Education is a public good. Development is intertwined with the education system. In India today, there are proposals to change the nature of education. The Ministry of Human Resource and Development has revived the Central Universities Act (2009) and wants to pass it soon. This Act wants to nullify all the individual Acts that founded the existing Central Universities and replace these with one single Act. The argument is to standardize and unify a currently diverse, heterogenous system. Controlled standardization are bound to destroy the specific skills and innovations of our plural University system.
By nullifying the individual Acts of historical and functional universities, the very memory and history of all these Universities will get wiped out. For example, the Banarus Hindu University Act (1915), has its roots in the national movement. This Act would be a way of denying history.
Each University’s Act is embedded in specific socio-cultural roots. For example, the Delhi University Act (1922) was in response for under graduate graduate to post graduate research needs of an emerging India and incorporates a wide college network. The JNU Act (1966) stated that this University would endeavor to promote national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of life, etc. All this is missing from the new proposed Act, which dilutes what many Universities stand for.
The proposed Central University Act advocates the mobility and transfer of faculty between Universities. The argument is to improve the standards of the ‘lessor’ known universities. There is no academic logic in such a step. Years of research, development and funds that created laboratories cannot be transferred along with the faculty. Students are tied to their faculty and will suffer. Transfers can be politically motivated and the possibility of corruption and vindictiveness increases. Teaching cannot be treated like the military and central services. In West Bengal colleges, teacher transfers eroded many good institutions.
Universities are the incubators of democracy. Many leaders, civil and political activists are products of student unions and movements. This Act proposes that twenty students be nominated by the Academic Council to a 40 member student council, which would be chaired by the Dean of Students. This will destroy the democratic ethos of universities, as students will be deprived of learning about elections, debating issues and dissent.
Further, the Act proposes certain common syllabus. This is destructive, as courses should evolve according to needs and diversity of students. Only highly authoritarian and controlled systems advocated the same text books for the whole country. Research and learning cannot be fulfilled without freedom of choice and autonomy.
Another dangerous dimension of this new Act is that all issues raising from any disputes within the University system, will be referred to a tribunal, and the university community will in effect be debarred from the country’s legal system. The courts have effectively intervened when some teacher or student was unfairly treated. Such restriction that prevents citizens from going to the judiciary and makes them face tribunals is draconian to say the least.
With all Universities under one common Act, will make it very difficult for any University that wants flexibility to amend the Act to suit its character or specialization. The IITs and IIMs of India rejected an earlier proposal that sought to place them under a common Act.
This Act also proposes a Council of Vice Chancellors headed by the Minister of Human Resources Development. This is a further step towards centralization that will curb academic freedoms. This Act gives minute details of service conditions, that will straitjacket life in the University system. All Universities have their own ordinances that conform to the guidelines given by the University Grants Commission and the MHRD. So there can be no complaints against any Central University violating any government guideline.
This Act now meant for central Universities will also be used for a similar Acts in the states. This will corrode the teaching system rather than improving it. With private Universities and foreign universities waiting to get in, it appears that this is a systematic way to self destruct public institutions. Entire generations of Indians have benefitted from the education and autonomy provided by these institutions that are now being rejected.
So what motivated first the UPA and now the NDA Governments to proposing such an Act waiting to passed by Parliament? The most evident reason is to centralize, command and control. Universities are being seen as systems that should not have the autonomy they flourished with so far. All Indians who are a product of this education system should oppose this Act while asking for a more accountable system of higher education.
The rock band Pink Floyd sarcastically sang “We don’t need no thought control”. But this is precisely what is happening. The UPA Bill plays straight into the hands of the NDA which is likely to expand the centralizing powers incorporated in the Bill. Great Universities like those in the Ivy League and Oxbridge do not shuffle faculties around. They take care in building their campuses, faculty and students. Universities must have the autonomy and protection from ill advised politicians and political parties. Universities are part of a continuous knowledge pool and its conscience. They are too precious to be dealt with like shuttle cocks that must ponder to every political or ideological trend. That is not what education is about.