreading hands of privatisation, not only do we create and reinforce classed, casted, religioned and gendered spaces for education, we also change direction, with the mixing of private enterprise and the Hindutva ideology.

With the emerging narrative of the "political student" as a waste of taxpayer's money, the students of JNU and countless other universities and schools have shown that the purpose of education is not just profitable employment, but also to inculcate, reimagine and fight for the ideals of equality, brotherhood and egalitarianism in oneself, one's community and nation, and the world. JNU's beauty lies in its resilience and resistance!


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