Dr Surjya Kumar Saikia

Although the NEP seeks to restrict politics and free speech within the academia or incorporated few new workload and redesigned promotional norms for the Central university teachers, we have doubts that we will be able to see a stress-free university campus until the core issues of the Indian universities through which they are fused with the Indian society are addressed and focused.

It sounds nice when we talk about practising online education and hi-tech interactive classes in the formal university education systems. However, this intent of the Union Ministry of Human Resource and Development requires several aspects to deal with, if looked in the context of the Indian scenario. Indian universities have hardly readied themselves to imbibe the shocks of shifting to the online mode from the offline one overnight. Here, the reason of unpreparedness is not the insufficient trained faculties with technical knowhow for such practice, the mindset of the Indian universities and their regulators.

Former President S Radhakrishnan in his essay ‘True Knowledge’ wrote, “Universities are the means by which traditions of a country – intellectual, artistic and ethical and the technical skills – are transmitted from one generation to another.” The Indian heritage and culture hypothetically adopt the later as the true meaning of ‘university’. The heterogeneous objective of university is inherent in this definition. As per the statistics maintained by the UGC (2020), India has 935 universities, of which 50 are central, 409 State, 349 private and 127 deemed universities. Unofficially, more than two crore students get enrolled every year in different universities and pursue their higher education. In short, with hardly 935 universities, India accommodates only 1% of the total population in the university system every year. Literally, the transmission of intellectual, artistic and ethical and technical skills are never achieved at the fullest here. Almost 99% of the population are left out to live in a half-crossed zigzag educational ladder, without endorsing any specific skill and ethics. Probably, this is the root of corrupt politics in the Indian scenario where intellectuals are few, ethical values are costly and technical skills are secondary.

Forget the issue of faculties who are unskilled to kick-start online education; we have been suffering from huge shortage of faculties in universities for offline education. In 2019, around 50% of faculty posts were vacant only in Central universities. The situations are worse in State universities. However, a rapid effort by the UGC and MHRD to fill up vacancies in the universities by the end of November 2019 was a good thing. But the dark side is, several universities have not received sufficient applications to fill up their positions in Associate Professor and Professors. Although the UGC’s notification on ‘maintaining minimum standard in teaching posts’ has relaxed the norms of qualifications for application to these posts, the uncompetitive status in many of these cadres indicate the stress at source, i.e., poor arithmetic of demand-availability ratio in the universities. On top of that, the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) at these levels offered as ornamental reservation with no application at all. In EWS, the person claiming reservation under EWS category should not have a total income of more than Rs 8 lakh per annum. After implementation of the 7th Pay Commission, the cut-off levels of income status of assistant professor and above stand more than Rs 8 lakh, and the annual income of these positions are too fat to claim reservation under the EWS category. So 10% of the posts advertised at each cadre at associate professor and professor levels would straightway remain unfilled forever if the current limit of income for EWS is not amended.

Apart from manpower, if we review the infrastructure, the hole in our pockets for higher education is visible like a daylight saga. In 2014, the UGC visited several universities and marked infrastructural deficiencies as a major cause of limitation to impart efficient education. Probably, and invariably, that was the reason for which we got the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) to offer loan with interest for development of infrastructural facilities in higher educational institutions. The painful part is that major sections of universities are non-profit institutions by nature, and a loan with interest amounting to crores of rupees is a burden on them. People of India pay taxes to the government for facilitating subsidized or free education to its youths, not to be loaned. The only way to pay back such loans for our traditional universities is to hike the admission and monthly fees of the students. Reasonably, the students have opposed such fee hikes, and protests staged at several leading universities are the best example to cite here. In brief, it feels like the HEFA placed “education in the marketplace rather than at the disposal of the social good”. It is instructed that the loans borrowed under the HEFA are to be recovered through fee hikes and other “internal resource generation”. Obviously, a business model with acute professionalism is now a demand for the universities to run these institutions, not the social cohesiveness. We may agree that cronyism in Indian universities must not be perpetuated, stereotypism needs to be scrapped, but not at the cost of social institutions. Here, the ambitious jump to online education cripples, as the question of mass digital infrastructure and provision of free wi-fi would come at the cost of loan or fee hike.

These backgrounds explain the accrued stress experienced by our higher educational institute, especially universities, over the last few years. Forget about the so-called political scrubbers, muddled regulators and odd placements create chaos and unrest in these institutions. Unfortunately, for the last few years we have hardly heard sound debates on educational reforms and India’s educational policies in the context of societal need across the constitutionally empowered platforms. The ambiances of universities are gradually shaded with protests and violence. Although India’s National Education Policy (NEP) seeks to restrict politics and free speech within the academia or incorporated few new workload and redesigned promotional norms for the Central university teachers, we have doubts that we will be able to see a stress-free university campus until the core issues of the Indian universities through which they are fused with the Indian society are addressed and focused. We may not require a new syllabus, or a hi-tech online educational policy, but we need to help our universities to understand our problems and imbibe the pulse of every social section.

Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, the practice of online education was merely a silhouette in the Indian universities, and the infusion of SWAYAM platform by the UGC was an attempt to strengthen that practice with vividity. However, such a slime-coated task would leave us all in an undeservedly enigmatic state. The upcoming NEP or its forthcoming amendments might accommodate some ambitious vigour like digital education to our universities, but prior to that, our universities are to be made stress-free campuses. Otherwise, the way the Covid-19 has flatten our economic curve, the quality of our education would also meet the same fate.