The granting of ‘graded autonomy’ to 60 universities has led to an uproar within the academia, with the University Teachers’ Body saying that it will lead to ‘commercialisation’ and ‘blatant privatisation’ of public education.

Professors and students of Hindu College in the National Capital Region are agitating for the removal of key managing trustees and for the undergraduate college under the University of Delhi to be transformed into a “university-run” institute. The move comes little over a month after a meeting between stakeholders of the college and Union minister of human resource development Prakash Javadekar regarding “autonomous” status for the institute resulted in a deadlock.

On Tuesday, July 3, the Hindu College Staff Association (hereafter, the staff association) passed a motion unanimously, declaring “lack of confidence” in officiating principal Anju Srivastava and the head of the college’s governing body, S.N.P. Punj. A statement released by the staff association alleges that Punj, who heads the college’s 15-member governing body and is chairperson emeritus of Punj Lloyd Limited, misused his “proximity to the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]” to attempt to secure “deemed to be university” status for the college without seeking the consent or mandate of its staff council and governing body.

An 18-point resolution passed by the teachers’ body calls for Srivastava’s and Punj’s impeachment and for the college to be placed under the control of the University of Delhi. It demands greater representation for teachers and academics on the governing body, to have the Comptroller and Auditor General review the college’s financial records and for the threat of “disciplinary action” initiated against office bearers of the teachers’ union to be withdrawn. The staff association has decided to launch a dharna for seven working days while students are on leave for the summer to bring attention to its concerns over the future of the 117-year-old institution.

While the management has not responded to the demands raised in the resolution, it has issued “showcause notices” to two of the agitating professors for writing to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) regarding unsanctioned appointments and financial improprieties alleged to be made by the management over the last five years. A petition with signatures of 101 professors and over 600 students has been submitted to vice chancellor Yogesh Tyagi raising these concerns. The MHRD and the university’s authorities are yet to respond.

Questionnaires sent out to officiating principal Srivastava and chairperson Punj over text and email did not elicit a response.

Like several colleges of similar size and repute under the University of Delhi, Hindu College is overseen by a governing body (an “educational or charitable trust” registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860) while 95% of its operational expenses are borne by the University Grants Commission (UGC) through “deficit maintenance grants”. The remaining sum is raised by the management from various sources, public and private.

This formula for public spending on the university’s “trust-run” colleges was affixed in 1993 on the basis of recommendations by the Justice Punnayya Committee on UGC Funding in Higher Education, shortly after the balance of payments crisis in 1991 and the consequent “liberalisation” of the Indian economy which led to the contraction of public spending on education.

The continuation of this financial arrangement between managing trusts of colleges and the Union government has become uncertain today, ever since the MHRD’s proposal to shut down the UGC was recently released for comments. The proposed legislation intends to do away with a nodal authority for academic, administrative and financial matters in higher education and install a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) which will take over the UGC’s role in accreditation and ranking of institutes while its financial powers are handed to the MHRD. Predictably, the announcement has led to fears of political interference in funding, administration and syllabus design being voiced by academics and students.

A slew of recent changes, including the decision to introduce “graded autonomy” for over 60 higher education institutes in March earlier this year and the approval of budgetary allocations for a “lender” to public colleges and universities called Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) last November, is in line with a vision of higher education set out in a policy document produced by the NITI Aayog in 2017. The government think-tank envisaged a hierarchized framework for higher educational institutes in the country with the degree of governmental regulation varying by tier –colleges belonging to the uppermost tier (such as Hindu College, as per the National Assessment and Accreditation Council’s ranking) were proposed to be deregulated to provide them the “freedom” needed to meet “global” standards and “compete for research projects from industry”. Doing away with the UGC and introducing legal safeguards for an institute’s position within the three-tiered hierarchy are part of this policy.

However, existing legal provisions have prevented such an overhaul. Those present at a meeting of stakeholders of Hindu College and its neighbour St. Stephen’s College (also under the University of Delhi) with the MHRD minister which took place on May 22, earlier this year, point out that the decision to grant “autonomous” status to the two colleges had been shelved at the time as it would require an amendment to be brought in to the Delhi University Act, 1922.

Clause 9A under Section 4 of the central Act mandates that the consent of the University of Delhi and the college slated for “autonomy” must be sought “in the manner specified by the [university’s] Academic Council”, an unlikely prospect given the current composition of the academic decision-making body.

Regarding the meeting with MHRD, Atul Gupta, associate professor of Commerce and one of the staff association’s office bearers handed “show cause notices” by the administration, said, “St. Stephen’s [College] and Hindu College escaped autonomy due to Clause 9A [of Section 4] in the Delhi University Act. The [Governing Body’s] chairperson’s nominee wanted to remove this clause to privatise the college as early as possible.” He alleges that the proposal to scrap the UGC would be a step in the same direction.

Section 26 of the draft Bill stipulates that it would have an “overriding effect” over any other law in force at the time of its enactment. In effect, getting the HEC up and running could bulldoze legal safeguards for the financial integrity of public colleges, such as those protected by the Delhi University Act, along with the UGC.

In short, having failed to enforce its vision of a hierarchised education system through the legislative route, the Union government seems to be pushing ahead by throttling institutes’ finances through the MHRD’s more overt intervention.

The case of Hindu College illustrates the role played by managing trusts of our public colleges in aiding the government on its path.

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