Not a single Indian institution of higher learning figures in the list of top 200 universities prepared by The Times Higher Education Supplement. These dismal rankings are quite often taken as a measure of the crisis of higher education in India, notwithstanding the obvious limitations of the ranking exercise. But all is not well with Indian universities.

So far, the Narendra Modi government has done very little to address the crisis in higher education. The government started on a controversial note. Prime Minister Modi’s selection to head the Ministry of Human Resources and Development (HRD) raised questions about the importance of education under this dispensation as it showed scant regard for education in spite of the fact that the Sangh Parivar takes education very seriously.

Lower budgetary allocation

The government’s first Budget has not delivered achhe din for higher education in the country. The Union Budget for 2015-16 has reduced funds for higher education to the tune of Rs.3,900 crore in its revised budget estimates for the financial year 2014-15. The government has revised the figure to Rs.13,000 crore, as against Rs.16,900 crore for the plan allocation. The overall education budget of the Modi government is down from Rs.82,771 crore to Rs.69,074 crore. The government has also revised allocation for the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) — which is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS), launched in 2013 that aims at providing strategic funding to eligible state higher educational institutions — to Rs.397 crore as against Rs.2,200 crore in the original Budget.

Despite the trend of passing on the responsibility of education to the private sector, there is a strong case to expand state funding of education. The role of publicly funded education in the democratisation of access to higher education in India is indisputable. Treating the higher education system as a public good, the Indian state has been successful in providing access to institutions of higher learning to many groups which were hitherto not able to access it. This is only possible if there is adequate state funding and public regulation for the entire system of education from school to university. Far from expanding publicly funded universities with an increase in budgetary allocation of education, state funding is being steadily withdrawn from education in general and higher education in particular so that private capital, both Indian and foreign, can be encouraged. The privatisation of higher education is now an irreversible trend in India, where a majority of the institutions have been established by the private sector. In the midst of this trend, it is the arts and humanities that are being pushed aside.

Move towards centralisation

Besides cuts in state funding which is a critical area of concern, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s overall approach to education is destructive of autonomy, creativity and diversity. The manner in which the state is intervening in higher education is causing concern among both teachers and students. There are alarming proposals to change the very nature of higher education. The most disturbing is the proposal to revive the Central Universities Act of 2009 which will require the Central universities to follow a common admission procedure and common syllabus. Even though the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have been remarkably similar in their desire to introduce changes in the higher education system, most of the UPA’s major proposals got drowned in the Parliament logjam which continued till the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha. Also, there was some debate and opposition within the UPA government which could be another reason why the government couldn’t implement its agenda. This government is pursuing the reform agenda much more aggressively leaving little scope for dissent and disagreement.

The Central University (CU) Act seeks to replace the existing Central universities with one single Act which would require all universities to follow a “common” admission and “common” syllabus along with “transferable” faculty. India’s higher education system, serving a large and heterogeneous population, should ideally support a diverse and decentralised system. However, the CU Act will do the opposite; it aims at centralisation and homogenisation, ignoring the specificities and uniqueness of each university. Each University’s Act has a specific context and mandate, and each has developed its own pattern of knowledge production and reproduction. For example, the Delhi University Act (1922) was in response to the need to provide for the educational needs of an emerging India and incorporates a wide college network. The founding ideas of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on the other hand are quite different from other institutions. The impulse for the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Act (1966) was to institutionalise the values and vision of “national integration, scientific temper, and humanism”. These Acts have shaped their curriculum, academic ethos, teaching and research. Nullifying these Acts would be a blow against diversity and pluralism as well as to minimum autonomy without which a university cannot function and flourish. It will narrow the space for innovation and create a teaching culture where creativity and critical thinking will be curbed.

No academic logic

The Ministry of HRD’s idea of “reform” is an egregious attempt to standardise higher education and research by introducing a common framework for Central universities based on the myth that uniformity will equalise quality and skills across universities. It is not at all clear that uniformity will help in upgrading new universities or the State universities, which is the ostensible aim of this exercise.

Some of the good universities such as JNU or the Ambedkar University, Delhi, are successful precisely because they value heterogeneity and variation so that creativity and innovation can thrive. Many Central universities reflect India’s extraordinary diversity in their faculty composition and student body, and, above all, they offer very different syllabi and courses which has helped in their academic growth. The CU Act advocates transfer of faculty between universities. Nowhere in the world are “transfers” between institutions practised. There is no academic logic here. Besides, transfers increase the possibility of vindictiveness as it can be used as a punitive measure to silence dissent and independent voices.

It is evident that the government is eager to control and direct universities both at the Central and State level. For this the HRD Minister is pushing the idea of a Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS), first mooted by her predecessor, Murli Manohar Joshi, during the term of NDA-I, which would have a serious impact on the country’s education system. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has formulated the new proposals for a CBCS, a common entrance test and a central ranking system ignoring the assurances given by the government and the UGC that it would hold wide consultations with all stakeholders before undertaking any subsequent educational reforms. A common syllabus is neither desirable nor feasible as this will diminish creativity and lower standards in order to conform to common standards. We need a university system that encourages diversity and decentralisation, not one that centralises authority or enforces lifeless uniformity.

Even as the government has set the ball rolling for unveiling a new national education policy, there is no public debate or consultation at the behest of the Ministry. Major changes are being initiated and pushed without actually consulting the professionals involved even though there is growing unease and opposition within Central universities to the new education policy and the manner in which the exercise is being done. So far, the MHRD’s consultations have been limited to posting information and asking people to post comments and filling out a survey on higher education on the Ministry’s website. The public was given a period of one month for responding to the “major reforms”. Would any half-serious attempt at reform of the education system treat such momentous changes in this manner?

The right-wing agenda

The common syllabi system has to be seen in the context of attempts to saffronise the education sector, particularly at a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is spearheading the agenda of the present government. Even though the right-wing intelligentsia has failed to provide a credible account of India’s past and present, the Sangh Parivar is nevertheless busy reorganising educational syllabi to reflect a view of history and society gleaned from mythology and religious texts, in effect giving an open licence to fantasise history. Within weeks of forming the government, the RSS held a meeting with the HRD Minister where it pushed for introduction of moral education, correcting distorted history being taught in educational institutions and giving proper representation to forgotten idols of the country from the pre- and post-Independence era. RSS ideologue, Dinanath Batra, unambiguously stated this: Political change has taken place, now there should be total revamp of education. Activists of Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan are reportedly firming up recommendations for a revamp of education; they believe the formal education system needs some key changes: a greater emphasis on Indian knowledge traditions and a blending of the material and the spiritual in the curriculum.

Leaders of the BJP are on record announcing their intention to change the textbooks and syllabus. The larger Sangh agenda includes substantive changes both in the content of education and appointments in prestigious institutions. Their aim is to influence their working to reflect the Sangh’s agenda by making key appointments of persons belonging to the RSS and affiliate bodies in various institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML), the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Central universities, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT), etc, who will loyally execute such changes. Many of them will exercise influence on public policy, and will do so not due to their scholarship, but due to their proximity to the RSS.

(Zoya Hasan, formerly Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is ICSSR National Fellow, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.)