The fallacy of autonomy

The rolling back of Delhi University’s Four Year Undergraduate Programme was as whimsical and arbitrary as its rollout

July 22, 2014 01:01 am | Updated 01:01 am IST

The recent controversy about continuing the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) in Delhi University (DU) reminded me of my days with the University Grants Commission (UGC). I remember ploughing through a thousand pages of agenda papers for each meeting, looking for crucial information buried under innocuous appendices. I remember how the occupant of one of the highest academic positions in the country would stand in attention when a bureaucrat from the Ministry arrived for the meeting. I remembered the charade of consultation when the Minister had already made up his mind. And the red faces when someone spoke the inconvenient truth.

The real issue The real issue is not FYUP. There can be good arguments for and against a four-year undergraduate degree. In any case, for the time being the debate is settled, in our very own messy style. The new National Democratic Alliance government has used the same steamrolling tactics to reverse the decision that the earlier United Progressive Alliance government had used to push FYUP. Now we have a controversy about the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Tomorrow we can expect something else. The real issue is how we take big decisions on higher education that affect the future of millions of students. Governments change but the ways of power do not.

Two years of a ringside view of big decisions on higher education taught me something: governance is not about procedures, committees, rules and regulations; it’s all about winks and nods of the powers that be. This applies as much to ‘autonomous bodies’ like the UGC as it does to public sector undertakings or departments of the government. This was as true of the UPA government as it is of the current NDA government, or the various State governments.

The real issue is how we take big decisions on higher education that affect the future of millions of students. Governments change but the ways of power do not

The story of how FYUP was introduced and then withdrawn serves to illustrate how power operates. The move to shift from the conventional three-year graduate course to FYUP began in late 2012. Usually the university takes a couple of years to deliberate and decide about any major change in syllabi. Last time the DU overhauled the syllabi of the existing three-year course, it took about three years to do so. But this time, the vice-chancellor wanted the entire process — from brainstorming to the announcement of the new course — to be completed within six months or less. Everyone in the academic community was aghast. Even teachers who were willing to look at the idea of a four-year degree favourably thought it was crazy to push the idea at this pace.

However, the vice-chancellor was determined to go ahead. It was said that he was the blue-eyed boy of the then Minister of Human Resource Development. It was also said that the FYUP has the Minister’s nod. And everything fell in place. All the formalities of consultation within the university were completed with lightning speed. Protests by teachers and departments were set aside. Ministry officials were keen to assist in any which way and were unwilling to lend an ear to anyone who protested. The President of India, the Visitor to DU, refused to intervene. The funny thing was the alibi used: everyone from Minister downwards said they were respecting the autonomy of the university.

Now the academic community turned to the UGC to prevent DU from going ahead with the announcement. Since I was a member of the Commission, I met several academics, including a delegation from the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) in February-March 2013. I arranged a meeting between some academics and the UGC Chairman, only to discover that some of the technical objections raised in the meeting were instantly conveyed to the vice-chancellor of DU, so that he could rectify those errors retrospectively. The UGC was acting not as a regulator but as an agent. I decided to raise the matter in the next meeting of the Commission and sent a formal request to this effect. So did Professor M.M. Ansari, another Member of the Commission. I was abroad when the meeting was held. Despite a written request by two members and several reminders, the matter was simply not taken up during the Commission meeting. I was told later that the UGC could not interfere with the autonomy of the university. Yet, 10 days later, when the heat of the controversy reached the Minister and he needed a safety valve, the same UGC appointed a committee to supervise the FYUP process in DU — a swing from under-regulation to over-regulation. Clearly, someone had winked.

Some of us forced a discussion on the issue in the next meeting of the full Commission held on July 31, 2013. All the problems with the introduction of FYUP were clearly spelt out with documentary evidence. One, the programme involved giving a degree (Bachelor of Arts) that was not approved by the UGC when it was announced. Two, DU had not met the statutory requirement of informing the UGC six months prior to the launching of a new course. Three, this amounted to a policy shift away from the National Policy on Education, and thus required deliberation. Four, this would lead to an additional requirement of funds that would require prior approval of the UGC.

Interestingly, these are precisely some of the grounds invoked by the UGC last month to scrap FYUP. Last year, however, the UGC Chair and the Ministry officials dismissed all these objections.

They said we were being fussy and were interfering with the autonomy of the university. They also said it was too late and we could possibly not play with the future of those students who had already secured admission. We still pressed for and secured some decisions to ensure review and monitoring of FYUP. All this was erased from the minutes of the meeting. When I demanded rewriting of the minutes, I was served a show cause notice and then removed from the Commission. The official reason — that my membership of the Aam Aadmi Party created a conflict of interest — conveniently overlooked the fact that the UGC has earlier had politicians from the ruling party. Nods and winks again.

Turning the tide Now the new government has nodded the other way. The tide has turned, so has the Ministry and the UGC. Interestingly, the same persons continue to occupy key positions such as Chairman of the UGC and Secretary (Higher Education). But they have suddenly discovered all the arguments against FYUP that they had dismissed last year. Those who could not bear the thought of interfering with the autonomy of the university are now issuing diktats and ultimatums with 24-hour deadlines. The rolling back of FYUP was as whimsical and arbitrary as its rollout. The world of higher education is divided into those who applaud one or the other.

This story is worth remembering in the days to come, as the BJP would extend its control over one institution after another: UGC, then ICHR, then Indian Council of Social Science Research, and of course the National Council of Educational Research and Training. Scores of well meaning, secular academics will cry foul and protest against violation of institutional autonomy by the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Such protests will be justified and necessary. But they would also beg a series of questions: do we have legacy of safeguarding institutional autonomy? Has the academic community shown the courage to defend its autonomy? What is our record of using academic autonomy as and when we get it? Can academic autonomy be equated with self-indulgence of the ivory tower, secular or otherwise? How do we look firmly into the future, unperturbed by nods and winks?

(Yogendra Yadav is a member of the Political Affairs Committee of the Aam Aadmi Party and is currently on leave from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.)

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