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
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
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!