Sudhanva Shetty Shetty
Writer, coffee-addict, likes folk music & long walks in the rain. Firmly believes that there's nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.
“When you come to TISS, you [not only] come to an institution that has 76 years of history and experience in offering quality teaching and research programs, you also come to work with Faculty that are world class.” – S Parasuraman, Director, TISS.
Since its establishment in 1936, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has been one of the premier institutes in India in social sciences, human development, public policy, and economics. With its main campus in Mumbai, TISS also has campuses in Guwahati, Hyderabad, and Tuljapur.
The institution is funded in two ways:
The UGC, as many of us know, is a statutory body set up by the Union government (in accordance with the UGC Act, 1956) under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The UGC is charged with the maintenance of standards of higher education in India; it provides recognition to universities in India and disburses funds to universities and colleges.
In the past few days, TISS made news across the country after it handed termination letters to 25 faculty members and announced the closure of three of its centres.
The contracts of these professors were to end on March 31, 2017 (they were five-year contracts), but many expected the contract to be renewed, as was the norm. However, they received letters on March 24 telling them that their last working day would be March 31.
Additionally, it was announced that three TISS centres would be closed. These are the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, and the Nodal Centre for Excellence under the Scheme of Human Rights.
Many of the professors are research assistants to students: their guidance is essential for students completing their thesis. The move was unprecedented and evoked outrage among the student and faculty bodies.
The TISS administration – led by Director S Parasuraman – argued that the move was inevitable due to lack of funds. As mentioned before, over 90% of the institution’s funding comes from the UGC. There has always been widespread criticism from the institution’s faculty and alumni over the lack of sufficient funding from the UGC.
Many TISS faculty members have also spoken against the lack of transparency in the Institute’s administration. They say the administration should have pressured the UGC for more funding.
Presently, some among the 25 faculty members are in Delhi, seeking dialogue with the UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Other professors are protesting in the campuses with the help of their students and fellow faculty members.
To understand the crisis faced by TISS and the UGC’s alleged role in precipitating this crisis, The Logical Indian spoke to a former research scholar and alumnus of TISS. He requested anonymity, and to respect his discretion he will be referred to throughout this article as “The Faculty Member”.
The Faculty Member said,
“You must remember that TISS used to be a small institute, with a student to teacher ratio of 4:1. This was until 2006. There were fewer students and fewer courses. However, after 2006, a new Director, development, and a progressive five-year plan enabled the Institute to expand. Soon, TISS began to increase outreach – through more courses and through more campuses. Centres increased, courses increased, and the population of students and staff increased.”
“However, over time, funding became more difficult, especially in the last few years. Around 98% of TISS’s funding comes from the UGC, the rest from the Tatas. The Institute is heavily reliant on government funding. In recent months, the funding has all but stopped.”
“Currently, the situation has become so dire that TISS is unable to pay even the Maintenance Expenditure, which is the basic expenditure any institution pays for the maintenance of its buildings, for electricity, for water supply and so on. The funding problems between TISS and the UGC are by no means a new phenomenon. However, after 2014, even the Maintenance Grant stopped coming. How can you handle the campus and how to you pay the teachers if you don’t have money for even basic amenities? We have to pay the electricity bill, the water bill, we have to pay the faculty, the administrative staff, the teachers, the students’ fellowships, the students’ scholarships. The current situation of the Institution is so desperate that they are even unable to afford the maintenance bill.”
The Faculty Member told The Logical Indian that TISS is a bastion for all kinds of identity politics – Dalit politics, LGBTQ politics, women politics etc. “But this mixture has always been a medley of ideas, a vibrant mix of different ideologies that, more or less, coexisted and debated actively. There are extreme leftist students in TISS as well as RSS members.”
Students in TISS are often from marginalised groups, like tribals, backward castes, and sexual minorities. “The Institution has always been student-friendly: despite many students being unable to pay the fees (many had daily-wage labourers as parents), the institution never cajoled them over financial matters. But now, with this serious drought of funding, even this leniency has become difficult to continue with.”
The Faculty Member thinks the politicisation of student dynamics and the UGC has led to the current situation. In fact, earlier this month, the Institute’s Director issued a controversial letter to his students asking them to refrain from student politics like the ones that Delhi University (DU) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) engage in. He wrote, “DU and JNU are very powerful institutes … TISS is a simple institution that is very hard to stay afloat.”
The TISS administration is suspicious of the objective of the UGC. Many of the Institute’s faculty members – including the person The Logical Indian interviewed – opine that the UGC is using its money power to put a leash on TISS. They accuse the government body of curbing free speech and critical thinking in the campus by establishing a stranglehold on the Institute’s activities.
“The atmosphere in the main campus,” the Faculty Member said, “has seen a continuous decline in the past six or seven years; I can vouch for this. Students’ fellowships are being ended, student politics has degraded, and bills worth more than Rs 5 crore bill remain unpaid because the UGC refuses to release the funds.”
The 25 TISS faculty members have protested against the undignified manner of their termination. However, while some say that the move was unprecedented, others say that it was inevitable – that they expected their contracts to not be renewed due to the Institution’s finance problems and the UGC’s apparent reluctance in releasing funds.
The Faculty Member is sympathetic to the administration’s ordeals. “Imagine you have a gunda living in your neighborhood. He routinely threatens you and your family. Your father can either fight him or give in to his demands. Say he chooses the latter – because he knows the fight will prove to be costly, and it will affect the rest of the family since all of you depend on whatever money you save for food, rent, education, and so on. You can say your father is a coward, a man who won’t stand up for what is right. But when the issue is one of life and death, when the issue is about the survival of your family, when there is no other alternative, can you really blame your father for his actions?”
The Faculty Member said,
“TISS is a place where differences are solved, where debate is eternal and robust. It is a place where critical thinking is encouraged. The UGC’s actions are thoroughly unacceptable. An educational institution is being arm-twisted by a government body. This should outrage all of us, regardless of our political inclination or ideology. More than anything else, TISS is an idea – and that idea must not fall apart. I want a nuanced understanding, not sensationalism. Journalism has become about sensationalism, so our window to justice is narrow. Autonomy of educational institutions should be religiously protected – this is a fundamental issue, an urgent issue. It should not be a political issue; it should be a rallying cry for unity to protect critical thinking.”
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences has produced stellar citizens – from activists like Medha Patkar and Anu Aga to artists like Sumitra Bhave, Gursimran Khamba, and Akash Khurana. It is essential that the autonomy of educational institutions retain their autonomy and independence from governmental politics. It is also essential that the UGC sees to it that India’s universities and colleges are not starved of funds. Additionally, if the charges of political arm-twisting by the UGC are proven true, the perpetrators should be held accountable and accordingly punished.
The financial woes of TISS have put the future and reputation of the premier institution in serious trouble. This is an insult to the country’s education system and all of us who have benefited from it.
The Logical Indian community stands in solidarity with the money-starved centres of TISS. It is highly unfortunate that one of India’s most reputed educational institutions, which has set a standard for excellence and research, should see such dark days when it has to let go of dozens of its professors and struggle to even pay its maintenance bills.
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