Special Election Issue
In its 2014 election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to draft a new education policy for India. The last one had been drafted in 1986 and updated in 1992. For the present government, it took just one and a half years to appoint a committee to draft the policy. The committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam came up with a 230-page report in May 2016. It is no wonder as education is never a priority for any government whether it is UPA or present BJP government. That is reflected by the allocation for education in the successive central and state budgets. The 10% budgetary allocation and 6% of GDP expenditure on education continues to remain an elusive dream and tall claims of expansion in terms of numbers fall flat when we see the actual allocations, which have remained more or less stagnant in the absolute monetary terms. Education spending was reduced; it touched a 10-year low in 2018-19. Funding for education has come down from 0.49% of the GDP in 2017-18 to 0.45% of the GDP in the next year. Central government spending on school education as a proportion of GDP has been cut from 0.28% to 0.27%. Higher education has suffered similar fund cuts, from 0.21% of the GDP to 0.19%. University Grant Commission (UGC) has faced Rs. 200 crore cut down in budget in comparison to the revised estimate of previous year. For the year 2015-16, UGC allocated a total of Rs. 648.3 crores for 329 state universities, i.e., on average only 2 crores per institute. Even the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) and the National Institute of Technologies (NITs) have seen cut down of funds amounting Rs. 1918 crore and Rs. 465 crore, respectively. The amount is Rs. 816 crore for other central universities. It is evident from these figures that the government is withdrawing public support from the education sector.
The present government amended the Right to Education Act 2009 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was merged with Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, the secondary education scheme for Classes 9 and above. The main motive was to undermine the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by depriving it of funds and data from the states confirm that the fund released under combined scheme were smaller. Further, it is not clear how much of the budgetary allocation announced in the current budget for the scheme will go to elementary education, and even if the funds are moved to higher classes, they will fall far short of what is required to universalise secondary education – a campaign promise the Modi government is reportedly working on. But as per the National Achievement Survey 2017 of government schools, conducted by the NCERT, a class VII student could barely answer 40% of the questions in maths, science and social studies. This poor quality is due to “insufficient investment in public education and the government’s inability to implement the Right to Education Act, in letter and spirit”, commented an education activist.
The Centre’s spending on education – higher, lower and teacher-training taken together – has been lower than 4% of the total budget every year since 2015-16. At 3.5%, the budget estimate for education in 2018-19 is the lowest in a decade. The Right to Education Act 2009 – implemented in 2010 – had given the government five years to train all school teachers. But the 2015 deadline passed with 11 lakh untrained teachers in schools. In August 2017, government amended the Act to extend the deadline to 2019. In August 2015, the Central Advisory Body on Education recommended that a key reform introduced by the Right to Education Act – the no-detention policy – be dropped (allows primary school children to be failed in school exams). An amendment Bill allowing the states to make children repeat Classes 5 and 8 was passed in the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha in 2017 and in the Rajya Sabha on January 3, 2019.
The last five years have been marked by shrinking autonomy for public universities. In July 2018, the Modi government drafted a bill to scrap the University Grants Commission, (which regulates higher educational institutions in India) and replace it with a Higher Education Council of India with different composition and functions. The intention was to erode the Commission’s authority as an independent regulator. The autonomy of the central universities was massively crushed. For example, the government imposed a similar choice-based credit system upon all Central Universities by which they lost their rights to design their syllabus independently. The shrinking independence of regulator and erosion of autonomy of universities gained a higher pick when, in 2016, the authority framed new regulations for research programmes like MPhil and PhD, converting written entrance tests into qualifying exams and increasing the importance of interviews. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds faced considerable challenges. Students challenged the policy in the Delhi High Court. In October 2018, the court ruled in their favour. Further, the government has massively reduced the number of seats for research (MPhil and PhD) putting a barrier on the number of students a professor can guide. In a situation when most of the research institutes and universities are understaffed, this will ensure that the small section of the students who fight to reach the research level will now be left out gradually. For example, JNU saw a cut of 82.81% in the research seats from the 1408 approved for 2017 by its Academic Council.
As for higher education, the Modi government continued with policies meant to push colleges and universities to become “self-financing”, which basically means funding through the fees students pay, destroying the accessible character of public education institutions. Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resource Development, has released the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) report for the year 2017-2018 where it has been mentioned that out of the 1147 Colleges established in 2017, 941 (82%) were private colleges, whereas only 206 (18%) are government colleges. This exposes the rapid rate of privatization. In 1950, the number of universities in India was just 20. And by June 2017, the number rose to 819 — 47 central, 367 state, and 123 deemed and 282 private universities. The TSR Subramanian Committee Report 2016 says uncontrolled privatisation of higher education has resulted in the proliferation of private institutions. The French Economist Thomas Piketty, author of the book Capitalism and Democracy commented, “Every strong capitalist society in the world and every successful historical experience of capitalist development did include a very strong collective effort to invest in public education. All capitalist countries in the world have invested in public education and in more inclusive development than what India is doing now”.
The present government has replaced grants to public universities with infrastructure loans. The government approved the plan to grant graded autonomy to all universities – public, private and deemed – based on their ranking as per the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and the two-year-old National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). This autonomy includes financial autonomy, which has two main implications – the “top” universities would be free to decide their fee structures and any “autonomous” decision by the university would be financed by the university itself, either by becoming ‘self-financing’ or through private partnerships. In 2017, the government approved the formation of the Higher Education Financing Agency, which will “donate” to centrally funded higher education institutions for the purpose of infrastructure buildling. The borrowing institution will have to pay back the principal through its own internal resources. In November, 2017, the HEFA approved projects for Rs. 2,066.73 Cr to six higher education institutions. The government has reduced the outlay for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) by 20% in the Budget 2018, to Rs 6,326 crore. As a result, IITs witnessed fee hikes up to a range of 200%. Further, this will rapidly affect the new IITs as the HRD ministry will not be able to disburse the funds and in-a-way force them to take loans. The situation is not different for the new IIMs. For example – IIM Jammu is operating from the IIM Lucknow campus. Similarly, IIM Amritsar operates from the Punjab Institute of Technology building in Amritsar.
The agenda of the present government becomes clear when it declares a non-existent Jio Institute as one of the Institute-of-Eminence (IoE). This IoE is a new scheme launched recently by the present Modi-led government in which 10 government and 10 private institutions will be selected and will be given Rs. 1000 crore each. So, it is not that the central government does not have enough money to fund the higher educational institutions. Rather the real motive is to liberate all kinds of regulations that are acting as barriers against privatizing the higher education sector. For example, the 20 institutes under IoE scheme will be granted complete autonomy. They will be free to admit foreign students and charge fees from them, without any kind of restrictions from the government. Following the recommendations of General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the government is trying to generate more income by admitting foreign students. Currently a foreign student is paying three times higher tuition fee than a student belonging to this country, and the present ruling class is shamelessly encouraging such commodification of education with its new schemes. IoEs are also free to recruit foreign faculty, exempted from following the UGC mandated curriculum structure, free to offer online courses. For the time being, some maximum limits are set while availing these freedoms, which are likely to be deregulated again in the future following the present trend. We all know that the labor welfare policies become invalid in Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Likewise, government-fixed fees, reservation, scholarship, and other justice-based policies will become invalid in these new SEZs for higher education, from where private monopolists will generate their revenue.
A professor at JNU has rightly noted in her aticle “Who’s Afraid of Public Education?” that “Private, and self-financing institutions in different parts of India have had an abysmal record in every sense – from not upholding the constitutionally-mandated reservation policy, to pitching fees so high that they price everyone except the very rich out of higher education. In places in India poor and underprivileged students have committed suicide as a result of the pressure this has put on them and their families. The direction we are headed towards – of heavy student loans and their deleterious impact – is something that is being met with by huge protests in those parts of the world where fees are too high and loans crippling (for instance US’s ‘occupy’ and the South Africa’s ‘fees must fall’ movements started by students as a response to such changes by their respective governments’ policies).”