The jargon of “Financial Autonomy” has entered into the discourse of the academic community of already autonomous “institutions of national importance”. The Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) has directed the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to come up with revenue models for their operations on a self financing mode. As directed, in 2016, a panel comprised of directors of the IITs, has readied a “Roadmap to Financial Autonomy of IITs” that recommends an increase of fees by over 200% and the establishment of a Non Banking Financial Company (NBFC) to provide loans to the institutes. As an implementation of it, on May 2017, the finance minister announced a NBFC named Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) which will act as an agency to provide loans to higher educational institutions for infrastructural maintenance/upgradation and research facilities. The principle amount have to be paid back by the borrowing institutes within 10 years and the interest of more than 8% is said to be taken care by the government. This initiative has been taken as a part of shifting the earlier grants-based funding model for public-funded institutions to a new loan-based model. HEFA has been given the authority of raising funds through public equity, and to take loans, universities and colleges will now have to mortgage their assets to escrow accounts operated by the Canara Bank.
In the back drop of these policy changes which should be seen in the light of the neoliberal strategy of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG), the last four years’ budget announcements by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reveal a drastic reduction in public spending on education. Public spending on education has fallen to 3.71% of the total union budget in fiscal year 2017–18, compared to 4.68% in 2016–17. While in November 2017, IITs in Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kharagpur and Kanpur, and NIT, Suratkal received net loan of Rs 2,066.73 crore from HEFA, in the current union budget, huge cuts have been made in the already insufficient allocations for higher education. Allocation for the University Grants Commission has been cut from previous year’s revised estimates of Rs 4,922.74 crore to Rs 4,722.75 crore in 2018‐19, IITs have seen steep fund cut of Rs 1918 crore, NITs have suffered an erosion in funds from Rs. 3668.17 crore to Rs 3203.40 crore. Central universities suffered a fund cut from Rs 7261.4 crore to Rs 6445.2 crore.
Moreover, calling it a ‘historic step’, on 20th March 2018, Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar announced graded autonomy for five central universities including JNU and HCU, 21 state universities which include Jadavpur University, Anna University and Madras University, and 23 deemed universities. This implies that, these universities can make changes, start new courses, offer new degrees, create new departments, recruit foreign faculties and admit foreign students, without any approval from any regulatory body such as UGC or AICTE, and for any such changes, the government will not provide any funds. These policy changes also introduce a new funding formula of 70:30, whereby central universities are being asked by the MHRD to generate at least 30% of the funding and take loans under HEFA.
As main source of income for the academic institutions in India is from the semester fees, it is quite evident that financial autonomy and shifting to loan based model for education will lead to a continuous rise in the fees of the students. Further, due to continuous reduction in the grants by the government, the institutions are forced to borrow more money from HEFA and depend on the finance market for their functioning. Eventually, this leads to further increase in academic and hostel fees and bringing in new modes of collecting money from students for all the services in the institute. In the name of autonomy, private capital are being pushed from back-door through HEFA, thus turning IITs and other supposedly public-funded elite institutes from “institutions of national importance” to “institutions of high profit business”. These moves will take education which is a basic need of the society, much farther from the most economically and socially marginalized sections of the country. The government rather than taking responsibility of this basic need, has been working as agents of foreign and domestic corporate and is forcing the working people and the middle class to become customers of the costly education market.
Recently, series of protests are being organized by teachers and students associations of DU, JNU and other universities against this dismantling of public-funded education. Earlier, students from institutes such as IIT Bombay, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Kanpur, Punjab University and IISER Mohali have held huge protests against the hikes in academic fees and hostel fees due to these anti-student and anti-people policies. These movements should be seen as a part of the nationwide resistance against LPG and has to be intensified further to save the future of higher education in our country.