Indian scholars fear further squeeze on freedom as sector expands

Academics question whether autonomy will be protected as an ambitious national policy is implemented

April 19, 2021
Source: Ashoka University, via Facebook

Indian scholars fear that the country’s mammoth National Education Policy (NEP) may further restrain academic freedom, after the resignations of prominent professors propelled the issue back into the headlines.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political science professor and former vice-chancellor at Ashoka University, said in his resignation letter last month that it became clear after meeting with the private institution’s founders that his presence was “considered a political liability” and that his personal writing was considered to “carry risks for the university”. Professor Mehta is a well-known critic of the government.

A few days later in March, economics professor Arvind Subramanian resigned in solidarity. 

Ashoka told Times Higher Education that the university “strongly refutes speculative and factually inaccurate media reports” that the resignations were linked to government pressure, approval for a four-year undergraduate programme or its founders’ commercial interests.

But wider concerns were further enflamed when G. N. Saibaba, a physically disabled scholar and activist who has been jailed since 2017 and has since contracted Covid, was suspended from his position at a college affiliated to the University of Delhi.

Saikat Majumdar, an English professor at Ashoka, said he had been free to publish as he wished, including about the two resignations, but was still concerned about the push and pull between academic freedom and financial concerns.

“Both state and central government can and have interfered in appointments and retention of faculty,” he told THE. “The question is whether private institutions…can operate outside their interference…The question is whether independently formed boards driven by philanthropic initiatives can resist this pressure.

“The crucial issue is whether an institution can maintain the due process of separation between the two functions of a university – fundraising on one hand and teaching and research on the other.”

Coming down the road is the NEP, with its ambitious goals including the expansion and internationalisation of the university system. Its approval last year was followed by an announcement of billions of pounds in new research funding. However, vast resources will still have to come from somewhere, including university fundraising.

The NEP also details the introduction of tenure-track employment, which would be dependent on a “suitable probation period [that] shall be put in place to further ensure excellence”. It says that the system for assessing tenure – which would help an academic secure promotions, salary and recognition – would be addressed within institutional development plans.

The link between tenure and university management has raised some alarm.

Utsav Kumar Singh, an assistant professor of economics at Delhi, told THE that “under the NEP, the government shall appoint boards of governors at universities for the career appraisals of teaching faculty. Further tenure and promotion might be on their whims.”

Both he and Professor Majumdar brought up probation periods as another concern. Currently, academics at all levels need to complete one to three years of probation before becoming permanent.

While the departure of prominent critics such as Professor Metha may raise public outcry, other academics might not be protected. “What about ad hoc assistant professors who are not well known?” Dr Utsav asked. 

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Reader's comments (2)

The THE continues its ludicrous coverage of India. Joyce Lau confirms once again that she has no domain expertise. The opinions of two professors are enough to create suspicions about Indian university education. What qualifications do they have to comment on Indian higher education as a whole and what research have they done on the matter? Is there a study to which the article refers to back up its general claims? There is no obvious link to the NEP from the examples given which makes the article even more misleading. The fact that the THE cannot provide a decent take on one of the biggest countries in the world and a former colony of Britain says a lot about its relevance to the domain it ostensibly claims to be a specialist periodical of.
Dear Prakash Shah, Thank you very much for your comment. We cover India over a range of articles - and you're right that this includes just the opinions of two experts. Please feel free to reach out anytime at Joyce.lau [@]