By Ashley Tellis
The introduction and pushing through at such short notice (less than two weeks given for feedback) of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI Act, 2018) is symptomatic of this government’s systematic attempt to dismantle higher education in this country and turn it into a set of mindless coaching institutes run by goons who are stooges of the state.
No one in their right mind would say that the UGC has been excellent at its job over the last several decades. The disaster in Delhi University that it unleashed – destroying the stellar Honours three year degree, introducing a disastrous four-year degree, rolling it back – has left the central University damaged beyond repair. Its scuffles with the IITs and the IIMs also showed its strong-arm and thoughtless tactics to retain control over a field way beyond its control now.
But if decentralisation and a focus on academic standards to build higher education in India are the answers, the HECI Act is the complete opposite and furthers the centralisation of higher education. It actually makes one feel like the UGC was not so bad after all which is only indicative of how problematic it is.
Some of the problems include putting the HRD Ministry in charge of fund disbursal instead of autonomous academic experts, granting itself penal powers to shut down institutions, powers of enforcement of regulation, total and centralized political control and no academic control in all matters which in the current climate ties in with the saffronisation of higher education, no recognition of the diversity of educational landscapes in India, marginalisation of teachers to absurdities like the Chairperson being allowed to be based abroad, the continuing disrespect of teachers, funding based on performance with faulty criteria to assess performance. The list is endless.
To be sure, the UGC was no paragon of excellence and many of these criticisms also apply to it but the HECI takes the problems to quite other levels. Of all these problems, the most dangerous by far is the ideological compliance that will be demanded at several levels and the violence effected on institutions that do not kowtow to these ideological pressures.
We have already seen how institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library have been hollowed out almost overnight undoing decades of work to build academic standards in them. This Act is of a piece with that dismantling process combining government control and gross commercial profiteering with scant regard for academic standards.
The main attack is clearly on education within the Humanities and the Social Sciences, on the scientific bodies like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) or the braindead National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The Humanities and Social Sciences are seen as breeding Naxalites and anti-nationals when what they potentially breed are thinking citizens, who question state policies and state rhetoric, who are able to see state smokescreens for what they are.
It might sound like a conspiracy theory but it is scarcely difficult to discern precisely what the agenda is. It is what has happened with education in all neoliberal countries and India is desperate to stamp itself as the best Third World neoliberal bastion. India wants a nation of students, like the ones in the United States, too burdened by debt to think about anything but making money and mentally unable to question and critique the state or indeed anything else.
If politicians get to decide academic standards, decide which institutions will get money and which will not, which will shut down and which will not, which one is performing well and which not, who will pay how much fees, who will enroll and what they will study, we can be sure that academic standards will not be the criteria at all but ideological boot-licking will.
We can also be sure that the marginalised and neglected who over the years have entered education, thanks to reservation and the breaking down of the elitism of higher education, will be kept firmly out which is the classic upper caste, upper class agenda. The current government is hardly subtle about its investment only in the rich and the upper caste and the HECI is exemplary in ensuring that only they will be catered to.
Once again, this is not to say that the UGC or any educational body has been exemplary in serving the marginalised or that the marginalized have been exemplary in their performance in education since the doors have been opened to them but these are not the points here. What is at stake is the wholesale re-forming of education into a bunch of braindead, ideologically obsequious coaching centres, geared toward the mindless pursuit of money.
If we do not protest the Act, we are signing our own lobotomy forms and there is no hope for independent and critical thinking in the field of education any more.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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