On March 31, the last day of its Budget session, the Gujarat House passed a law giving sweeping powers to the government to ensure the ‘planned and coordinated development’ of universities, striking a blow to their autonomy, and drastically cutting the powers of Vice-Chancellors. The Bill, which was passed in the absence of Opposition MLAs who had been suspended by the Speaker a day earlier, has triggered intense agitation within the academic community in the state.
So, what is the new Bill about, and why the outrage against it?
The Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill envisages the formation of a council to be headed by the Chief Minister for the “planning, co-ordination and development” of higher education. Universities fear the council will snatch their autonomy and reduce them to a mere department of the government. Under Section 15 of the Bill, the government may, either on the council’s recommendation or on its own, overrule decisions taken by a university — which will then be required to implement directions given by the government.
Isn’t the Bill similar to the Gujarat State Common Universities’ Ordinance, 2004?
Yes, that ordinance, issued by the Narendra Modi government, too sought to clip the wings of V-Cs and university bodies like the Syndicate, Senate and Academic Council. Following protests from the teaching and non-teaching community of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, the only unitary residential university of Gujarat whose medium of instruction is English, then Governor Naval Kishore Sharma sent the ordinance back, asking the government to explain the urgency behind it. The state government withdrew the ordinance in October 2004.
Why then was the Bill brought now?
Both the UGC and Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, a centrally-sponsored scheme launched in 2013, recommended the setting up of a higher education council in states. Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal already have such a council and, should the Governor sign the Bill, Gujarat will become the sixth state to comply. However, Gujarat is the first state that proposes to have the CM head the council — in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the council is headed by the Higher Education Minister, in AP by an educationist, and in Karnataka, by the Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister.
But does the Bill really threaten the autonomy of universities?
The Bill seeks to have a common syllabus for universities, a “planned and coordinated” development of higher education in the state, and sharing of resources among state universities. Section 15 makes it clear universities will have to implement government decisions even if they are against university laws. This means directions of the government will have precedence over university statutes and laws, and bodies like the Senate and Syndicate will be rendered useless. The government would be able to interfere in the day-to-day administration of universities, and V-Cs could become figureheads. Both teachers and non-teaching staff are liable to be transferred, and there are fears that the provision may be used to ‘fix’ those who do not toe the official line. Currently, each university is an independent body, and jobs are not transferable.
How exactly will transferring a teacher affect students?
More than it will affect the teachers themselves, say critics. PhD candidates working with a particular professor will suffer if she is transferred, especially if the research is focused on an area of her specialisation. In most state universities, Gujarati is the medium of instruction, and a professor who is transferred from, say, Gujarat University, Ahmedabad (Gujarati) to M S University, Baroda (English) or vice versa is likely to have a lower output in class. Also, critics say, the fear of transfer would discourage free thought and research, especially in the social sciences, if it is seen to be critical of the dominant ideology of the state — this will result in the lowering of the intellectual and academic discourse in institutions of higher learning.
Who will be on the proposed council?
There will be a 32-member governing council and a 22-member executive committee, with four individuals being part of both. The governing council will be headed by the CM as president, with the Education Minister and Minister of State for Education as vice-president and co-vice-president. 12 senior government officials will be on it, along with five V-Cs, a provost of a private university, two eminent scholars from institutes of national importance in Gujarat, five eminent persons from the fields of arts, sciences, medicine, engineering, etc., three eminent academics with more than 15 years of experience, and a member-secretary.
The executive committee will be headed by a chairperson, and will have three ex officio members from the higher education, technical education and medical education departments, besides 15 other members.
All members will be appointed by the state government. There are no quotas for representatives of SC/STs or women in either the governing council or executive committee.
Is there a system of appeals against the council’s decisions?
No. Proceedings or decisions of the council can’t be invalidated even in case of infirmities. Section 14 says that the proceedings of the council will remain valid even if some persons, who are not members of the council, or not entitled to be a member, attend the council’s meetings, vote and take part in the proceedings of the council.