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The recent UGC directives

Teaching is the only occupation where an individual is eligible for a mere two promotions in the entire career span of 35-40 years, when equivalent jobs in the government, requiring lesser qualifications, offer at least five to six promotions.

TEACHERS ALL over the country are deeply perturbed at the recent UGC directives to the universities/colleges that attempt to not only undercut the autonomy of the educational institutions, but also have adverse implications for the standards of teaching and accessibility to higher education for large sections of the population. The current intervention by the University Grants Commission (UGC) — supposedly to ensure that `revised' workload norms are implemented in universities and colleges — is nothing but a continuation of its earlier (failed) attempts to downsize the education system and obtain a degree of leverage in the functioning of the educational institutions.

The sequence of events in this regard is instructive. The first attempt at downsizing was in the form of two missives from the UGC in August 1999, demanding a 10 per cent cut in the both number of posts and non-plan non-salary expenditure, as well as a ban on creation of plan and non-plan posts and filling up of vacant posts without the approval of the UGC. In a subsequent letter the following month, it was clarified by the Department of Expenditure that the instructions regarding filling up of vacant posts was not applicable to teaching posts. The next intervention was in the form of a UGC resolution in October 2000, which banned creation of new teaching posts, new academic courses and increase in student enrolment in Delhi University colleges, without approval of the UGC (in case of teaching posts without written permission).

The above events provide the background to the current developments, the first of which relates to the decisions taken by the UGC in its meeting in March 2002. These decisions related essentially to reduction of the proportion of the non-academic to academic staff. A later development (July 2002) which precipitated the crisis is the forwarding by the UGC of certain recommendations made by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) which include: complete freeze on recruitment in all autonomous organisations, ban on creation of posts at all levels, an ad-hoc cut of 10 per cent in total staff strengths and abolition of all vacant posts which are older than one year. The recommendations were supposedly based on the Expenditure Reforms Commission's (ERC) Fifth Report.

A different but related occurrence is the UGC's directives in respect of workload in universities and colleges which seeks, within the overall workload norm of 40 hours a week. In an attempt to push through these proposals, the UGC has stipulated that till these issues are resolved, only eight per cent of the teaching vacancies will be filled and that too on a temporary basis. Further the UGC would examine the requests of all colleges on case to case basis to resolve the issue as per the UGC norms regarding work load. The motive behind this mandate seems to be clear — the UGC's position is that as per the new workload norms the colleges have 35 per cent excess staff. The obvious interpretation is that the entire issue of workload is nothing but a continuation of the earlier attempts at downsizing.

The assaults on the teaching community, therefore, would seem to be emanating from both the MHRD and the UGC operating in tandem. But before exploring possible motives underlying these attacks, it would be relevant to examine the recommendations of the ERC, relevant to higher education. The Fifth Report of the ERC, which was submitted in March 2001, covered the Departments of Posts and Supplies as well as autonomous institutions.

The recommendations of the ERC in respect of the latter were that pending a review, `there should be a freeze on recruitment of staff in all the autonomous organisations at all levels. In addition, an ad hoc cut of 10 per cent in the total staff strength should be imposed, in all those institutions in which there have been substantial increase in staff strength in the recent years and/or in which the proportion of Group C and D officials is quite high' (pages 7 and 26, part III). Strangely, the MHRDs decision, as conveyed to the universities and colleges, makes no mention of this restrictive applicability. A different caveat relates to the fact that, as the ERC Report records, `in spite of repeated reminders no information was received from MHRD in respect of 109 out of 114 autonomous Institutions under it' (page 15, Part III). With 96 per cent of MHRD institutions excluded from the purview, the very relevance of the Fifth Report of the ERC under the MHRD may be disputed.

The Ninth Report of the ERC ( September 2001) dealt with five ministries (including the MHRD).The Ninth Report, it should be noted, is more relevant than the Fifth as it deals directly with issues relating to the MHRD and the educational sector. The situation in respect of higher education requires a five-fold expansion in educational facilities. There is indeed a section in the Report that recommends a reduction in posts but this is exclusively in relation to the high ratio of non-academic to academic posts. The Report recommends that this ratio be in the range of 1.5:1 to 2:1. Note also that the recommendation of the Fifth Report for a 10 per cent cut in staff relates to institutions where the proportion of C and D officials is high. This entirely avoidable confusion between academic and non-academic posts is analogous to the earlier depicted developments of August/September 1999. It is inexplicable as to how the MHRD construed all of the above to recommend a freeze on recruitment, ad hoc cut in teaching posts and abolition of vacant posts. There seems to be several but inter-related explanations for this.

The first relates to the overall need to liberalise even publicly provided non-traded services such as education and health under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The formal education sector in India is seen as a major obstacle to the entry of the informal systems of education sponsored by foreign educational institutions and, potentially, a formidable adversary to their expansion. These measures sought to be introduced by the MHRD/UGC will in fact lead to a substantial downsizing of the formal education sector, thus creating space for `teaching shops' which will sell `knowledge'. Teachers also view these developments as an attempt by the MHRD/UGC to gain greater leverage in the functioning and administration of educational institutions including the process of appointment of teachers.

The UGC instructions regarding filling up of only 80 per cent of the vacant posts and that too on a temporary basis, with the remainder to be filled only in consultation with the UGC, are indicative of an attempt to drive a wedge between universities, between colleges in a university and, finally, between departments within a college, as teachers are made to scramble to justify their departmental (now sought-to-be increased) workloads. A hierarchy among disciplines is being sought to be created, presumably on their ability to satisfy the diktats of market-originating demand. Further, in a shocking development, the UGC has started a process of directly instructing the colleges, bypassing the university in which they are constituted.

These efforts to promote differences among teachers may also be seen as an attempt to pre-empt certain of their longstanding demands such as greater academic infrastructure in the educational institutions, the need for a third promotion and re-employment. Teaching is the only occupation where an individual is eligible for a mere two promotions in the entire career span of 35-40 years, when equivalent jobs in the government, requiring lesser qualifications, offer at least five to six promotions. This downgrading of the profession vis--vis others is intended to undermine its ability to withstand competition from projected alternative forms of education such as transnational cyber universities and institutions franchised by foreign universities, all of which would operate within purely commercial parameters.

The agitation by the teachers is, therefore, no mere squabbling about workloads as the MHRD/UGC would have us believe. The issues involved — continued autonomy, maintenance of academic standards, greater availability and accessibility to deprived students — are fundamental to the continued health of the higher education system of the country.

T. RAVI KUMAR

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