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Saffron Demagoguery: How the Four-Year Undergraduate Program is a Prodigal Lie

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reintroduced the Four-Year Undergraduate Program in 2020 under the New Education Policy, even though it was previously rescinded in 2014 on grounds of privatizing India’s public higher education system. By combining drastic curriculum changes in a four-year model with a multi-exit scheme and increased private participation, the policy aims to improve the quality of education, increase flexibility in finding employment and build global networks with top foreign universities. However, a closer analysis of these measures reveals how they ironically aggravate pre-existing inequalities by creating an exclusionary system, and more importantly, how the program is an addition to the BJP-led Hindutva state built on private capital.

By Pranav Mittal

India’s Four Year Undergraduate Program was introduced in 2020 with fulsome praise and ambitious goals. A policy intending to radically reorganize higher education courses from three to four years, it was hailed to transform the country’s higher education landscape – the second-largest in the world – by internationalizing its structure, making the curriculum more multidisciplinary and improving the skill outcome of the courses. However, since its phased implementation began in 2022, the program has been the subject of constant protest and debate, with repeated demonstrations on the campus of Delhi University — India’s largest university — demanding its rollback. To understand the fierce opposition to this program, it is necessary to understand the program, its history, and the political framework within which it’s being implemented.

FYUP’s roots can be traced back to the second US-India Higher Education Dialogue held in June 2012. Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded four-year American colleges for exhibiting what “higher education can and should look like,” while paradoxically adding how they’re “not what the employers are looking for,” unlike community colleges that provide the skillset needed by the market. This contradictory assessment signaled the need to develop community colleges and universities with a four-year model within the country to accommodate the influx of global private capital. Further strengthened by the six pending higher education bills in the Indian parliament conforming with the World Trade Organization requirements, the development eventually formed the ideological foundation for FYUP: privatization of higher education on a skill-based conception of education for the needs of the market.

These circumstances eventually led to the first implementation of FYUP in December 2012. In an undemocratic overhaul, DU’s Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh implemented the program without consulting any of the requisite university bodies. Protests by organizations such as the Delhi University Teachers Association, Students’ Federation of India and All India Students’ Association, rejecting the policy on the grounds of privatizing education, were manipulated and repressed. Eventually, after sustained collective organization and pressure from the political opposition, the program was repealed in June 2014. Yet the underlying incentive for its actualization survived and continued, eventually causing the policy to be reintroduced in 2020 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Bharatiya Janata Party.  

What makes this act ironic is that it was BJP that politically pressurized the Indian National Congress, the party in power during FYUP’s former implementation, to repeal the policy, going as far as to promise the same in its election manifesto in 2014. However, the hypocrisy is unsurprising if contextualized within Modi’s tenure and fascistic Hindutva political ideology, built on a nationalistic Hindu ideal and communal genocide. In 2002, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi orchestrated the communal pogrom against Muslims where 2000 people were murdered. After being re-elected as the prime minister in 2019, this intolerance towards Muslims and other minorities crescendoed into the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which delegitimized 120 million eligible voters as refugees. What makes this pursuit of Hinduist hegemony particularly dangerous is how it’s built on the back of private capital. It was Gautam Adani, India’s richest man until recently, who supported Modi during the Gujarat Pogrom when he was being disavowed by Gujarati industrialists, forming what is now hailed as the “Gujarat Model of Development” — Hindu nationalism and private capital. As this model was sequentially nationalized with Modi’s election as the prime minister, the benefactor has been conspicuous — Adani’s wealth grew from $8bn to $137bn in the last nine years and he now controls 30% of the country’s freight and grain. It is hence clear how Modi’s state is one conceived on blood and money, disguised under the doctrine “Monetize and Modernize.” And as this rule increasingly becomes a reality, with the privatization of agriculture and public sector units such as Air India, the priorities of the state under him also become clear: categorical commitment to private capital. FYUP 2020, which lays bare the higher education apparatus to commodification, is but a natural extension of this interlinked system of capital and Hindutva hegemony, and such can be seen by examining its policy framework.

Firstly, the omnibus curriculum proposed under the program, which intends to combine vocational, general and skill-based education in a four-year program, presents an unsustainable and self-defeating goal due to its unrealistic scope. The measure is politically supported with the hope that it will improve academic research and employment outcomes, and thus, be comparable to the four-year liberal American universities that continue to be the most reputed universities globally based on such results. However, none of these aims justifies the expansion of the curriculum to a four-year structure, which is what is claimed to help achieve them. It is prima facie understood that India’s poor higher education outcomes in research and employment are owing to a severe lack of funding and infrastructural deficiencies38% of teacher posts are vacant, the Gross Enrollment Ratio is only 19%, spending on education is only 2.9% of the GDP – rather than the length of the curriculum. The shift to a four-year model not only fails to address these issues but unnecessarily increases the resources required by the higher education sector. 

Moreover, taking the example of the US, even its four-year liberal institutions have attained their research competency and high performance by separating and situating vocational courses under two-year community colleges, unlike FYUP’s omnibus curriculum, which combines general and vocational courses into one program. Not only does this framework dilute the weight of the major in the curriculum but it also weakens the implementation of the program as limited resources are dispersed across multiple goals.

The same can be seen in the 2022 curriculum. As surmised by Rusham Sharma, who is at the forefront of political movements at DU against FYUP as the Secretary of SFI, the weight of the main curriculum has been diluted by 30% (from 72-78%), owing to the addition of non-foundational courses. This has raised concerns among both teachers and students, who fear that the latter might be left with “mere paper degrees with no market value in terms of employability,” as communicated by the Democratic Teachers’ Front, which showed how students’ majors will get only 48 credits out of 130 instead of 108 like before. At the same time, the number of papers that students are required to study each semester has increased from five to seven. One might assume that the addition of these courses, though burdensome, might be useful, but their content suggests otherwise. As Rusham described, the new courses include subjects such as Ayurveda, Vedic Maths and The Art of Being Happy – topics that appeal to the far-right’s Hinduist conception of India as a spiritual country. Instead of fostering a secular intellectual environment of critical thought, as other non-major courses required in a liberal education might, such courses substitute critical thinking with blind spiritualism. The result is a curriculum that not only erodes students’ employment prospects by diluting the curriculum but also coerces a Hindutva conception of Indian culture and history. Students have expressed widespread discontent with their classes, with many reporting their time to be wasted.

“You’re coming from Kerala, Gujarat, Sikkim, Punjab, to Delhi, to study these papers. Even though your course might be Economics, History, Philosophy or any other, you’re studying courses like “The Art of Being Happy” in the end,” Sharma said. 

What further exacerbates the situation is how subpar the implementation of these non-foundational courses is. As described by Sharma, teachers have not been assigned to the non-foundational courses, while a survey from SFI has revealed that 56% of students find them to be occurring irregularly or not at all due to a shortage of classrooms, with many of them also criticizing the haphazard continuation of courses without a syllabus. This further highlights the irrationality behind implementing FYUP. The Indian university system, as mentioned before, exhibits a severe lack of resources and infrastructure, which significantly contributes to its poor performance. Not only does FYUP fail to address this deficiency, it further compounds it by extending the program by one-third, increasing the burden on an already stressed system.

And to culminate this irrational cesspool of Hindutva politics and structural deficiency, there has been a change in the language curriculum under FYUP. As described by Rusham, first-year students at DU were previously required to take an Ability Enhancement Course on one of three subjects: Hindi, Sanskrit or English. Under FYUP, English is being removed.

“The diversity that must be there in a central university is being undermined by replacing English with Hindi and Sanskrit and making [the latter two] compulsory,” Sharma said.

As a result of the measure, English departments across DU are experiencing substantive reductions in their workload that threaten the job security of their ad-hoc faculty members, many of whom have already been asked to leave. This Hindutva-led shift towards linguistic imperialism carries violence that extends beyond any other measures so far. With the removal of English from the curriculum, the implications are two-fold. Firstly, DU effectively undermines the diversity of India by linguistically excluding non-Hindi speakers within the country. Moreover, it also excludes students from neighboring South Asian nations who come to India to pursue their higher education, and in that, directly contradicts FYUP’s aim to integrate the Indian education system within global demands and build links with top-ranked foreign universities. 

However, despite these exclusionary consequences, the BJP government continues to defend the measure by claiming that students admitted to one college within DU, can study the AEC course in their regional language by “going to [another] college where there the course is offered in that language,” as Rusham highlighted. However, examining the claim in the context of the logistical failures within the university reveals its impracticality.

“Now, how will the timing work? You haven’t adjusted for the fact that if a student takes a rickshaw from [their college] to another, the lecture will start by then,” Rusham said.

In conformity with BJP’s Hinduist goal of making Hindi the national language of India — a constitutionally secular country with no national language — students are being effectively forced to study in Hindi by practically being denied access to courses in their regional languages. Viewed in totality, the omnibus curriculum can be seen forcing students into an educational framework that directly contradicts its claim of providing a holistic education that increases employability, which is only exacerbated by its haphazard and resource-deficient implementation.

The second significant characteristic of FYUP is the multi-exit scheme, a provision that gives students the option to exit at the end of each year and rejoin later, with a certificate at the end of the first, a diploma in the second, a bachelor’s degree in the third, and a bachelor’s degree with honors at the end of fourth. The measure is being politically commemorated for increasing the “flexibility” in finding employment; however, in actuality, it undermines decades of social progress achieved through sustained and tumultuous effort. Caste and gender inequality continue to be rampant in India’s present social landscape, as a result of which scheduled caste and female students face significant structural pressure to leave their education early. For instance, the share of Dalit school students drops from 81% in the 6-14 years age group to just 11% in the 20-24 years age group, while only 15% of the youth in India’s labor force in 2020 consisted of women. Noting this, the multiple exit avenues under FYUP could rather become multiple pushing points that nudge the marginalized sections of the population to leave their education early with the false pacification of a qualification, in a market where even graduate students barely find employment.

“Anything you want to do, finding a job as a graduate is nearly impossible. So how can a person, who stopped their education after their first or second year, expect to find a job?” Sharma said. 

Such obstacles towards accessing education under the multi-exit scheme are only compounded by the lack of bureaucratic clarity surrounding the provision. As described by Sharma, the government has not provided any information surrounding the readmission process and the financial considerations pertaining to it. Thus, any student who earlier left their higher education in the middle of its four-year term and now decided to resume it, would be left stranded. Therefore, the structure of the multi-exit scheme, not only creates more opportunities for marginalized students to be forced into dropping out during their academic careers but also obscures the means to resume it. In the resulting socially skewered setting, the elite, upper-caste sections of the population continue to retain their control over university sources, while the marginalized groups remain restricted to filling the demand for cheap-skilled labor needed by the market.

And with the student body hierarchically filtered and public universities prima facie ineffective, it is easy to rationalize FYUP’s final facet: privatization. The addition of a fourth year raises DU’s cost of education from Rs 360,000 ($4,500 USD) to Rs 480,000 ($6,000 USD). Furthermore, as described by Rusham, the resource-intensive structure of FYUP requires more expenditure, which is being offset via higher fees, as seen in the fee hike from Rs 15,000 ($200 USD) to Rs 24,000 ($300 USD) for the incoming class. And lastly, the University Grants Commission, which provided grants to public and private universities, is being replaced with the Higher Education Commission of India, which will instead provide loans — a change that is expected to further increase university fees. In totality, FYUP creates economically burdensome barriers to entry that prevent underprivileged students from receiving education, and in that, sets up the foundation for the entry of the private sector.

How does privatization work? As Sharma describes, “you make things turn into a failure” and then invite private entities to improve them. With the implementation of FYUP, the BJP government effectively erodes accessibility to India’s public universities along with diluting the curriculum, leading to students losing faith in a system reputed for its quality public education, as visible by the 25% drop in DU admissions in 2022 and widespread discontent amongst its student body

“[The government] will say that “students are not taking admission,” Sharma said. “Students will only take admission when you make it possible for them to access education and do your job as the government.”

Following India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, the country witnessed a rapid dismantling of public elementary and secondary schools as education became increasingly privatized. FYUP is a culmination of this long incubating trend, where education has become increasingly inaccessible due to the rise in costs. Moreover, FYUP would establish an “Academic Bank of Credits” that would not only allow courses to be outsourced to private institutions but also private companies such as UpGrad. In the end, a socioeconomically skewered system that advances the hegemony of private capital will result. 

FYUP isn’t likely to improve India’s higher education system. And the BJP government is aware of that, similar to how it is aware of what will do so – increased expenditure on education – as it chooses to consistently ignore it. In the 2022-23 budget, the BJP government’s expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP is 2.9%, far below the 6% requirement as laid out by both the National Education Policy of 1986 and the New Education Policy of 2020, while the union government’s expenditure on education throughout Modi’s tenure has fallen from 0.63% of GDP in 2013-14 to 0.37% in 2022-23.

What FYUP will do is serve the dual role of extending not only corporate power but the Hindutva politics of BJP, as seen by the new non-foundational courses that appeal to the far-right’s conception of India, imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit and the categorical suppression of student protests against the program. Since its coerced introduction, FYUP has been contentiously protested by students and faculty for its undemocratic and unacademic implementation, which has been met with a violently repressive response in line with BJP’s legacy. And as Rusham further describes, this repression is largely owing to a “strong nexus of the government, administration, police and even the faculty,” reflected in their experiences organizing student movements on campus.

“Protests right now are very difficult. Organizing students right now is very difficult. If my [student] union is trying to sit together and a guard sees that, then the guard would be responsible to inform the administration that “they’re sitting together and planning something” and we’ll be asked to disperse,” Rusham described. “The classroom is not a democratic space anymore.”

Further elaborating on these experiences, they describe an incident where they, and other SFI members who were distributing flyers, were instructed by the administration not to do so once they found out what they were doing. As for organizing off-campus, they posit:

“Whenever we try to organize something, one night before that we get a call from the police asking what we’re trying to do – they have our numbers.”

To conclude, they remark how: “we go to college every day knowing we are not safe”.
Yet despite all these open acts of state-sanctioned violence, Modi continues to enjoy an approval rating of more than 75%, support which ironically results from the social deterioration from decades of neoliberal privatization. Post India’s liberalization, the country rapidly phased neoliberal reforms that dismantled the agricultural and industrial sectors, casualizing the workforce and creating an informal economy marked by prevalent poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, etc. The widespread frustration and social tension stemming from such conditions provided the bedrock for the rise of the populist narratives of the fascistic Hindutva ideology, which had been incubating for a century. It is critical to understand that Hindutva politics has developed in concomitance with an active neoliberal capitalist class, both of which have had a vested interest in the erosion of the democratic foundations of India. And the same can be seen in myriads of BJP’s policies, of which FYUP is but one part. Therefore, any social movement committed to revoking the policy has to go beyond it and also focus on the socioeconomic framework implementing it. For only then can we have the freedom to enact meaningful change and conceive better institutions for tomorrow. □

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