A visitor to Panjab University is most likely to have come across the ‘geri culture’ of the campus, the phenomenon of young men driving expensive cars blaring loud music on campus, especially around women’s hostels. Though ‘stalking culture’ or ‘show off culture’ are more appropriate labels, this phenomenon is likely to give the impression of a wealthy, ostentatious and frivolous student population. However the wealth on display is not the norm, but rather represents a very small minority of the 15000 plus students enrolled in the Chandigarh campus. Apart from this, students are enrolled in 4 regional centres, 4 constituent colleges and as part of the distance learning programme. The fee hike to be implemented from the next academic session will raise fees in the range of 100-1100 per cent across courses and adversely affect the majority of students. The magnitude of the hike if implemented will significantly alter the student composition of the university. Even fee waivers upto 50 per cent will hurt economically weaker sections not only because post waiver fees in most courses are likely to higher than the current level, but also because of stringent eligibility clauses. Given the state of the job market and abysmal starting salaries especially for those with social science degrees including PhDs, the ability of students to pay back student loans are also suspect. As a reputed institute, PU attracts talented and sincere students from across the region, and is a desired destination for students from backward areas and marginalised backgrounds. As sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued, higher education through the public university system has been the only effective means for social mobility, given the structural inequalities in Indian society and the failure of the state to implement effective land reforms. Higher education needs to be made more accessible and qualitatively improved if we are to hope for dividends from the much touted demographic advantage. Instead, PU has been propelled in the opposite direction and stands in danger of losing its mandate as a public university.
The current protests by students thus should not be seen as routine or as political gimmicking. While protests must remain peaceful and incidents of stone pelting are to be condemned, the police crackdown on 11th April through use of water cannons, teargas and lathi-charge was totally out of proportion and unprecedented in the history of not only PU but of campuses in the country. More disturbing are the reports that students were tortured and sexually abused by the police and denied a meeting with their lawyers through the night of 11th April. While the court has ordered an investigation into custodial torture, the university should urgently undertake proactive measures to undo the damage caused to its reputation and restore the trust of the student community. An impartial enquiry should be instituted into the event to probe the breakdown of communication between the administration and students and police excesses on campus. Further as a university community we have to evolve a framework of conduct that will enable constructive dialogue, peaceful protest and freedom of expression in the future. At the immediate level, we need such a dialogue to address the financial crisis.
PU’s financial crisis must be understood in the broader context of national policy on higher education. Since 2014, the paltry increases in total budgetary allocation to higher education have not even accounted for inflation, thus amounting to a net reduction. More importantly, as Thomas Manuel has shown, the share of premier engineering institutes (IITs and NITs) which is usually around 25% has risen and stands at 33% for 2017-18. Over 90% of the 12% increase in the budget for 2017-18, for instance, is allocated to IITs, NITs and IIMs. The UGC is also allocating a higher share to skill development initiatives by setting up parallel infrastructure rather than strengthening existing institutions. To further reduce costs and ‘vocationalise’ education, the UGC has been pushing universities to offer a part of its degree programmes as online courses. Central universities and other centrally funded institutes which comprise the bulk of the sector and offer a wide array of courses and cover a majority of the disciplines have thus borne the brunt of the budget cuts. One must also keep in mind that much of the funding of new central universities is being spent on physical infrastructure rather than academic resources.
Second, within this overall bleak scenario, Panjab University faces additional challenges given its unique situation. While one of the oldest universities in the country (2017 is its 125th anniversary), its current composition is derived from the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966; its funding is to be shared between the Centre and Punjab government in a ratio of 60:40. The latter has in the past 15 years not paid its share and instead frozen it at 20cr even as expenditures have soared. The UGC unilaterally froze the Centre’s share at 176cr for 2014-15 and henceforth, rescinding the 2009 decision to fund Panjab University according to the norms applicable to central universities. In the Special Leave Petition filed in the Supreme Court in February, the UGC has denied any additional responsibility for PU. It has submitted that its primary obligation is to other institutes and the existing allocation to PU is an ‘exception’. Punjab government has also submitted its inability to enhance its contribution. PU has thus been abandoned by those constitutionally responsible for it.
The university budget for 2017-18 is 515.61cr. Even with the enhanced fee, the university will be able to generate an additional 10cr only which will leave it with a deficit of approximately 49cr if both Centre and Punjab Government continue with the freeze on their contribution. In addition, it carries over the deficit of the past three years into this financial year. The teaching faculty has been demanding regularisation of Central grants and it has formed a joint action committee with the non teaching staff. But they failed to involve student groups in this joint effort. Unfortunately, the exponential hike, while no solution in itself to the crisis, has sent a message to the students that they are being made to pay for the salaries of the staff. There is also much scope to rationalise and reform various aspects of academic and administrative functioning of the university to ensure qualitative change. Thus the need of the hour is not temporary fixes. All sections of the university community have to stand together and push the stakeholders- Centre and Punjab- to renegotiate and arrive at a stable long term solution. If we fail to do so, we may very well end up as just a ‘geri route’ on the map of the city.