The Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA) has called for a People’s March on 19th Feb. 2019 along with other organizations comprising of students and teachers from other parts of the country to challenge “government assault on higher education”. So what kind of ‘assault’ on higher education is our society facing? In 2012-13, education expenditure was 3.1% of the GDP. It fell in 2014-15 to 2.8% and registered a further drop to 2.4% in 2015-16. Since then, it has been stagnant with marginal improvement to 2.7% of the GDP in 2018-19. The dismal state of public funding to the education sector has been acknowledged and criticized severely by the experts and media. However, I would like to draw the reader’s attention towards a host of other problems being faced by India’s higher education sector emanating from underfunding.
For an educational institution to function reasonably, a cut in public funding has a very direct implication – commercialization. Central universities are forced to hire teachers on a contractual basis with abysmally low remuneration to fulfil their severe shortage emanating from the apathetic attitude of the government towards releasing funds required to fill up the permanent vacancies. These permanent posts have not been filled for the last 10 years with 4500 teachers working on an ad-hoc basis at Delhi University, which is touted as the top most university of this country. The ad-hoc staff has no job security, get no increments and is denied even basic rights like maternity leave. Since 2014, most teachers and non-teaching staff have been denied even their pension accumulated on a contributory basis, i.e., pension accumulated by deducting a part of employee’s salary during the period of employment. There’s a looming fear that the pension fund will be handed over to private fund managers so that the University can earn a decent return on these funds in the absence of a reliable source of funding as the government gradually withdraws its support. The suspicion of their pension money being invested in risky assets is sufficient to ring an alarm bell among the employees.
Currently, 5% of the expenditure incurred by institutions of higher education are borne by the institutions themselves (excluding technological and management institutes where it is higher) with the rest being given as grant by the Centre sanctioned through UGC. Informally, there are talks within the education circles that the government plans to raise this share to 30%. This forces the institutions to discover other ways of covering costs or probably, as the business terminology would go, of cutting costs. Fee hike is one of the ways. Public institutions are probably the only way in which the poor and the middle class of this country can hope for a decent education for their children without a massive debt hanging on their shoulders. Taking away this hope is nothing short of a travesty of justice. The systematic destruction of public universities opens up the market for private players. For a given undergraduate program, private institutions charge anywhere between 35 to 40 times the fee charged by the public institutions. Higher studies after graduating would probably remain a dream for a vast majority of our youth if this trend continues. Interestingly, there has also been a restructuring of the institutional mechanism to allocate funds to higher education. The government has created the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) which provides loans to higher education institutions which have to be repaid. The grant-based funding is already being replaced by the new loan-based funding which is included in the budget documents as government support to higher education, which can be misleading. India has already witnessed a degradation of this sort in the schooling system which has exposed the poor and the middle class to the cruel choice – either pay exorbitantly high fees to private schools or suffer the apathy of government schools (not that private schools are any better). Several studies and ground surveys have highlighted the plight of government schools and enough evidence exists to prove no significant difference in student quality between private and public schools. Are we going to witness something like this in the sphere of higher education also?
With Public-funded institutions being asked to finance an increasing proportion of their expenditure by raising fees and engaging in marketable activities, the threat to the quality of education is imminent. And where do we stand on the issue of academics? Are the institutions going to become a place that manufactures only the ‘marketable’ skills like business administration, finance, commerce etc.? What about areas like Political science, Literature and other social sciences? A rational decision-maker who wants to maximize the return on his investment would not bother to invest in such ‘non-marketable’ courses if he has to incur a high expenditure on purchasing the education services. After witnessing a consistently rising proportion of their incomes being drained away into financing healthcare, is it even just to expect the poor to bear the burden of financing education for their children also? What role is the state going to play in supporting the poor and the backward sections of this society? Such haphazard imposition of ‘free’ market in the educational sector leaves several significant questions unanswered. Then there are other issues like reduction in the number of research seats and difficulty in implementing the reservation policy for the hiring of teaching and non-teaching staff due to some degree of ambiguity in the law. It is for us to decide. Are we going to be the mute spectators witnessing the declension of our educational institutions or are we going to turn this into an issue of public importance which should be prioritized?