January 19, 2014

AAP Govt and the Idea of a Central University

Archana Prasad

THE Congress and the BJP had, in their pre-poll manifestoes, promised to reserve 90 percent of seats in the state government funded Delhi University colleges for Delhiites. The move was opposed by the students and teachers of the university as it violated the provisions of the Delhi University Act. However, despite this view of a majority of the university community, the new Delhi government of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has gone ahead to announce that it would ask the state funded Delhi University colleges to reserve 90 percent of their seats for Delhiites. It is important to note that the AAP had not made this particular measure one of its pre-poll promises. Thus this announcement comes as a complete surprise and apes the demands of the two mainstream parties who the AAP has been trying to expose. By doing this, the AAP government is being politically opportunistic and demonstrating its proneness to succumb to parochial populist demands. The move also betrays a selective attitude towards participatory democracy which has been the unique selling point of the party. MYOPIC VISION OF AAP GOVERNMENT The AAP government’s announcement defies any evidence based logic. One of the arguments being put forward by the state education minister is that about 2.65 lakh students pass out from Delhi schools every year. Of these, about 1.87 lakh do not get admission within the city and have to go out for study. According to the minister, this is unfair because the Delhi taxpayer who pays a yearly sum of Rs 113 crore for running these colleges is not deriving the full benefit of this funding. According to him, 90 percent reservation in state government funded colleges will help the taxpayer get the value for their money and bridge this gap. But experience and facts prove this claim to be wrong. First of all, there are only 17,000 seats in the 12 government colleges in Delhi. The treasurer of the Delhi University Teachers Association, Dr B Chaudhary, states that at least 80 percent of these seats are already filled by students from the Delhi schools. If this is true, then only 2,000 additional students would benefit from this measure. Second, this measure is mainly a pretext to avoid opening new colleges or a university through state government funding. If the gap between the numbers leaving school and the capacity of the existing universities is to be bridged, the solution lies in upgrading the educational infrastructure and building more of it. In fact, the teachers association itself has been demanding that all Delhi University colleges (irrespective of their funding) should run two shifts so that most of the eligible students are accommodated in the higher education system. The cost of this should be shared by the UGC and the state government as it will ensure that most of the Delhi students are accommodated within the current system. This means that there will have to be higher investments in education and, for this the AAP government will have to combat the current neo-liberal educational policies and step up the state investment in higher education. But its vision document shows that the party has no macro-perspective of this problem or the implication of this short-sighted measure. This announcement should be seen in the context of the AAP’s vision document which betrays a confused understanding of the education sector itself. While it talks about giving “good school education to all” by upgrading government schools to the standard of “good private schools,” it fails to make an evaluation of the reasons for the decline in standards of these schools. Its only contention on higher education is that “degrees are being sold openly” and political leaders have started colleges with high fees. The document rightly states that such commercialisation must stop and capitation fees should be abolished, but it makes no comment on the recent public policy initiatives for the privatisation of education. Nor does it refer to public universities and their deteriorating state which is a result of the neo-liberal economic policies. It thus displays a remarkable ignorance on the state of higher education sector in the country. ROLE OF CENTRAL UNIVERSITIES The announcement of the AAP government is driven more by political expediency and less by an understanding of the role of a central university in the society. Central universities were built with the goal of bringing people together from different cultures and building a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect in order to provide the foundations of modern nationhood. The statement from the first meeting of the National Integration Council, 1961, clearly identified education as one of the key instruments for building a strong sentiment for a common national bond. When the report of the Punnaya Committee (1991-92) evaluated the funding patterns of universities, it quoted from the Inquiry committee into the working of the Banaras Hindu University (1969) to state that “central universities should not be regarded as central merely because the central government finances them. They should have distinguished character of their own.... The central universities should regard it as a part of their special function to contribute towards the removal of imbalances from the academic life of our country, and take suitable action to help deserving students from the educationally backward areas” (Punayya committee report, pp 19-20). It is clear from this and other commission reports that central universities are meant to perform a certain function that targeted both --- national integration and social equity where the removal of regional and social imbalances is an important goal. In this context it is important to ask why the Delhi government decided to set up fully sponsored colleges as constituent colleges of a central university. Many of the 12 colleges set up in the 1990s were meant to cater to the demands of the burgeoning population of the city. It is argued that they were made a part of the Delhi University as no state universities existed at that time. Consequently, their practices and policies had to conform to the Central University Act. However, at the time of their formation, the option of regional reservation was never exercised, as Delhi itself has a population of migrants with mush higher professional and social mobility than in any other city. By adhering to the norms of the central universities, the colleges administered by the Delhi government give their students an advantage enjoyed by students of very few state universities. Exposure to cosmopolitan culture, courses formulated and taught by accomplished faculty and indeed the national and international reputation of Delhi University are some of the privileges enjoyed by the constituent colleges. Therefore whenever the intention of the successive Delhi governments was to interfere with the academic functioning of these colleges, it has always been opposed by the teachers’ and students’ associations. They feel that the state government funded colleges have benefited from their association with the central university and should continue to be a part of that. Any further thinking on the relationship between the Delhi University, students’ and teachers’ associations, and the state government must keep this factor in mind. TO MAKE HIGHER EDUCATION BETTER AND ACCESSIBLE But any improvement in the access and quality of higher education for the Delhiites will not happen merely through reservations. For this, the central and state governments will have to work together. While they can jointly open new colleges and increase the shifts within the existing colleges, the condition of publicly funded state universities also needs to improve. On its part, the AAP government can move towards making the norms of the state universities compatible with the central universities and towards improving the quality of education in them. The first thing to be noted in this regard is that the Guru Gobind Singh I P University, set up by the state government, has affiliated institutions that are following unfair practices as far as fees and other charges are concerned. The AAP government needs to take immediate steps to stop such practices of commercialisation and review the standards being set by the state universities with regard to the affiliation of colleges. Secondly, students of the economically weaker sections from this city are largely out of the domain of higher education. Thus the AAP government needs to find ways of making the state universities more socially inclusive by ensuring that such sections get access to college education. This can be done by stopping the commercialisation of education in state universities. Lastly, the AAP must envisage the way in which the constituent colleges, their students and faculty can connect with Delhi and help to resolve their problems through research and outreach activities. Several university departments and colleges already have a tradition of doing this irrespective of the source of their funding. The Delhi government’s attempt to focus on the problems of the urban poor urgently needs this type of connection with a university that has some of the best social activists and researchers amongst its ranks. Thus it would be more fruitful for the AAP government to harness the potential of this premier university for the well being of the city, instead of raising the populist bogey of regional reservation within a central university.