Tuesday, February 7, 2012

UGC’s dubious manifesto on higher education in the 12th five year plan

By Rajesh Sharma

The University Grants Commission recently published a 129-page document titled Inclusive and Qualitative Expansion of Higher Education which spells out the Commission’s vision for higher education in the country for the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17). The document consists of the deliberations of a working group set up for the purpose and envisages a ‘quantum jump’ in higher education with the three objectives of access, equity and excellence. Among the major proposals is a mission mode national programme to be called Rashtriya Uchcha Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) geared to achieve 25% national level Gross Enrollment Ratio. The document notes that the GER in higher education in India (13.2%) is just about half the world's average (24%) and about two thirds that of the developing countries (18%), and scandalously below that of the developed nations (58%). With enrollment already exceeding two million in the universities and 13 million in colleges, a massive expansion in infrastructure and investment would be required. The initiatives proposed to achieve the desired levels of GER between 23.5 and 27% would need an amount of Rs 1,84,740 crore, the document states.
            Balancing the three objectives is obviously going to be the biggest challenge. For example, with the rural GER at 7.8 and the urban at 27.2, far greater effort would be necessary to reduce if not bridge the gulf while also chasing higher standards of excellence. To accomplish its objectives, the document recommends a variety of important measures such as a greater induction of information technology, the upgrading of Academic Staff Colleges to Faculty Development Centres, an ‘affiliation reforms package’, the establishment of a national data bank on higher education and a national monitoring cell, and the creation of a Diversity in Higher Education Index (DHEI). No less significant is the proposal to introduce a ‘de-bureaucratized’ higher education management system which would be used-friendly, transparent and quick to respond. Further, the document correctly emphasizes that the prevailing regional, social and gender imbalances need to be tackled through a pro-active approach.  So far, it is all sweet and good.
            But the poison pills secretly tucked away in the many folds of the perfumed document begin to pop out soon enough. ‘The Central and the State Universities should be statutorily required,’ the documents states, ‘to adopt revision of fee structure payable by the students by at least 10% for every three year period.’ Statutorily required, no less! Why? Clearly, to ensure a regular return to the private investors. Corporate social responsibility ought to be, well, underwritten!  And complementary to the proposed business model are the so-called ‘newer’ models of public-private partnership in higher education, which are all devised to favour the private sector to the blatant disadvantage of the public and the government. According to the first, termed as the Basic Infrastructure Model, the private sector invests in infrastructure and the government runs the operations and management of the institutions in turn, making annualized payments to the private investor. In the second, the Outsourcing Model, private sector invests in infrastructure and runs operations and management and the responsibility of the government is to pay the private investor for the specified services. The third, Equity/Hybrid Model, is about investment in infrastructure being shared between government and private sector while operation and management are vested with the private sector. The third, termed as Reverse Outsourcing Model requires the Government to invest in infrastructure while the private sector takes the responsibility of operation and management.
            This is virtually a manifesto of the neoliberal profiteering ideology, inviting its wealthy corporate adherents to come and dig their fangs and claws into the body of ‘the commons’. UGC’s precious gift on the 20th anniversary of the wedding between the Indian government and the corporate sector! Indeed, the ‘newer’ models are the core of the entire document. As one reads on, the word ‘reform’ begins to sound, yet again, as a smart coinage to denote strategies of restructuring higher education as a vast profit reserve for the corporate sector. Significantly, the urge to push through the ‘newer’ models is touted as a virgin push: there is no accompanying report on the outcome of the entry of the private sector in higher education during the last two decades.  A certain urgency, on the contrary, painted in broad strokes is made to cover up the absence of detail on this count. The strategy is not new. You first set unrealistic targets (Rs 1,84,740 crore), take a clever step from the prophetic to the fatalistic, and then throw the gates open to those who would smell the flesh.
            The picture becomes clearer when we read how casually and ‘economically’ the ‘poorer sections’ are disposed of. The document invokes the ‘economic divide’, but then goes on to make meaningless noises. It does not even pay lip service to the economically disadvantaged as such; in fact, it mentions no figures of their GER.  Poverty, as if, afflicts people only when religion and caste are branded on their bodies. So this is what the document has to say, obviously to just get rid of the burden of guilt: ‘The poorer sections of the society have much lower GER compared to others…. The worst condition is faced by the casual wage labour which is a socio-economic problem which has serious implications.’ No data. Not a single concrete measure. Only platitudes and clichés. Why not something as concrete as the ten percent ‘revision of fee structure payable by the students’? If someone feels enraged enough to describe the document as socially divisive, can he be blamed? For the differently-able also, the document merely says that ‘they need special care and separate interventions’. It does not specify a thing.
            Rather cautiously and shyly, the document proposes 20 exclusive universities for women. Perhaps those who thought up this funny notion had bought some 1960s radical feminist text from the Sunday book bazaar in Daryaganj, read it without checking its year of publication, and were too thrilled to even cross-check with others in their group – for the same document states that the GER, in 2007-08, for men is 19.0 and for women 15.2. Certainly not a scenario so dark as to compel women’s confinement to ‘exclusive’ zones. This is silly and reverse, if not something downright criminal and reactionary, social engineering. And of curse, another side of the divisive ‘liberal’ agenda.
            Just as the document does not forget to mention the need for ‘engagement with social concerns’ without at all demonstrating it convincingly (except to consolidate a vote bank politics of separate identities based on caste, tribe, religion and gender), it remembers the need for ‘new pedagogical practices’ too. What exactly it means by these, it leaves to the reader to figure out. Are those practices rather obvious? I would think not. Thinking them demands thinking hard and innovatively. A difficult thing, no doubt.  
            The last thing I want to point out here – though there is much more to say. The document speaks of a balanced higher education in which liberal arts find a place too: ‘A fine balance between the market oriented professional and liberal higher education shall be the hallmark of such initiatives.’ But it stops there, never telling how higher education in the liberal arts is going to be updated to meet the challenges and opportunities of the current times. Along with other – some really commendable – initiatives, the UGC should consider establishing multidisciplinary Centres for Contemporay Studies which would focus on understanding the complexity of the present as a connected node between the past and the future. Actually, the UGC’s 12th Plan document itself should be among the objects of study in such centres.

1 comment:

Kapil said...

Thank you sir for a thought-provoking article. These UGC “think tanks” are really empty. There is nothing significant or substantial in their plans to meet the needs of the burgeoning population of India. And how craftily they deck their mediocre policies with finery like “liberal arts”. Moreover, a multidisciplinary model of education is an urgent need.