The University Grants Commission (UGC) once again came under scrutiny for urging universities to establish selfie points featuring the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The selfie points are to be created per approved designs in 3D layouts shared by the Ministry of Education.
This mirrors the commission’s approach, as seen in their enthusiastic endorsement of banners expressing gratitude for free vaccinations, while also personally thanking Modi, in institutions.
The core issue, at hand, revolves around the UGC’s departure from its original role as a grants body to issuing mandatory policy directives.
All of this is only reaffirmed with the observation that the current government is predominantly fixated on a constant public relations effort for India, projecting an image of a unified landmass while downplaying internal discord to project that the country seemingly doesn’t have its population at odds, kept together under desperate efforts like militarizing against secession.
Recent events raise questions about the UGC’s deviation from its intended scope and it should prompt us to examine whether the committee has been relegated to become a propaganda arm of the Union government.
In November, the UGC asked institutions to implement mandatory yoga formulated by the Art of Living Foundation—largely considered by many as a cult that idolizes Shri Shri Ravishankar (Some even hold him capable of having superpowers akin to God himself.)
They were also responsible for ‘irreversible’ environmental damage during a world culture conference, incurring ongoing costs of 10 years and 13 crores worth of rehabilitation.
This raises the question – is it suitable for universities to advertise a spiritual organization of this kind? Agreeably, the BJP strategically employs a spiritual façade in every one of its arms, aiming to appease Indians who seek a global presence by connecting to their cultural roots under the guise of ‘Bharat.’
However, affiliating it with educational institutions has been contested as ‘being out of line’ by scholars and academics.
On November 29, in another one of its circulars, it asked Maharashtra colleges to celebrate the 100th anniversary of an ABVP founder.
The setting of history from the vantage point of the BJP’s ideology and using the UGC as a means to dictate the same can be viewed as a problematic connotation. This includes another one of their circulars validating the Vedic Khap panchayat system and how India has carried and derived its democratic ideals from the same.
This can be largely labelled as indoctrination, especially since their definitions and notions of nationalism are purely from a BJP-centric view. This can be harmful to instil in impressionable children and leads to the polarized jingoism that we are seeing today.
When examining the UGC, understanding the authority presiding over it is essential for grasping the tonality of the commission. M. Jagadesh Kumar currently serves as the chairman of the UGC. Before this role, his position as the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been criticized for what some consider a ‘marred legacy’.
Apart from gaining a reputation as a divisive force in JNU due to his perceived apathy in the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed, Kumar has also been viewed as a condoning force in preventing protests against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. More recently, under his tenure, the 2020 violent attacks on JNU students by masked assailants further contributed to the perception of him as a ‘perpetrator of violence.’
The UGC’s effectiveness is also brought into question concerning its core functions, notably the distribution of funds, scholarships, and grants, alongside the regulation of universities. An RTI inquiry, by Careers360, revealed that Institutes of Eminence, including prestigious institutions like IITs and DU, have received less than 50% of the promised funds, indicating a significant issue in fulfilling commitments to world-class education standards. The absence of any Indian universities in the top 200 of the Times World Ranking list in the current year, might be a giveaway to the lack of standards we are setting to address this issue.
It was also responsible for the widely criticized NEP (National Education Policy) 2020.
The NEP governs and regulates nationwide educational policies and hence it is susceptible to critique; which is why it is essential to be mindful. The first 1968 NEP introduced by Indira Gandhi was also widely criticized for its lack of structure, and for imposing Hindi on southern states.
The current government’s NEP draft was adopted without taking into account any parliamentary input, a pattern observed with many important bills under this government.
There is a nuanced discussion on the implications of the new NEP with its vague linguistic criteria – something that has been sidelined in every educational policy. Some view the new guidelines as exclusionary, in the sense of allowing states to inculcate regional languages up to class five, particularly regarding English as it is the growing and mainstream connecting language.
The imposition of a three-language formula was seen as a sugarcoated Manusmriti being passed down as statutory, as Hindi/Sanskrit would of course be a contentious introduction to southern schools.
The greatest irony lies in pushing for the privatization of education to defeat affiliation while adhering to state-affiliated petty identity politics and propaganda.
Another one of its functions was meant to address the concerns and grievances of sidelined minorities, the UGC has taken a laid-back approach to address its basics. Given the spurt in instances of institutional discrimination, it was only in July of this year that they formed an expert committee when questioned by the top court about their affirmative efforts. This came after a lot of concern was raised regarding the confusion of clubbing of anti-caste complaints under general grievances.
In conclusion, it is not practical to delve into every single flaw of the UGC. However, if a regulatory body proves incapable of addressing some of the pressing issues in our education system, it may be time for thorough questioning and accountability measures to be implemented.
Such bodies must be formed devoid of a central agenda-setting bias and must not serve as a political expediency agency.
Malaikah Niyazi is a journalism student at Wilson College, Mumbai, with a keen interest in policy analysis and social justice.