Monday, July 20, 2009

College Teachers' Strike: Democratic Deficit In Governance

Maharashtra's university and college teachers have been on strike for one week now demanding implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission and other issues concerning the future of higher education not only in the state but in the rest of the country as well. However, the government remains unmoved. It is evident that even as the Prime Minister and the Congress party tom-tom the goal of making India a “Knowledge Superpower”, it cares two hoots for the welfare of teachers and students.

Indeed, Manmohan Singh's government makes no secret of its commitment to the neo-liberal agenda and to its distrust of the democratic process of decision making. The announcement by the HRD minister of the 100 day action plan, which includes such sweeping changes as the discontinuance of examinations at the 10th standard is indicative of the democratic deficit in governance that has become the hallmark of the new dispensation at the Centre.

Soon after taking oath as HRD Minister, Kapil Sibal announced, “I am going to restructure the complete education system in the country. We need to restructure the system so that we do not need to go through the punitive routes...There has to be "corrective steps with human face.”

In fact, he is in a tearing hurry to take these steps that without taking the opinion of various state governments (education is a state subject) he will try to initiate the process of implementing the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee within 100 days. Since a month has passed since he made the grandiose announcement, we have just two months to go.

Professor Yashpal's report deals with Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education. "The recommendations of the Yashpal Committee and the NKC (National Knowledge Commission) are pivotal to reforming the higher education sector," Sibal said.

This, of course, is a fig leaf for the move for the government to privatise education because “there is no money” to meet the Eleventh Plan targets. The Eleventh Plan envisages that by 2012 at least 15 per cent of those passing out from schools should enter college compared to only 11 per cent now. That would mean setting up around 1,500 universities across the country to meet the demand in the next five years—almost five times the existing number.

Neo-liberal policy, of which Sibal is an ardent proponent, dictates that sort of huge infusion of funds can come only from the private sector. Indeed, those advocating privatisation of higher education argue that “it is not possible for any government, let alone the government of a developing nation, to run even the existing 300 universities with equal generosity. Such an agendum is bound to cause either a fiscal breakdown or doom the university system to mediocrity.” What the Government can do is lay down norms and standards and ensure that private institutions follow them, it is stressed.

They argue in the same breath that the era of producing “vanilla” graduates has to be quickly brought to an end. The buzzword is “industry-linked education” or “job-oriented” courses. The term vocational education is increasingly finding disfavour among “decision makers” because of the stigma attached to it that it is a “loser’s choice”. So “repackaging” and “rebranding” has become the name of the game. (See my June 10 post 'Education as Product, Student as Consumer'.)

According to “management expert” CK Pralhad, the key is to make degree courses more linked to industry and its needs. Skill development is now considered key to good education - the equivalent of having “Intel Inside” (sic). There is also a growing demand to free the crippling government control over school education and introduce massive privatisation including making it a for-profit sector.

But Yashpal is contemptuous of the for-profit argument. His committee forthrightly reports, “In many private educational institutions, the appointment of teachers is made at the lowest possible cost. They are treated with scant dignity, thereby turning away competent persons from opting for the teaching profession. A limited number of senior positions are filled at attractive salaries, especially from other reputed institutions, mainly for prestige.

“Otherwise, there are many terrible instances of faculty being asked to work in more than one institution belonging to the management; their salary being paid only for nine months; actual payments being much less than the amount signed for; impounding of their certificates and passports; compelling them to award pass marks in the internal examination to the “favourites” and fail marks for students who protest illegal collections and so on.”

Sibal, of course, is too smart to throw out the baby with the bathwater. After all, the Yashpal Committee Report does gives his “reform” agenda a fig leaf of respectability. But it does not take care of his Congress cronies who are highway robbers disguised as “education barons”. And their needs have to be met. So Sibal wants to club the Yashpal and NKC Reports, even though they are contradictory, in his march towards privatising education, including FDI in the sector (a subject I will deal with separately at a later date).

Despite Kapil Sibal’s camaraderie with Yashpal and Sam Pitroda, the two veterans share little common ground in education. Yashpal's vision is the very opposite of Sam Pitroda. Indeed, the Yashpal Committee holistic recommendations are in variance with those of the NKC and its narrow commercial orientation. But Sibal glibly explains that recommendations of the Yashpal Committee would find easy acceptance as the panel has "done extensive dialogue with all stakeholders".

To be sure, the vision of NKC is fragmented and divisive in as much as it has sought to divide disciplines, institutions and academics into different categories. It prioritises new generation disciplines with commercial prospects over traditional disciplines and national level institutions of excellence from state level universities. It wants to divide the teaching community into different categories on the basis of the “market value” of their disciplines.

Obviously, the Yashpal Committee Report cannot be implemented along with the NKC Report. The recommendations of the NKC have already been acted upon by the government in part by incorporating its proposals in the action plan for 11th Five Year Plan. The setting up of numerous IITs, IIITs and IIMs as institutions specialising in their respective disciplines reflect priorities different from that envisaged by the Yashpal Committee.

All India Federation of Colleges and Universities' Teachers Organisations Thomas Joseph argues it is not accidental that Kapil Sibal has clubbed the Yashpal and NKC Reports together.

In the polemical article (excerpted below) he says though there are basic differences between the brazenly neo-liberal approach of the NKC and the humane and the academic orientation of the Yashpal Committee recommendations, the major administrative recommendation of both the NKC and Yashpal appear to be the same.

“Though Yashpal protests that his brainchild – the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) - is different from Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), the obvious resemblances in the constitution and powers of the institutions cannot be overlooked.

Both IRAHE and NCHER are conceived as apex regulatory bodies with overarching powers and responsibilities. Both are required to be set up by an act of Parliament. Both will have advisory, administrative, funding and regulating functions. The status and mode of appointment of the chief functionary of the NCHER will be similar to that of the chief election commissioner.

There would be six other members representing diverse fields of knowledge and experience, all enjoying the status of members of the Election Commission. The existing 13 regulatory bodies like UGC and AICTE will be subsumed within the new body.

If at all these bodies are permitted to continue, their roles will be limited to the conduct of qualifying tests for professionals in their respective fields. They would be divested of their academic functions.

However, the comparison between the Yashpal Committee Report and NKC Report begins and ends here. The holistic vision of Higher Education presented by the Yashpal Committee is refreshingly different from the narrow commercial orientation of the NKC Report.

The Report warns against cubicalisation of knowledge by creating exclusive centres of learning for different disciplines. The Report tries to recover the idea of a university as a meeting place of all knowledge available through all disciplines. It promotes the concept of inter-disciplinarity by perceiving that new knowledge is likely to be created at the intersections of disciplines.

Accordingly, it recommends that existing IITs and IIMs and such other institutions should be transformed into universities by providing access to all disciplines. The Report makes a strong plea for integrating teaching with research and research with teaching. It rightly lays stress on the development of undergraduate education which is the foundation of Higher Education.

While the NKC had sought the separation of undergraduate education from post-graduate education, except in a few institutions of excellence, the Yashpal Committee recommends the integration of undergraduate with post-graduate learning in all institutions.

The Committee regards both theoretical learning and applied learning as equally important and recognises the use of local data and resources to make knowledge covered in the syllabus come alive as experience.

It recommends that curriculum reform would include compulsory exposure and engagement with different kinds of works, including manual work. It stresses the need for learning across disciplines by giving students the opportunity to learn subjects outside their field of specialisation.

The need for developing close interaction among neighbouring institutions by forming clusters for enhancing both access and quality is given considerable attention in the Report.

The Yashpal Committee Report regards autonomy as an essential component of excellence. It wants the universities to become self-regulating agencies. It says that the teacher should have complete autonomy in academic matters. He should have the freedom to frame his course and to choose the manner of assessing his students.

The freedom of the student consists in choosing his courses and the pace of his studies. At the same time the Report also underlines the need for accountability of Higher Education institutions. One of the concrete issues raised by the Committee in this connection is in regard to the deemed universities, especially the denovo variety.

The Committee criticises the cancerous growth of denovo deemed universities in recent times and demands that the provision be scrapped. The Report also raises issues of equity in Higher Education. It points out that the capitation fees for engineering courses vary from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, for MBBS from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 40 lakh, for dental courses from Rs 5 to Rs 12 lakh and courses in arts and science from Rs 30,000 to 50,000. It calls for measures to ensure that all meritorious students are given access to Higher Education, irrespective of their financial status.

An implicit assumption that runs through the Report is that the grand vision of education as outlined by Yashpal would be imbibed by the seven wise men who constitute the NCHER. Such complacence would be misplaced even if the philosophy of the Yashpal Report is incorporated into the text of the statute that would bring NCHER into being.

The most telling example is the failure of the Indian State to govern the country in accordance with the democratic, secular and socialist tenets enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution. The chances of such failure are greater today.

The equation drawn by Kapil Sibal between such dissimilar reports as the Yashpal Committee Report and the NKC Report is a pointer to the shape of things to come. It is quite likely that Yashpal Committee Report will be subsumed within the NKC Report.

One of the important drawbacks in the structure of NCHER as recommended by Yashpal is that it has ignored the importance of consultative process in the evolution of educational policies. The NCHER, as it is presently conceived, is a body of seven wise men. It is assumed that they will be able to rise above narrow prejudices and personal biases in policy formulation and implementation.

There is no guarantee that a body selected by a search committee comprising the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India and insulated against day-to-day political interference and endowed with adequate finances would always act wisely and in public interest.

Policy formulations made by such an authority, even if it has to be vetted by Parliament, would carry an aura of authority. The check against arbitrariness in policy formulation and implementation is a mechanism for larger consultation and monitoring. Therefore, an arrangement for compulsory consultation with all stakeholders in education, including the states and the universities, should be built into the structure of the proposed NCHER.

Similarly, a provision for ensuring accountability not only to Parliament but to the larger academic community should also be provided. Given the impatience with which Kapil Sibal is itching for “reforms”, such a process, which would slow down decision making, is unlikely to find favour with the mandarins at the HRD ministry.

The NCHER is likely to collapse under the weight of its responsibilities, if ever it makes an attempt to grapple with them. A more likely and less welcome prospect would be that NCHER will continue to survive by sacrificing its most important agenda – academic innovation and regulation. The UGC has had a similar fate.

Conceived as an academic, regulatory and funding agency, the UGC largely ignored its academic responsibilities and messed up its funding functions. While no tears would be shed over the demise of UGC/AICTE and other similar regulatory agencies, which have become corrupt and dysfunctional over the years, there is no reason why these agencies should be dispensed with lock-stock-and-barrel. These could be pruned appropriately and asked to continue with the function of funding, of course with a greater sense of accountability than they are used to.

The proposed NCHER could take over the academic responsibilities from these agencies and remain contented with it. A separation of academic and funding responsibilities and an arrangement for sharing such responsibilities by different agencies are likely to ensure better results in respect of both than combining them under one roof.

The implementation of the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee would thus necessitate a rethinking on the priorities and programmes of the 11th Plan. Such a step is very unlikely to materialise. But the Report could be compromised and co-opted. Unfortunately, the seeds for such co-option have inadvertently been sown by Yashpal himself through his half-baked notions of NCHER.”

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