The Public University Conundrum- From Nairobi to Panjab

Prerna Trehan*

Amid slogans of their right to education, the spectacle of Buta Singh’s bruised body and young students combating water cannons, the fee hike in Panjab University again raised a question mark on the “ache din” promised by the Narendra Modi government. The protests in Panjab University received widespread and deserved attention. However, in condemning the policy brutality and indifference of the administration, what remained shrouded was the pitiful stagnation that higher education in India has come to be associated with.

Panjab University, reminded Vice Chancellor Arun Kumar Grover in a meeting called with the research scholars post the unfortunate incident of clashes between the students and police, is one of the oldest and prominent places of higher education in the country. Ironically in his lengthy speech he delved more on the colonial history of the institute, which when put into perspective, parallels the present state of the university. Prof. Grover recounted how the institute was funded by the Maharajas of various principalities of undivided Punjab in colonial India “for people who could speak English”, while the British contribution to the same remained minimal at best and apathetic at worst. However, despite the claims of existence of a welfare State, there seems to have been little or no change as far as provisioning of resources for universities are concerned. The colonial State, miserly with its coffers has been replaced by the Central and state governments as well as the UGC, while the Maharajas have been replaced by the Senate and VC, who have miserably failed to voice the genuine concerns of their students.

April 11, 2017 may turn out to be a red letter day in the history of Panjab University. In the imagination of the administration and maybe the provincial (federal) governments, the well manicured lawns and red sandstone buildings with parking lot full of cars in the university were indicative of the economic status of its students. They were utterly presumptuous, if not entirely mistaken. Numerous students like Buta Singh come from deprived corners of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir to study here. They are not landed, do not have parents bank rolling their stay here but are fighting everyday monotonies to substantially exercise their fundamental right to lead a decent and meaningful life which has in the modern era come to rely on entirely on “good education”. Amartya Sen, in his analysis of ‘The Centrality of Education” (Sen, 2013) points to the necessity of education in developing the capacity to actuate our freedom. Arun Kumar points to education as a “merit good” with numerous positive externalities (Kumar, November 26, 1950). The asymmetry in the availability of education has a butterfly effect across spheres perpetuating inequality among various sections of population.

Panjab University and financial doldrums

The financial crisis that Panjab University has landed itself in is of a complex making, in which all three levels- UGC, Punjab government and PU administration are complicit. Playing the political blame game, Manpreet Badal in a recent interview with the Indian Express claimed the PU financial crisis to be a consequence of “lack of political leadership.” While the Akali Dal, he claimed could create memorials worth nearly Rs. 2000 crore, the promised contribution of Rs. 20 crore to PU had been kept pending for years. Panjab University is an inter-state body corporate, and not a Central University. According to an agreement, the Panjab government contributes 40% to the PU finances, while the Central government contributes the rest of 60%. However, the cap of Rs. 20 crore being maintained by Panjab government is clearly insufficient for a University catering to nearly 15,000 students from across states of India. Here however, the present Finance minister Manpreet Badal again banked on Punjab’s own financial woes to deny increased funds to the university. Before Haryana and Himachal Pradesh got their own Central universities, their colleges were affiliates of PU and the states paid a certain contribution to the university. However, in the later years due to the tussle over Chandigarh and insecurity surrounding the regional aspirations of Punjab, the state government has tried to keep the two neighbours away from the affairs of Punjab University.

The money crunch has been witnessed for over two decades now and yet no plan was devised to combat the same except raise the students’ fees. In 2015, after a complaint by Akhil Bhartiya Vishwa Parishad (the right-wing student group) about misappropriation of hostel funds the central government grant was frozen, sending PU down the rabbit hole of money crunch. It was finally on orders of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that UGC was forced to cash out an interim grant of Rs. 30 crore as the university had come to a standstill due to paucity of funds to carry out even day to day expenses. The University once placed the highest along with Indian Institute of Science in the Times Higher Education ranking, and beating the rest of the universities in India in Asia’s top universities rankings (both in 2014) still faces a massive deficit of Rs. 244.29 crore. The bureaucratic interference and suggestions of maximising funds reduces the working of a university into a balance statement without understanding the peculiarities of an institute. The present National Institute Ranking Framework points to the vicious cycle PU is caught in. The University dropped from 12th last year to 33rd this year. The financial soundness of an institute is necessary to maintain quality of faculty, student-teacher ratio etc. The lack of funds caused an overwhelming scarcity of staff thereby creating a domino effect on other measures leading to a fall in rank, which further means a cut in the grants by the centre.

While both the state and the central government including the UGC are responsible for the fall of Panjab University, the PU administration itself made some stinging moves. After six years, a jump of 10 times in the tuition fees was sure to be a sharp pinch to the pockets of the students. The decision making bodies of Panjab University consisting of the senate and syndicate led by the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Arun Kumar Grover, have become the epitome of inertia lacking will or creativity for coming up with solutions. The authorities failed to take into consideration the views of the students or even holding discussions without the condescension of being the sole deciding authority, before announcing the fee hike. The Vice Chancellor holds a rather contorted view of Panjab University being a hub for the entitled, without accounting for the majority who have to work to support their education and living expenses in Chandigarh. The student protests were a result of a lack of empathy with the same. Despite numerous representations, no serious measures were taken to take on board the apprehensions of students fighting for their right to an equitable future. The administration had police personnel replete with riot gear like water cannons and tear gas deployed, despite protests being largely peaceful. The apathy of those in power towards those on the curb was palpable. The violence and arrest of the students which followed shifted the discourse from the larger issue of what are the means of imparting higher education.

The fall of the Public University

The belated meeting with the research scholars put many things into perspective. The hike of 10-1100 times was seen as an opportunity to better the university. Cloaked in dehumanising formulas, the hike was made to sound necessary as well as legitimate. “The State does not promise free higher education,” claimed Grover, and that holds true in all legal sense. However, there is a larger moral argument when a scholar raised the question that isn’t it a welfare State obligated to provide free or at least subsidised higher education and more importantly does it not constitute a moral right of the young citizens who may demand its implementation. The answer of VC was in line with the reaction of most institutions of passing the buck. “I cannot give you this right. For it you have to go somewhere else,” quipped Grover. However, the act of students taking their demands to the sphere of civil society is often painted as being un-student like and how they instead of studying and toeing the line of their “benefactor” have the audacity to question it.

Terry Eagleton’s insightful observation may spell doom for the argumentative India-the death of humanist critique marks the commencement of the “slow death” of universities. It is not just Panjab University, the trend seems to run across the country as funds for centres in JNU and TISS are cut, as students are left stranded without an option to pursue their PhD’s, as non-NET fellowships for “anti-national” students are cut. The idea of financial autonomy propagated may be in the direction of what Eagleton refers to the American model of “entrepreneurial university.” The general trend in deriding Humanities and increased stress on the vocationalisation goes hand in hand with the forces of global capitalism precipitating around the world. This is intimately linked to the 2005 WTO Nairobi Ministerial Meet where there is a push to include higher education in the list of “tradeable services” allowing foreign countries to venture into commercial ventures in higher education. The All India Survey of Higher Education (2012-13) points the Gross enrollment ratio in higher education to be 21.1%, with GRE for SC and ST population in the 18-23 age groups being even lower at around 15% and 11% respectively. The total GRE has witnessed a marginal increase to 24% while in most countries, the number touches 50%.  Education as ‘sunrise sector’ with large private and foreign ventures can’t be seen as a panacea for the evils of low student-teacher ratio, lack of research, abysmal quality of teaching in higher education. The “world class institutions” that would be set up will be out of the means of majority of population of a country still running away from being described as a “poor country” despite 276 million people living below $1.25 per day on PPP (according to World Bank, 2011). This will only limit the egalitarian goal of education which was envisaged by the framers of India’s Constitution.

The Minister of State (MHRD), Dr. Mahendra Nath Pandey in a written reply to a Lok Sabha question (6th Feb, 2016) responded that the government is committed to provide equitable access to quality education to all, by enhancing access to public funded education across all levels ranging from elementary to higher education. However, India’s public spending on higher education remains one of the lowest in the world at 1.34%  of the GDP in the year 2013-14 as per publication ‘Analysis of Budgeted Expenditure on Education – 2015’ of the HRD Ministry. Moreover, a large chunk of the funds are spent on professional colleges such as IIMs, IITs, and NITs etc. In fact, there has been a continuous decline in spending on education as a share of the central government’s total budgeted expenditure has been falling for the past three years. Compared to 2013-14, the last year of UPA, when education got 4.57% of the total expenditure, there has been a steady decline — 3.65% in 2016-17, according to this Budget’s revised estimate, with the estimated outlay for the coming year showing a minor uptick at 3.71% according to a report in the Times of India based on analysis of Government budget. Privatisation of higher education may be seen as a corollary of the demand supply relations, wherein proponents of private education argue that  the government has not been able to keep up with the growing demand for higher education as degrees become the new means of not just economic but also social mobility. Arun Kumar remarks how “One way to push the interest of the private sector is to engineer the decline of public sector institutions,” and that seems to be the inclination of the political class and executive.

As Universities are seen more as “service stations” catering to the global “knowledge economy” rather than the idea of academics, research and teaching has been limited to citations, practical purposes and API scores. The bureaucratic-managerial ideology perpetrated from above pushes the idea of public university towards annals of history. The case of hiked tuition fees and a bid to privatise higher education will not work well without governance reforms within universities. The TSR Subramanian Committee for New Education Policy in context of higher education is emphatic on the need for a super regulator to replace University Grants Commission and allowing top 200 foreign companies to open campuses in India. Inputs for the draft paper on Higher Education by MoHRD underlines Internationalisation as “an inevitable dimension of higher education in this era of globalisation, and generation of new knowledge and its application.” The draft with regard to financing of education claims, “Education, in Indian context, should be considered a public good and there is a need for greater public investment in the sector. There are evidences to show that countries which have heavily privatized education systems could not economically and socially progress and hence there is a value loss rather than gain. On the other hand, countries which consider education a public good reap greater social benefits on a sustained basis.” Despite the tall promises the actions of the present government seem to point in the opposite direction. Furthermore, the suggested provisions are indicatory of top heavy reforms without tackling core issues that continue to plague higher education in India. The case of Panjab University epitomises the same.

The PU Syndicate recently set up a Panel to push for Central University status. However, the belief that grant of same would lead to end of its financial woes may rest on shaky grounds, as the tightening of JNU’s purse strings has shown. The University belongs to the students, asserted one of the students in the meeting with the V.C. It is necessary for these students’ movements across campuses to collate into a common cause to fight for the cause of higher education as a “public good” to be assured to one and all. The discourse of “ache din” needs to move beyond the optics and for the sake of India’s demographic profile, it is important University campuses are not converted into government propaganda machinery or private money tellers, but stay true to the purpose of igniting young minds and lives.

*Prerna Trehan is a research scholar with Department of Political Science, Panjab University working on the issue of Dalit assertion in Punjab.

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