Yet another controversy is brewing with the Union human resource development ministry at its centre. The directors of the boards of the oldest and most prestigious IIMs in Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Bangalore and Lucknow have strongly opposed a draft bill that will grant “statutory status” to the 13 existing IIMs and label them “institutions of national importance” while also giving the Centre sweeping powers over their administration — basically stripping them of their autonomy. The chairman of IIM-L has warned of a “revolt” if the bill is passed in its current form, while the IIM-A director has accused the HRD ministry of seeking to reduce the IIMs to a “government department”.
But this is an all-too-familiar row. The HRD ministry routinely — and deservedly — invites allegations of being overbearing, and of trying to cramp institutional autonomy. Earlier, it faced off with the IIT-Delhi director, who then resigned, citing “personal reasons”, but the ministry’s past record had raised suspicions of political interference. Later, it was embroiled in a public disagreement with Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the IIT-Bombay board, on the process of selection of the directors of three IITs — he accused the ministry of being “too casual” — and then, on whether or not he was still part of the process. In fact, HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s tenure has lurched from one controversy to another, after the spat over Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) erupted into an all-out brawl just as she took charge. The University Grants Commission’s change of heart on the FYUP had carried the strong whiff of political pressure, considering that the BJP had promised a rollback in its Delhi manifesto. Emboldened by its victory, the UGC rushed into a scrap with the IITs, claiming jurisdiction over their degrees. Other missteps have included the cavalier removal of German from Kendriya Vidyalayas and the appointment of an individual as the chair of a national institute of technology in Nagpur for no apparent reason other than that he was a self-proclaimed “RSS person”.
The HRD ministry’s mission creep now threatens India’s best-known institutions of higher education — spaces that have managed to carve out a global reputation precisely because they are, to a degree, insulated from the kind of micro-management that has doomed other universities. Of course, the disregard for institutional autonomy and academic freedom predates Irani’s tenure and is a hallmark of the ministry regardless of the ruling dispensation. The terms of Arjun Singh, Kapil Sibal and Murli Manohar Joshi were similarly characterised by political and ideological meddling. Over the past year, hopes that Irani might inject new energy into a moribund ministry have dissipated. The crisis of the higher education sector is the same, if not worse.