Once the gazette notification of the Gujarat State Higher Education Council Act 2016 – which was approved by Governor OP Kohli on February 3 – is out, state universities in Gujarat will surrender most of their freedom to the council that will be formed as part of its provisions and will be headed by the chief minister. Other than conferring tremendous powers upon the council in administrative, financial and academic matters, the Act includes a clause that protects its members from prosecution “for anything which is done or intended to be done in good faith”.

The Gujarat State Higher Education Council Bill 2016 was passed in the state Assembly in April in the absence of the Opposition, whose members were suspended by the speaker, and amid protests by teachers and students. Representations from teachers, students and alumni deterred the governor from clearing the Bill immediately, but when he approved it 10 months later, it was reportedly without changes.

The development has sparked panic in the relatively tranquil space of teacher activism in Gujarat – which has 18 public state universities along with 17 private institutions, two that are private-aided and four agricultural universities. The teachers’ association of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, has passed a resolution saying it will demand central university status to escape the new law’s ambit. Teachers’ associations in the state have already held one meeting in Ahmedabad to discuss the Act, and another meeting is scheduled for February 19 in south Gujarat. The state wing of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation has sought an appointment with the chief minister and education minister.

The provisions of the Act present such a threat to the autonomy of institutions that even teachers of central universities, which do not come under the jurisdiction of the Act, and faculty in faraway Delhi are concerned.

Too much government

The state president of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation, Mahadev Desai, said, “The council would be filled with political people.” This, according to him, is the primary objection to such a law. The chief minister would be the council president and the education minister and minister of state for education would be its vice-president and co-vice-president, respectively.

Gujarat is not the only state with a higher education council but, as the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation noted in its representation to the governor, it is the only one “where the chief minister of the state will be the president”.

Another dozen members, nearly all bureaucrats from various state departments, will make up the full set of 15 ex-officio members. The academic section, too, will be composed entirely of state government nominees, including “not more than five vice-chancellors”, a provost from private universities, two eminent scholars, a maximum of five “eminent persons” from various fields, three “eminent academicians”, and the member secretary.

The way teachers opposed to the law see it, part of the council will be made up of government functionaries and the rest of “yes-men”. Nikul Patel of the Baroda University Teachers’ Association pointed out that bureaucrats, whose role had so far been restricted to financial functions, “will now have a say in guiding policy on research funding, curriculum development, evaluation”. Funds from state and central bodies will be routed through the council instead of going directly to the university registrar, as is the case now.

Critics of the law have also pointed out that it has no provisions for implementing reservation in the council.

Lost autonomy

In this centralisation of power and functions, democratic bodies through which state universities have been governed and their academic autonomy preserved will be powerless, said Manoj Shastri of Gujarat University. So far, universities have taken their decisions locally through bodies such as the academic and executive councils, senate and syndicate – the highest authority – that include elected representatives. “It is a dangerous move,” he added.

There are concerns that a common syllabus will be imposed and research will be directed centrally. The government has only fanned these fears. Days after the Bill was passed last year, the Knowledge Consortium of Gujarat, established by the Department of Education, issued a list of 82 topics for PhD students to undertake research in. These included government schemes and welfare programmes.

Similarly, the promise to “facilitate mobility” of teachers, argued Patel, may mean punitive transfers becoming a norm, the way it has for bureaucrats.

Mahadev Desai and Bhavik Raja, who is the state president of the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation, are also concerned about a clause that makes the council “entitled to acquire, hold and dispose of property”. Raja interpreted this as permission to “sell the properties of our educational institutes”. He said that while the English version of the Bill used the word “monitor” to describe the council’s functions, the one in Gujarati “says ‘monitor-control’ in many places”.

And then there is Chapter 2, Section 15 of the Act that says:

“On the recommendation of the Council, or suo-moto, the State Government may direct, any University with such modification as may be necessary, to implement the reforms in such manner as may be specified therein. Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force, it shall be obligatory on the part of the University to implement the directions given by the state government and to report the action taken to the State Government and the council accordingly.”

Summing up the implication of this, Raja said, “The government’s directive will override provisions in the university Acts if there is a contradiction and we cannot sue them.” He added, “We basically have this all-powerful body that we cannot challenge.”

In other states

The Gujarat Bill did not come from a vacuum. Eight other states – Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra – have their own higher education councils. These were set up on the basis of the recommendation of the National Education Policy of 1986 and the University Grants Commission’s guidelines. The Andhra Pradesh council was established in 1988 while those in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh came up in the 1990s. Relatively newer are the councils in Kerala and Karnataka, which enacted their respective laws in 2007 and 2010. In some states, the councils were preceded by higher education boards.

In 2013, another set of guidelines were drafted under the higher education funding scheme, Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, and now several states are amending their laws to bring them in line with these requirements.

But the proposed council in Gujarat is still considered different from those in the other states. “Nowhere is the council structured the way it will be in Gujarat,” said Raja. “There are more academics in Andhra Pradesh, for instance.” In Karnataka, the vice-chairperson is a present or former vice-chancellor. And in Kerala, a “governing council” within the higher education council is responsible for policy decisions and includes elected members of university academic councils and students’ union representatives.

Concern elsewhere

The new law in Gujarat has teachers in central universities, including those in Delhi, worried too. “There have been plans to have all central universities under one umbrella,” said a teacher with the Central University of Gujarat, who did not want to be identified. “Autonomy of all institutions is shrinking. There is talk of restructuring the University Grants Commission, it was mentioned in the Budget. We must not forget the Bill was prompted by central bodies and schemes.”

A teacher at the Delhi University, too, said efforts have been made in the past – both at the central and state levels – to introduce legislation to bring universities under a single umbrella. “Many of those have been defeated and now reforms are being brought in through the back door,” she said.

Their fears may not be unfounded. Since 2015, all central universities have had to adopt a common syllabus with little freedom to change and structure their programmes, under a centrally-designed choice-based credit system for their undergraduate levels.