Imagining alternative futures

Why the Young India Adhikar March calls for greater civic solidarity

The caricaturing of scientific inquiry at the recent Indian Science Congress (ISC) is only symptomatic of the larger ideological thrust through which institutions of higher education in India are now sought to be governed. Further, the choice of venue for the ISC this year — a private university in Punjab — highlights the boost that investors of private capital in higher education receive even as funding cutbacks at public universities have threatened the closure of 167 centres for women’s studies and 35 centres for studies in social exclusion. That a proposed Jio Institute was granted the ‘Institute of Eminence’ status much before it could even open is a grim reminder of state support now being unambiguously willed upon the private model.

It is the same political imperative that is directing public-funded institutions towards ‘graded autonomy’ — duly recognised as a covert entry point for privatisation. The threat to autonomy is writ large in the recent moves to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) as a funding body for higher education, in keeping with the World Trade Organisation’s mandate that views education as a tradable commodity, not as a right that every citizen can demand of the state.

Right versus privilege

In 2015, the UGC, citing a fund crunch, resolved to scrap the non-NET fellowship altogether. After student protests across universities (hashtagged on social media as ‘Occupy UGC’), articulated how research fellowships were not state doles but instead sought to incentivise knowledge creation, the government was forced to retract the move. But soon after, the release of similar non-NET fellowships for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and minority students — namely, the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship and Maulana Azad National Fellowship — came to be stalled, pending a new set of guidelines that severely curtailed eligibility.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) Report 2017-18 notes that the Gross Enrolment Ratio across institutions of higher education has risen to 25.8% from 19.4% in 2010-11. The GER is an index of the proportion of citizens between 18 and 23 years — in every sample size of 100 — who have structurally secured entry into tertiary education, while exit figures (drop-outs) are left unaccounted for.

The inflationary tendencies of AISHE figures notwithstanding, the report points out that the GER is 21.8% for SCs and 15.9% for STs “as compared to the national GER”. However, deeper scrutiny shows that though the standard formula for calculating GER must take the population census in the relevant age group as the base sample size, the GER for Dalit-Adivasis is produced by altering the methodology.

Instead of taking the Census total as base figure, it is the fractional enrolment count that is used to produce fictions of inflated SC/ST GER. When population data (Table 38 of the report) is read in consonance with enrolment data (Table 14), the arithmetic shows a GER of 3.72% for Dalits and 1.35% for Adivasis. But in an identical age sample of 100 students, a minimum of 17 are from Dalit backgrounds and nearly nine from Adivasi communities. In actual terms, therefore, less than four out of 17 SC students and one out of every nine ST students appear to have entry-level access to higher education. The GER for minority students from non-Hindu backgrounds is a meagre 1.87% (against the official 7.2%). Analysed against Census 2011 data, less than two out of every 20 minority students move to tertiary education. Ironically, the enrolment ratio for Hindu upper castes is 8.47%, implying that more than eight out of every 10 caste Hindus access higher education. The government’s recent electoral gimmick of enabling 10% reservation in educational institutions for “economically weaker” upper-caste sections only performs a complete inversion of affirmative action policies, especially when documented data point to an entrenched legacy of caste-based discrimination.

The withdrawal of non-NET fellowships for the socially marginalised (accompanied by reservations for dominant caste groups) is informed by a policy transition from a public-funded model of inclusive economic planning to a private user-pay principle. It follows from the reform measures proposed by the Ambani-Birla Report on higher education (2000), and subsequently vindicated by the National Knowledge Commission’s emphasis on “need-blind admissions” in higher education. The assumption behind a near-complete withdrawal of research funding begins by linking the quest for higher knowledge with an illusion of proportionately higher employment opportunities. But the reality is that with unemployment rates soaring to a 45-year high, the government’s disinvestment from the higher education sector can only end up creating a highly skilled, lowly paid, indebted workforce.

The AISHE report contains traces of more statistical falsification — adjusting “growth” in the number of teaching positions by changing the base year for comparison (to 2010-11 from 2013-14). As the report shows (Table 51), there is a sharp annual decline in the number of teachers employed since 2015-16. In the past three years, teaching strength in higher education institutions has fallen from 15.19 lakh to 12.85 lakh, with most of the losses reflected against reserved permanent posts. The move to a 13-point roster in appointments will only aggravate these losses, till teaching becomes an exclusively upper caste profession. Alarmingly, through this period of reduction in teaching jobs, 104 new universities have been instituted, 66 of which are “privately managed”. It is no surprise that many of the brightest minds from the best public institutions are now lapped up by elite private universities “equipped with world-class infrastructure”.

A pushback

It is clear that a nationalist crusade is only mortgaging public education systems to transnational capital. This is also articulated in the “impatience” that Amartya Sen spoke about in the context of the recent ISC, an impatience that is fomenting student unrest in campuses. It is the same impatience — in the form of anger at being sidelined by iniquitous government policies that are supplanting the vision and promise of the public university — which is fuelling the student-led ‘Young India Adhikar March’ (to be held on February 7). In the last year or so, one has seen collective rights assertions in the form of well-publicised rallies by farmers, the marginalised and women — all signs of the anger of different constituencies reeling under the policies of an indifferent government. The ‘Young India Adhikar March’ is a representation of over 40 youth organisations demanding, among other things, an end to fee hikes, gender discriminatory laws, a syllabus free of “saffron” taints, alongside the guarantee of employment and academic, intellectual freedoms of teaching and learning.

If the ‘publicness’ of public education must come to occupy our idea of the ‘nation’, it is time we march with our youth and demand the right to imagine alternative futures.

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal. Rina Ramdev teaches at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University

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