Academic Freedom in India: The FYUP Case

As I wrote about a tipping point may be coming to Indian Education (see here), when a rollback of regulation may open up the space for experimentation and innovation, and allow the Indian institutions to take advantage of the domestic demand, something was playing out in Delhi indicating just the opposite was happening. A friend and correspondent was quick to point out that my optimistic musings may be off the mark, particularly on a day when an ugly example of political interference on academic decisions was playing out.

This is about Delhi University (DU) wanting to introduce the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) instead of the usual three years. There was nothing in the University Statutes that disallows the university from doing it, and the university laid out the explanations for changing the system. Initially, the regulators, University Grants Commission (UGC) was backing the decision, so much so that the university admissions started as usual.

This was an unpopular decision among some of the students, who wanted a quick and easy graduation, rather than sticking around for one extra year. But this does not affect the current students, obviously, and the new students do have a choice of not opting for the four year degree and going elsewhere for their studies. This is a difficult decision, but as long as this was clear from the regulatory standpoint, there was nothing wrong about it.

However, the student unions won't let that happen. ABVP, the student union affiliated to the new government, obviously saw this as a chance to make their mark, and called for an agitation against the introduction of the new system. The new HRD Minister was quick to indicate her preferences, and the UGC, with an astonishing Volte Face, instructed the university to scrap the FYUP, right in the middle of the admissions season. (Read the Daily Mail story here)

This is indeed a clear demonstration of the regulatory mess that Indian Education is in. The institutional autonomy is minimal, and such political interference, often made through politically affiliated student unions, is common. One would indeed see Indian academics to talk about the lack of 'academic freedom' in China, and imply that the democratic structure of India allows much greater freedom, but in reality, educational institutions are often subservient to the party in power and all appointments are tightly vetted. It is worse than China in many ways because democracy allows different parties to come to power and this means inconsistency in policy, as this case clearly indicates.

As for my hope that the Modi Government's promise of 'minimum governance, maximum governance' will extend to education, this may be a good 'reality check', as my correspondent wanted to provide. Indeed, there is nothing said so far, which indicates that the government would take the same approach to education. On the contrary, we have got the indications of intrusive policy, the introduction of Hindu texts in the curricula and Hindi as a compulsory language. It may be that the promise of 'minimum governance' only applies to large businesses, just as I feared in the run up to the election. 

Indeed, as for the other parties, they have hardly come out any better from the controversy. The anti-corruption party, AAP, issued a statement that they welcome blocking of the FYUP and tried to score a political point (see here) instead of having the decency of remaining silent or indeed try to stand up for institutional autonomy. 

So, yes, in the end, I was too optimistic and my correspondent was right to highlight that India is not there yet.


Anonymous said…
Point taken. But,
(1) did u believe 'minimum governance, maximum government' rhetoric coming from a power monger?
(2) did you really have any hope on this Govt.?
Thanks. Good questions. I am tempted to say, 'Good question. Next question?' But I shall attempt answering them.

1) There may be some content in the 'minimum government' claim. It may be about government getting out of the way of big businesses. So, we will see more monopolies, more abuses of power etc. Slogans are always good in themselves; the issue is actually what they really mean. I have a certain view about government getting out of the way, but not disappearing or colluding. My stance therefore is to stick to my interpretation of the message, and explore the failures against the same.

2) I would like to believe that I am in a win-win situation with the new government. I want India to be prosperous, and if this new government can deliver that, I am happy. If it can't deliver it, and fails miserably, I shall be unhappy, but will be able to say that I predicted it all the time.

So, you know exactly where I stand.
MSB said…
This case could well be the case study for how political establishment, policy makers and universities interact to do what is best for the sector.

In my opinion, the universities need to have the freedom to try out and implement new approaches to achieve the challenging goals of higher education (by ofcourse, following the due process of decision making) and in the process, have the freedom to improvise as they go along in implementing the decisions so taken and even fail.

While the immediate damage has been temporary derailment of the admission process and huge hardships to parents and students who have travelled from all over India to seek admission into DU, in my opinion, the biggest casualty is this freedom of universities to try out new approaches. Matter stands highly politicised and core issue sidelined. Unfortunatey, policy making seems to have gone back by atleast a few years !

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