Keeping Higher Education Free and Alive in Gujarat
ICF speaks to Ghanshyam Shah
For the last two years, Indian education has become something of a battlefield. Appointments are made based on the sole qualification of loyalty to the government (read Hindutva) ideology. Debate, dissent and freedom of expression are suppressed on campuses around the country. Texts are banned through coercion by individuals and groups, often based on “hurt sentiments” or other non-academic reasons. Institutions built over the years are being saffronised, and are losing their autonomy.
Perhaps it is not unexpected that Gujarat, often viewed as “a laboratory” for the Hindutvavadis, has recently passed a bill that will further erode the idea of a university in the state. The bill proposes a “Gujarat State Higher Education Council” headed not by academics, but by the Chief Minister. The Council will have sweeping powers to overrule university decisions and insist on compliance with its directives. The government will be able to interfere in all day-to-day matters at universities. Will the process of learning and research survive such a move?
ICF spoke to well-known sociologist Ghanshyam Shah about the bill. Professor Shah is the author of numerous books including Social Movements in India (2009), and has taught at several universities including the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He was a national fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, affiliated to the Centre for Social Studies, Surat.
What are the dangers of this bill for universities in Gujarat? How is it going to affect the quality of learning, teaching and research?
Although the number of state-sponsored universities in Gujarat has increased in the last two decades, the quality of education has declined considerably. Grants universities have been reduced. The government does not even permit the filling up of vacant positions, leave alone creating new posts. One of the reasons for the poor state of higher education is the excessive power the Government of Gujarat is exercising in the academic sphere. The present bill further increases these powers. It will further bureaucratise and politicise the already stifled institutions of higher education in the state.
How is the council this bill proposes to set up different from similar councils in five other states?
The government has consolidated its powers through this bill. It legitimises the government’s power to give any directive to the Council, and it is obligatory for the Council to implement such directives. The bill proposes the Chief Minister as Chairperson, the Education Minister as Vice-Chairperson and the Education Secretary as Secretary of the Council. It has no provision for teacher or student representatives.
Moreover, no one is allowed to file any criminal case against any action of any member of the Council or its officers. So they are above the law.
There is also the question of how the bill was passed. In a democratic society, all important bills are first placed before the public, inviting comments from the stake-holders. Here, this was not done. Moreover, the bill was passed in the state assembly in the absence of the opposition party, without discussion.
The Gujarat government also recently announced a list of 82 topics for doctoral theses, at least five of which must form the subject of a PhD student’s research, including 'Comparative study of Sardar Patel Awas Yojna and Indira Awas Yojana' and 'Education of Minorities — a Critical Study'. Would you comment on this move?
It is a disgusting and anti-intellectual idea to feed students and teachers with the subjects on which they are required to do or guide PhDs. I can only say that those who have floated this proposal do not know what harm they are doing to the creative intellectual life of Gujarat. They assume teachers and students do not have the capacity to think of what to study, and what to write.
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