“By making the ‘anti-national’ institutions the best institutions, the government aims to privatise them”: Debaditya Bhattacharya

In Part two of this three-part series of interviews, writer and teacher Debaditya Bhattacharya comprehensively traces the historical trajectory of higher education in India, right from the "big liberalisation moment" of the 1980s to the present day. Also, inlcluded below is an excerpt from his book, The University Unthought (2018).

The structural adjustments unleashed by what John Williamson termed the “Washington Consensus” of 1989 called upon the debt-burdened third world economies to curb state controls on the social sector (including education and health services) and open up their markets to private corporations as means to greater loan sanctions from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was argued that effective deregulation of public services would not only earn greater national returns (and therefore, better ‘growth’- dividends) through foreign capital inflows but would also help overcome the debt-crisis with assured global credit (Williamson 1990). Successively, the Indian economic policy regime marked a paradigm shift by relinquishing state ownership of public infrastructures and allowing entry of private players as both patron and provider of non-profit social goods. As early as in 1995, the Indian government tabled a Private Universities (Establishment and Regulation) Bill with a declared policy intention to stem the ‘mushrooming’ of private self-financing institutions of higher education in the country, but in the process laying out guidelines for the “incorporation” of more such colleges in those sciences and technology disciplines which promised commercial application (GoI 1995: 1). Though the Bill was forced into dormancy in the Upper House of the Parliament before being withdrawn in 2007, several state assemblies (such as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) went on to enact similar legislation in the intervening years – thus lending credence and legitimacy to private corporate investment in higher education. In April 2000, a “special subject group on policy framework for private investment in education” – headed by corporate tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla – submitted its report for reform-planning initiatives to the Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry (Ambani and Birla 2003: 840–5). Infamously known as the Ambani-Birla Report, it unequivocally pitted the primary and secondary education sectors against higher education and argued for a diversion of public funds from the latter to the former. Underlying an apparent concern for the gaping ‘quality’ deficit within government schools was the urgency of a call to reduce state subsidies for colleges and universities, thus enabling increased private financing of the sector. The Report further re-configured tertiary education in a “knowledge-based society” (ibid.: 841) as far from being a public good, since the benefits of it were assumed to be realized through higher private lifetime incomes of the student. Historically, this marked a shift of financial priorities for the erstwhile welfare state by repositioning its commitment from funding institutions to funding individuals (through loan assistance and financial aid packages).

The University Grants Commission – tasked with grant disbursals in the field of general higher education – followed up this insidious policy move from a subsidy model of public provisioning to a loan/scholarship-based relief package model by envisioning a Model Universities Act in 2004. Urging universities to generate their own revenues through industrial collaborations and philanthropic partnerships (The

Times of India 2004), this public document aimed at bringing all universities of the country under a ‘model’ code of stealthy privatization – in complete disregard for divergent socio-economic contexts or material inequities. In the face of stiff opposition from teachers and students alike, the subsequent United Progressive Alliance (UPA-I) government withdrew the UGC’s portentous recommendations, but only to have the Prime Minister appoint a National Knowledge Commission

(NKC) in 2005 under the chairmanship of yet another corporate stakeholder in the telecommunications industry. The NKC drafted a flurry of Reports in 2006, 2007 and 2009 – with a view to reaping the “demographic dividend” (GoI 2009a: 3) of the country and bolstering a “knowledge economy” (ibid.: 15) that would “involve diversifying the sources of financing to encourage private participation, philanthropic contributions and industry linkages” (ibid.: 14). It also spoke of reducing the “current barriers to entry” (ibid.: 14) of private players by easing regulations and merging governance bodies (much in line with what we see happening now!), while at the same time consigning the non-revenue-generating disciplines like humanities and liberal arts to policy oblivion.

The final nail in the coffin of public-funded higher education was proposed in the form of a Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010 – and later re-introduced in the Parliament as the Foreign Education Providers Bill 2013 (GoI 2010). Working at the behest of the Doha agreement of 2001 and preparing the ground for the WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference in 2015, this draft legislation sought to allow foreign universities to set up offshore campuses in India and thus massively curtail the state’s financial liabilities in the field of higher education. Disguised as a measure for restricting foreign exchange outflows from the national economy and preventing students from going abroad in search for ‘world class’ opportunities, this Bill was an attempt at outsourcing constitutional commitments of ‘access’ and ‘quality’ to the charge of global ‘competition’ (Vaidhyasubramaniam 2010).

While this history of policy reform will animate much more meticulous discussion in following chapters, the contemporary moment might cursorily appear as an ideological rupture. I want to argue, however, that it is instead an apotheosis of a long-unfolding theatre of legislative planning. With the recent electoral rise of the Hindu Right in India, the sustained assault on public universities in the name of their being ‘anti-national’ or ‘seditious’ spaces is, in fact, an accurate instance of how transnational economic designs are executed under the guise of an aggressive cultural nationalism. It is no paradox that universities are being used as a site for manufacturing a certain hegemonic consensus because that has historically been their function as part of a bourgeois public sphere. Insofar as they are made to foist an immanent fantasy of the ‘national’ as imaginative test of loyalty and precondition of citizenship, the calculated jingoism of Hindutva disavows the public good of higher education as ranged against the funding state and therefore better left to global forces of competition. The populist narratives played out by the public media around how such institutions contribute to a ‘waste’ of taxpayers’ money and must therefore be shut down, coupled with the government’s active attempts to scrap research fellowships or increase teaching workload or cut down teaching jobs in public institutions, explain the policy underpinnings of the contemporary moment.

An explanatory anecdote from recent history might serve to put things in perspective here. For the second year in a row in India, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) – an annual audit mechanism for rating ‘performance’ of higher educational institutions, as empowered by the Draft Educational Policy 2016 – ended up ensconcing as the ‘best’ those same universities which have routinely and spectacularly incurred the ‘nationalist’ wrath of the current government. For example – IIT Madras, the identified precursor to the rhetorical monstrosity called the ‘anti-national’ through an attempted de-recognition of a student study-circle in early 2015, was granted the topmost position among engineering institutes. Much in the same vein, Jawaharlal Nehru University (which saw the arrests of student scholars on trumped up charges of sedition) was named second, Jadavpur University (which continues to witness orchestrated clashes by right-wing lumpen elements) was ranked fifth, Hyderabad Central University (which drove an institutionally boycotted Dalit scholar to suicide on provocations of ruling-party legislators) came seventh, and Delhi University (which recently flashed up scenes of violent assault and vandalism in response to an academic seminar) was rated eighth among all universities. As I have maintained elsewhere, the simultaneous branding of dissenting spaces as the ‘best’ institutions of the country and by the same government that persecuted them – though seemingly rift with contradiction – is actually united in terms of policy intent (Bhattacharya 2018). This sudden deluge of accolades for those perceived as “rogue” institutions – through highest-ever NAAC ratings, Visitor’s Awards, National Board of Accreditation (NBA) approvals and NIRF laurels – begs being read in the light of possible futures charted by the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee Report on New Education Policy (2016a). Section 7.5 of the Report, while lauding the “initiative recently taken to rank top Universities in the country” (2016a: 144), hints at the exact policy implications of ‘high ratings’:

On the upper end of the scale, A or I represents the best in its class

in India. The institutions in this bracket would have total autonomy

in all respects, including fixing faculty salaries, fee structure,

entering into collaborations, etc. . . . In other words, there shall be

a direct positive correlation between the quality of an institution and

the grant of autonomy, along with which there will be collateral

responsibility to sustain that quality.

(ibid.: 143, Clause 7.5.19)

The ideological scourge of the ‘anti-national’ is finally legitimized through its coincidence with the NIRF’s glorious mandate, and in the process paving way for a delinking of the ‘best’ institutions from state financial support. Early in 2018, the Human Resource Development (HRD) minister’s ceremonious anointing of 62 of such ‘best’ higher educational institutions as deserving of complete autonomy (ToI 2018) – whereby, they might open new courses or departments or off-campus centres at will, run short-term certificate or skill-based programmes, hike student fees, enter into private partnerships, admit foreign students and recruit foreign faculty at higher salaries, on the sole condition that “no demand for fund is made from the government” (GoI 2018a: 8–9, Clauses 4.2–4.11) – makes policy into a consummate tool of avenging public education for ideological non-compliance. The impoverishment of revenue for ‘performing’ institutions is made part of official policy through an imminent push towards self-financing measures, and the seat cuts in JNU or the proposed 1100 per cent fee hike in Panjab University (PU) are but underwritten as natural policy outcomes for seditious spaces.

You can watch the first part of the series here

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