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Ambedkar University an example why public varsities are a 'pain to autocratic govts'

By Rosamma Thomas* 

On August 17, 2023, the faculty association of the BR Ambedkar University, Delhi, issued a press release with a charter of demands. The university was set up by the Delhi government in 2008, with Prof Shyam Menon as its founding vice chancellor. It had grown to become a prominent institute for research and education in the social sciences and humanities. In recent years, however, all the news from this university has been distressing. 
Not only Ambedkar University, even the staff of colleges affiliated to Delhi University that are funded by the Delhi government have not been receiving salary in time. The Delhi government allocated over Rs 16,000 crore of its Rs 78,800 crore budget to education in 2023-24, but seems unable to meet even the necessary expenses, while touting the need to “integrate technology in the classroom” and promising new tablets to school teachers.
In the relatively short time of its existence, Ambedkar University had risen to be ranked among the top 100 institutions of higher education in the country in 2014; less than 10 years later, however, it does not feature in the top 200 institutes. 
Teachers complain that while earlier there was much demand for the courses, the number of applicants has shrunk significantly, from over 400 to just about a few dozen. Faculty had earlier been engaged in externally funded projects that also brought revenue to the university; this has shrunk considerably, to about half the total volume of such work previously conducted.
Since the coronavirus-induced lockdown, over 17 senior scholars have resigned, some have not even taken up other assignments as they have been burdened with unrealistic workloads and suffered stress.
Service rules, the faculty association notes in its press release, have not yet been notified, leaving them open to whimsical interpretations of the set of rules. Faculty is often denied official permission to undertake research activities, and visas are sometimes not granted until long after deadlines are past. The red tape involved in applying for research projects that are externally funded is so cumbersome that faculty has taken to just giving up such opportunities. 
Instead of visiting faculty, more recent hires are guest faculty, under poorer remuneration and leading to gaps in the teaching support for ongoing programmes. Short-term contracts may not be renewed in time even for non-teaching staff, leading to uncertainty and loss of morale, causing long breaks. The faculty association also complains of targeted harassment that has caused them to face penalties that have resulted in loss even of financial nature.
Problems at this university, funded by the Delhi government, are a microcosm of the higher education space in the whole country
Critical decisions that affect the life of the university over the long term are taken without consultation, and the loss of the opportunity for dialogue and deliberation is bound to affect the quality of decisions. Careers are stagnant, and power outages, fungal moulds and flooded rooms are all hurdles that students and faculty must negotiate.
The faculty association has listed a charter of demands:
  • Stop harassment and withdraw show-cause notices and recoveries
  • Apply the Career Advancement Scheme in a fair manner
  • Invest in refurbishing the infrastructure
  • Support scholarly exchange and faculty research, and create a collegial space
  • Involve diverse groups in decision-making
The problems at this university, funded by the Delhi government, are a microcosm of the higher education space in the whole country. Public universities that offer the benefits of positive discrimination for marginalized sections are under pressure, and the government has been pressuring them to hike fees. The Union government has been inviting corporates to enter the university arena. It has also stopped putting out regular data on government spending on education, and slashed spending drastically.
Huffington Post recorded that while the UPA government spent Rs 1,12,629 crore on the whole education sector in 2013-14, the Modi regime slashed that to just Rs 69,075 crore in 2015-16; among the institutions the government sought to fund was the non-existent Jio University, which had been declared an institution of excellence even before it was set up.
Even private universities, however, are not allowed to function freely. The recent instance of the resignation of an economist at the Ashoka University, and the unleashing of investigative agencies to study the results of an academic paper that showed the likelihood of manipulation of the 2019 general election results is proof that the Modi regime is worried.
That it has no scruples about suppressing the truth is now well documented, and as truth comes oozing out anyhow, more and more repressive measures will have to be unleashed to keep impolite questions at bay. One way to ensure the regime has a long spell in power is to destroy the very ability to research and document government functioning; that is best achieved by crushing the regular routines of well-functioning public universities.
*Freelance journalist



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