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Now Panjab University under attack: Is Centre at war with universities & students?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 13 April 2017, 21:07 IST

Like several other universities across the country, the Panjab University is on a boil. One of the oldest universities of India, Panjab University campus witnessed an unprecedented violent crackdown on students protesting against an exorbitant fee hike on Tuesday.

Till now 58 students have been arrested by the police while sources say that 67 is the number of the total accused of arson and stone pelting. The police withdrew the sedition charges that had initially been slapped on the students after there was a public outrage against the step.

People from various walks of life have come out to support the students and are pointing to the larger designs of the central government to curb dissent and convert public universities into money making enterprises.

It needs to be pointed that the Panjab University is a unique institution of eminence. It is an interstate body corporate and is neither under the Centre nor under the State. Former Punjab University Teachers' Association (PUTA) general secretary Professor Manjit Singh pointed out that the Union Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Prakash Javadekar was wrong in pointing out that Panjab University is not a central university and the matter pertains to the state.

He said that the institute is closer to being a central institution, “Our calendar was declared through an Act of Parliament and we are accountable to the Parliament. Our audit reports are placed before the parliament and our Chancellor is the Vice President.”

At present, 40% of the university's funding is supposed to come from Punjab while the remaining 60% comes from the Centre.

Money matters

The institution landed in a financial crisis because over the years the Punjab government has been dragging its feet on giving its part of the funds and has been disbursing only a portion of its due and that too, not on time.

The Centre, on the other hand, has been pressurising the university to fend for itself.

Since 2008, the university faculty and the students have been demanding that the university be given a central university status like the IIMs and the NITs where the funding comes from the Centre while the university calendar remains unchanged.

It was amid this scenario that the university authorities recently raised the fees for various courses exorbitantly, in some cases, more than ten times. And this as expected, lead to a lot of unrest.

Those against the fee hike pointed out that students from northern and even north-eastern states come from families with agrarian backgrounds seeking higher education. How can those families, that are already under distress due to bad or troubled agriculture, afford such exorbitant fees or afford education under the self-finance model being promoted ?

They asked – if the Centre can fund an institute like the Post Graduate Institute for Medical and Education Research (PGIMER) that is located just across the road, why can't it fund this university?

The education business

Professor Manjit described the trend of treating universities as a business opportunity as highly regressive. Hitting out at the central government, he said, “This is a sort of reassertion of a neo-Brahminical ideology. Just like in the old times where Dalits were not allowed to learn. Instead of taking people along and mitigating disparities, our government wants a large number of the people to be made ignorant systematically so that they are much easier to rule. It only wants the creamy layer to be educated and is moving towards a qualified franchise system.”

He pointed out that the country is set to witness a serious political crisis in the next one decade because the people are being deprived of essential and basic services.

Amandeep Kaur who is a research scholar from Students for Society (SFS), a left-leaning student organisation that was at the forefront of the protest, told Catch – “The larger design is to convert public universities into private ones and deprive the masses of education. The way organisations participating in dissent and protests are being targeted and painted black, it is clear that the government of the day wants only one student organisation, the ABVP, to be there in the universities.”

She said that the police action has led to a sense of fear among students, particularly the girls and the forces behind the action have succeeded , to some extent, in stifling dissent.

Students under attack

Civil society organisation People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), while condemning the action against the students, pointed out that police presence in university campuses and students being brutally beaten up and assaulted when they stand for their just demands and causes, has become the new normal.

“This adds to the organised attack on the students’ voices which has been witnessed earlier in Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University and Allahabad University. The crackdown on the protesting students comes in the backdrop of the systematic attack against higher educational institutions, which also comes at the cost of the students’ right to education. With each passing day, education is becoming more of a luxury which only the rich can afford. Recently, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, shut down three of its centres due to refusal by University Grants Commission (UGC) to release money allocated for them and Jawaharlal Nehru University witnessed massive seat cuts in their MPhil and PhD courses,” says a statement from PUDR secretaries Cijo Joy and Anushka Singh.

The statement further reads, “The attack on students of Panjab University has to be seen in the context of the larger fund cuts in higher education by HRD ministry and UGC. The budget allocation for the University Grants Commission (UGC) has been cut by almost 55%, from Rs 9315.45 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 4286.94 crore in 2016-17. In fact towards the end of 2015, the UGC failed to allocate any funds to Panjab University. Even back then the HRD ministry introduced a 25% reduction in grants to higher education, which affected the UGC’s budget. These cuts have led to universities raising funds through internal means including fee hikes, as in the case of Panjab University. Therefore PUDR holds the policies of the government responsible for promoting education driven by profit and depriving needy students from getting access to higher education.”

Meanwhile, there was a protest by various other civil society and political organisations against the police action at Sector 17 on Wednesday evening in which people from various walks of life participated.

The people are appalled at the brutal crackdown on the students and the various attempts from right wing organisations to curb dissent and debate.

First published: 13 April 2017, 21:07 IST