In what could further weaken India’s public-sector higher-education system, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has approved full autonomy for 62 higher educational institutions in India. It has been dubbed a “historic” day by Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. But this “autonomy” – as politically correct as the word sounds – is ironically meant to be the latest nail in the coffin of the public-funded higher-education system in India.

All the historic pointers show that such a move will be not only disastrous but also anti-autonomy in its very nature.

Javadekar says, as reported by Indian magazine Outlook, “Today is a historic day for higher education in India. These quality institutions will get complete autonomy with which they can start new courses, new departments, new programs, off campuses, skill courses [and] research parks, appoint foreign faculty, take foreign students, offer variable incentive packages, [and] introduce online distance learning.”

What might be masquerading as independence and free will here would appear to be something else on closer and critical analysis.

This “autonomy” is certainly not the liberty to engage, expand perspectives, and open the bounds of creativity. It largely consists of financial autonomy for administration and management bodies of the universities in freely deciding the fee structure, and starting their own self-financed courses.

Such a system would entail the advent of an unaccountable management that suppresses dissent and rides over the agency of students. Imagining such a scenario in a central institution such as Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University would mean secluding and excluding a whole lot of underprivileged and marginalized sections.

Research fellowships will stay at the meager level of 5,000 rupees (US$77) and 8,000 rupees ($123) a month for MPhil and PhD students respectively, or the paltry amount offered in merit-cum-means scholarships, but the tuition fees will skyrocket.

Public education system resembling private

The common psyche behind implementing an autonomous regulation is to privatize and commercialize education and mimic the behavior of private engineering colleges. Raising the fees and privatizing education under the garb of “we are freeing you” would eventually filter out the meritorious from the non-deserving. Class is not a new category to be introduced as a deciding factor in this overarching determination of who gets to study; it has been a pivotal part of the education system in India.

It’s interesting how such a controversial policy got introduced in the first place. Inputs for the draft National Education Policy in 2016 argued for building a balance between autonomy and accountability. Nonetheless, this draft was rejected in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, on the grounds that it violated the spirit of equity and access that is implicit in the principles of higher education in India.

The draft was introduced as a backdoor entry through the UGC, a body that oversees the functioning of higher-education institutes. The government tried to use the UGC as a flexible body to impose its neoliberal whims and fancies on the educational sector.

The “Graded Autonomy” clause in the gazette of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (UGC notification) underlines several provisions violating the fundamentals of inclusive spirit of higher education in India.

The dimensions of autonomy for Category I universities seeks to reserve 20% of faculty positions for foreign faculty and 20% of student seats for foreign students. Furthermore, allowing the hiring of faculty from institutes ranked in top 500 of any of the world-renowned ranking frameworks, such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or the QS Rankings, is discriminatory to fresh PhD scholars and calls for a cutthroat competition while commercializing education.

The notification also makes provision for fixing fees and charges from foreign students without any restriction. The authoritarian nature of such a notification needs to be contested and debated, but how to go about it remains a big quandary.

That we are living in dangerous times is a stale but appropriate cliché. Being part of a university wherein the mandates of compulsory attendance are passed without a proper academic council meeting, a system that doesn’t respect you enough to grant fellowships at least in accordance with the rising inflation levels of the country, means it is indeed a brave choice to pursue academics.

The Indian higher-education system needs reform, not by cutting down available seats or raising tuition fees but by listening to those who constitute this system.

As the late American political theorist Hannah Arendt said, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable.

“And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Manisha Chachra

Manisha Chachra is pursuing an MPhil in political studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She has previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-profit organization.