Has the education minister put the Prime Minister’s modernisation agenda in jeopardy?
It is no secret that Smriti Irani is one of Narendra Modi’s favourite ministers, but she has often come under sharp attack for capitulating on values that are at the heart of the Prime Minister’s good-governance agenda. As one of the most photographed ministers in the recently- formed NDA Cabinet, the 38-year- old former model and actress who holds the HRD portfolio is accused of having a penchant for playing to the gallery. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has scrapped Delhi University’s four- year undergraduate programme (FYUP) under apparent pressure from the NDA Government. The storm over it even has a few RSS-leaning members of the faculty point fingers at her for stooping to new lows in scoring political brownie points. “The FYUP is a programme cleared by the UPA Government. One year on, a new government that comes to power can’t reverse its policy just to please a few party leaders and student unions. One has to think from an academic point of view,” asserts Professor Tulika Prasad, who teaches English at Delhi University.
Prasad argues that while the talk of refurbishing and refining the FYUP—now pursued by at least 60,000 students— must be encouraged, it smacks of political expediency to take sides with “vested interests” among teachers and students. “This is called embracing cheap publicity,” she notes. The Left-affiliated Democratic Teacher’s Front (DTF), which heads the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), has been dead against the FYUP from the beginning and has managed to secure popular support against the changes effected by Vice- chancellor Dinesh Singh, a well-reputed academic, with the blessings of former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal. The BJP- affiliated teachers’ organisation, National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF), which has been eclipsed by the Left’s union, is worried about the rising popularity of Left-wing politics among teachers on DU campuses.
“It is to battle the Left on DU campuses that the majority of the NDTF is opposed to the FYUP. They plan to steal the Left’s thunder now, perhaps in vain. There is no other reason I can see for their support for the old course,” says an NDTF member who is of the view that creating uncertainties a year after the programme came into effect is a highly “subversive” act on the part of the UGC. He regrets that Irani is yielding to pressures from the Delhi unit of the BJP, which has been hellbent on “making desperate efforts to outdo the Left in order to win back a lost foothold among DU teachers”.
Many other members of the DU faculty that Open spoke to feel that HRD Minister Irani—whose educational qualifications generated enough controversy last month after it emerged that she had made contradictory declarations in her affidavits for the Lok Sabha polls in 2004 and 2014—is incurring the wrath of Modi’s fan base of upwardly mobile students.
Recall that Modi began appealing to students across India with an address at a conclave organised by students of Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi last February. As he began reaching out to the country’s youth beyond Gujarat in the run-up to the General Election, an internal poll by SRCC students chose Modi as the key speaker at the conclave. With his popularity soaring through the roof, Modi pipped former Tata Group Chairman Rata Tata, who came a close second out of a pool of prospective invitees, including five UPA cabinet ministers and Congress Vice- president Rahul Gandhi.
“Thanks to Irani, Modi now risks alienating such students who crave reforms in the education sector so as to be much more employable,” says a professor close to Dinesh Singh.
Apparently under pressure, the UGC, which is typically an advisory body, has scrapped the university’s FYUP. The row has now reached the Delhi High Court, which, while ruling out an immediate hearing, said the issue demanded an effective hearing which cannot be done by a vacation bench, and asked the aggrieved parties to approach it in July after the holidays. On its part, the UGC warned DU of ‘consequences’ if it went ahead with FYUP admissions this year, forcing colleges to stall their enrolment of students.
IRANI’S WOES GALORE
Over her reported support for DUTA and scrapping of the FYUP, Irani has attracted rebuke from journalist Madhu Kishwar, who said, “Left lobbies are most happy with BJP’s HRD minister fulfilling their agenda in bringing the DU VC down who tried much-needed reforms in the education system. CPM’s [DUTA president] Nandita Narain and [CPM general secretary Prakash] Karat seem to have taken over HRD minister’s office….” Kishwar had earlier triggered a row with a tweet saying that Irani wasn’t qualified enough to be India’s HRD Minister. Irani responded to the controversy in a carefully worded statement: “In public life one should be open to scrutiny and criticism. So am I.”
Clearly, the Modi Government has ended up in a soup over the FYUP logjam thanks to Irani’s ambiguous stance, which has resulted in a prolonged wait for nearly 300,000 students who begin college in the national capital this year.
The Centre now faces tough questions over its commitment to educational reforms so as to fulfil Modi’s dreams of surpassing China as an economy by investing in the country’s large young population. “The DU tangle only shows that the Modi Government is as good at lip service as the previous one on the need to push ahead with reforms,” says another pro-BJP member of the DU faculty. According to this person, there’s a “witch hunt” against Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh at the behest of both the Delhi BJP unit and the Left. “Most of these teachers who have political allegiances are those from the arts faculty. They are upset that the new curriculum has forced them to go to classes and spend a lot of time of learning anew,” he adds, “This is frustrating for teachers used to just vomiting verbatim what they had learnt a long time ago.” Open could not independently verify whether the schism between the arts and science departments has been widening over the FYUP.
Dr Prasad agrees with this viewpoint, and adds, “Dinesh Singh’s intentions are good. The FYUP is for a good cause. It wanted us to move away from lecture mode to an interactive mode of teaching; the VC wanted to introduce hands-on learning.” The so-called foundation courses in the four-year degree are meant to offer mathematics students language skills and language students knowledge of others academic disciplines, she avers.
What, according to her, is key to reforms in the higher education sector is an open mind to change. “Which is not much there now,” she rues, adding that allegations of Singh running the administration assisted by a coterie are mere excuses. “It’s not good to have a coterie around you, but that is nothing new. The issue here is resistance to change.”
Like many others Open spoke to, including some pro-Left teachers, Prasad agrees that she would “promptly concede” that all is not well with the way foundation courses have been planned. “The curriculum can be refined. Besides, there are those who say the FYUP makes things difficult for some students (it, according to some professors, forces students from poor families to spend four years for a degree while they are in a hurry to start earning for their families). They are wide off the mark because if you spend two years you get a diploma,” she declares.
Of course, the FYUP has some causes of concern, says another pro-BJP academic at DU: “But that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bath water.” He is anxious that the FYUP row has brought to the fore what ails India’s higher education system overall. “Forget the autonomy part. Think of duplicity on the part of UGC which allowed FYUP’s introduction. Why this volte-face? Top UGC officials want to warm up to those in power like Irani and the Delhi unit of the BJP. I don’t see any other explanation,” he states.
GAPS TO FILL
All isn’t well with the FYUP, though, students and teachers contend. Dr Shailaja Menon, who has done extensive research on Dr Ambedkar’s vision of India, says she has no qualms about admitting that the FYUP experiment was innovative, but regrets the lack of attention given to details such as consultations with faculty members. “Such consultations were done in a hurry. Besides, some student organisations were stopped by various colleges from doing a plebiscite on FYUP before it was launched. It is counterproductive when you push through things without planning well,” she contends. Dr N Sukumar of the faculty of Political Sciences at DU, too, says that “widespread consultations with various stakeholders” would have made the programme a better initiative. “There was nothing of the sort. The only positive is the freedom to pursue inter-disciplinary studies,” he feels.
Meanwhile, Naila Grewal, a student of journalism at Lady Shri Ram College who is pursuing a four-year degree, complains that now that she and her classmates will have to revert to the old three-year course, she would end up losing a year, literally, besides missing out on the FYUP’s advantages—interactive learning among them. She says that unlike in regular journalism degree courses, the first year at FYUP was spent on learning “non- journalistic” subjects, including math. She is upset that now she just has two years left to catch up on subjects that are highly relevant to the practice of journalism. “Foundation courses of the first year,” she feels, “were a waste of time.”
Meanwhile, senior professors close to Vice-chancellor Singh say that the UGC’s decision is reminiscent of the Licence Raj and doesn’t reflect the Modi Government’s promise to formulate a new education policy by fostering autonomy among institutes of higher learning. “Instead, what we are seeing is more political patronage and indifference from the HRD minister,” alleges one of them. Irani’s office was not immediately available for comment. Texts left on her phone didn’t elicit any response.
Singh, whom sociologist Shiv Visvanathan calls an “intelligent, bright chap”—and was described as behaving like a ‘terrorist’ by DUTA president Nandita Narain—has come under tremendous pressure to step down following violent protests.
Till date, there is no confirmation of the Vice-chancellor’s ‘resignation’ announced by joint dean Malay Neerav, who’d said that Singh quit after the UGC diktat that forced colleges to stall admission to FYUP courses. “The UGC has shown no sense of transferability. Yes, we all know that UGC often responds to political pressure,” laughs Visvanathan.
The UGC now contends that the four- year format of DU’s undergraduate programme is a violation of the nationwide policy of a three-year undergraduate degree. Those in the FYUP’s favour say that it is one of the first initiatives at saving education from government clutches.
“The tragedy is just because you don’t like the vice-chancellor’s face or because you think he is vain, you can scrap a course and hold students and the whole university to ransom. All this goes against what we thought the Modi Government would stand for,” says a professor at Lady Shri Ram College who asked not to be named.
There are others in Delhi’s academic circles who echo such views.
Irani is keeping silent for the time being, but she has so far displayed no resolve to revive India’s education sector that remains plagued by lack of deregulation, among other ills that need the Centre’s attention. She has done nothing to help educational institutions and colleges experiment and compete either.
Instead, she has brought disrepute to a Modi dispensation committed to freeing education from micro-management by HRD mandarins, and from a straitjacket crafted by a handful of Delhi bureaucrats obsessed with preserving the status quo by overly centralising India’s education system.