The Pulse

Is the Indian Government Trying to Politicize Higher Education?

India’s new government is unusually involved in higher education. This sets a dangerous precedent.

Is the Indian Government Trying to Politicize Higher Education?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A siege has been lifted from the University of Delhi (DU) and the previously blocked admissions process for undergraduate classes has resumed. India’s premier educational institution was under siege not by students or teachers but by the newly elected government in New Delhi. The point of contention was the introduction of a new curriculum for undergraduate classes, known as the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP).

Last year the university brought in the FYUP in order to replace the older three year curriculum. This move then invited protests from teachers’ unions associated with both the left and right. Additionally, some students even resorted to taking to the streets in order to protest against this decision. But the Vice Chancellor of the University, Dinesh Singh, the main administrator, pushed the new curriculum through, overriding all opposition to it. Singh was believed to have had the support of the Congress government.

Recently, however, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which promised in its election manifesto to roll back the program, took up the issue of the University’s curriculum. In the very second week of the BJP government, the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry exerted pressure on the University Grant Commission (UGC), the main funding and regulatory body for the state-funded universities, to goad Singh into withdrawing the FYUP. The University buckled under the pressure and rescinded the new curriculum. Never before have political considerations so brazenly influenced the functioning of a state-run higher educational institution.

The basic idea behind the FYUP was to make the undergraduate curriculum four years long in order to bring it in tune with the length of the average undergraduate curriculum of American universities.  Proponents of the FYUP argued that it was structured in such a way as to address the issue of the high dropout rate of undergraduate students. On the other hand, it was flexible enough to allow students to complete their education in two to three years, as before. Furthermore, the FYUP aimed to make all students take certain core classes that would give knowledge of a variety of topics they would not have normally studied.

However, opponents of this argued that in the name of modernizing the curriculum, the university was compromising the quality of education. Furthermore, they argued that by ignoring the will of the majority of teachers and students, the Vice Chancellor and the previous, Congress HRD ministry were serving the vested interests of the American education lobby.

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However, the main issue here is not the merits and demerits of the four year course. The issue is about the autonomy of institutes of higher learning. Protests for and against the FYUP were due to the manner in which it was first implemented and then removed, both times without debate.

It is normal in any university to have differences of opinion and resistance to change. But can this type of political interference help the growth of higher education in India?

Professor Shashi Shekhar Singh, who teaches political science at DU, has been a vocal opponent of the FYUP right from the beginning and welcomes the interference of the government in stopping the FYUP. He has argued that “it was the Vice Chancellor who actually played with the autonomy of the institution. He bent all democratic norms, bypassed all elected bodies, ignored all avenues of debate and introduced the FYUP in an arbitrary manner. He violated the autonomy of the university with the backing of then Congress government. The withdrawal of the FYUP is a course correction not a violation of the autonomy of the great institution.”

But the speed with which the BJP government overturned the FYUP invites doubts as to whether the decision was merely a course correction or a harbinger of further government interference in higher education. Will the government influence the curricula of public universities in order to accommodate its right-wing ideology? The previous BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) was also known for interfering with school textbooks in order to promote a particular vision of history that matched the BJP’s beliefs. Does Narendra Modi’s government similarly wish to interfere with the curricula of schools in order to influence students?

Professor Shashi Shekhar Singh believes that any move in this direction will be resisted by students and teachers, saying that they would “resist any attempt by the government to tamper with the secular character of education.” He says that he and like-minded people “are aware of the past.” He adds, “We will put all our might to stop any kind of interference in the functional autonomy of Delhi University.”

If the government were to interfere with universities, it would contradict the promises that Modi made during elections. Modi said he would give greater autonomy to educational institutions and create world-class universities that would challenge the higher education institutions of China. The events of the last two weeks at DU may have shown otherwise.