Tamil Nadu: Privatisation tremors

EducationWorld September 15 | EducationWorld

For the past two months, the Coimbatore-based Avinashilingam University (AU, estb.1957), a multi-disciplinary varsity awarded an A grade by NAAC with 4,720 women students and 214 faculty on its muster rolls, has been rocked by sustained protests and agitations which have completely disrupted academic discourse on its 15 acre city and 100 acre campuses in Thudiyalur.

Conferred autonomous status by the University of Madras in 1978, AU was also awarded deemed university status under s.3 of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act way back in 1988. As such it is entitled to the full support of UGC and is conferred academic autonomy to pursue higher education and research in specialised areas. Under the provisions of the UGC Act, AU is a Central university funded by UGC for the past 27 years. Last year it received Rs.55 crore by way of grants from the Delhi-based commission.

However when faculty salaries were delayed in June this year, it was learned that UGC has downsized its ˜plan™ grant (capex and maintenance) to AU by 5 percent in the current academic year as the Avinashilingam Education Trust (AET), which manages the university, has allegedly breached the UGC Code of Regulations 2010. This has provoked student-faculty protests against the management to coerce it to abide by the UGC code. According to students and faculty, the appointment of T.S.K. Meenakshisundaram as chancellor has breached the code as Meenakshisundaram is also the managing trustee of AET and as such ineligible for the post of chancellor according to the UGC code of regulations. The protesters say UGC had asked him to quit his post as chancellor before August 1.

However, unfazed by student-faculty protests Meenakshisundaram, whose term as chancellor ends in December, has obtained a stay on the UGC order from the Madras high court and refuses to resign before his term ends. According to him, AET has submitted a revised memorandum of agreement (MoA) and a new governance and management structure to the Union ministry of human resource and development (MHRD), and in a communication to the UGC on August 20, the ministry has directed the UGC to approve it.

But with the HRD ministry having approved the MoA and governance structure submitted by AET, the faculty and students are apprehensive that the chances of AU being converted into a ˜self-financing™ varsity have zoomed. If this fear is realised, faculty remuneration is likely to be downsized and students might have to pay substantially higher tuition fees than the rock-bottom Rs.1,000-30,000 per annum for undergraduates and Rs.6,740-22,120 for postgrad programmes. œSince AU is built on state government land and the buildings have been constructed with funds granted by the Tamil Nadu government, AU should not be allowed to be converted into a private, self-financing university, says a protesting faculty member.

However, AU is not the only Central university on which UGC is clamping down for not toeing its line. In the Union budget 2015-16 presented to Parliament on February 28 by finance minister Arun Jaitley, the Central government™s proposed education expenditure was slashed from Rs.82,771 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.69,075 crore. Indeed, for the first time in the history of independent India, the Centre™s education budget (2015-16) is less than the revised expenditure of the previous year. The consequence is a severe cash crunch in UGC which is looking for excuses to slash higher education subsidies. The country™s eight over-subsidised publicly-funded deemed universities are the obvious first targets. Consequently unless Central universities fall in line with the new UGC Code of Regulations 2010 which severely erodes their institutional autonomy, they will be set adrift.

Protesting faculty and students of AU, therefore, have to realise that in the likely event of AU becoming a ˜self-financing™ university, higher tuition fees may hurt students initially, but in the long run the quality of programmes and degrees offered by autonomous institutions will stand them in good stead after they graduate.

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)

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