Youth vote and union pushback: Why Haryana back-pedalled on university loan decision

The BJP-led Haryana government late last month announced a scheme with the aim of “encouraging (state-run) universities to generate resources at their own level and bring financial discipline in the universities to ensure competitiveness and quality education”. But, faced with protests from students and faculty members, and criticism from the Congress and its ally Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), the government made an about-turn earlier this week. According to insiders, the ruling party did not want the matter to snowball into a big agitation and alienate the youth, who are a crucial electoral group.

On April 29, the government announced a Rs 147.75-crore loan for 10 state universities instead of the usual grants-in-aid (non-recoverable financial assistance) allocated to the institutions. In its announcement, the government said this was the first instalment under the scheme for the 2022-’23 financial year. The loans were meant for capital expenditure or spending on construction activities, and not for revenue expenditure head that includes salaries and wages of staffers.

Government officials said they did not expect the universities to return the loans and only wanted its judicious utilisation for construction activities. “It is like you give money to your son and tell him to spend it carefully. It is not that you take back the money from your son,” a senior officer in the state administration told The Indian Express.

But, unions of teachers and non-teaching staffers came out in opposition from day one itself, claiming that the move could be followed by a major hike in students’ fees or force the universities to adopt self-finance schemes as part of which a section of students will have to pay a higher fee. The government’s decision was a precursor to the privatisation of the universities, the unions feared. Among the 10 universities that were set to receive the loan are Kurukshetra University, Maharishi Dayanand University (Rohtak), Chaudhary Devi Lal University (Sirsa), Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar National Law University (Sonepat), and Chaudhary Bansi Lal University (Bhiwani).

The Opposition waded in, with Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjwala tweeting on May 6, “The Khattar government has decided to drown the education sector with the burden of loans. The state-run universities were supposed to receive Rs 300 crore from the state Budget but now have received the first loan instalment … From education to employment, the BJP-JJP government has been betraying the youth at every step.”

The protests intensified earlier this week. From May 9 onwards, teachers of 13 government-run universities started wearing black badges and two days later, teachers and non-teaching faculty observed a three-hour strike. The Indian National Students’ Organisation (INSO), which is the students’ wing of the JJP, also came out against the government’s move, forcing it to backtrack.

Announcing the policy reversal on Thursday, Additional Chief Secretary (Higher Education) Anand Mohan Sharan clarified that Rs 147.75 crore for the universities was “grant-in-aid only” and not a loan. The bureaucrat said the objective of the earlier move was “to highlight the financial autonomy, independence and self-reliance of the universities” and “further increase productivity and quality through internal resource generation through activities that will further enhance their skills and further increase the employability of their students”.

A senior officer said, “We had to declare the loan of Rs 147.75 crore as grant-in-aid because the critics were not understanding the concept behind this scheme.”

Welcoming the government’s about-turn, JJP secretary-general Digvijay Chautala, the brother of Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala and INSO national president, said, “When this decision (loans to universities instead of grants-in-aid) was taken, the INSO was the first to raise this issue. Now that the government has withdrawn this decision, it should be welcomed. Universities are important to make our generations efficient and the government grant for these institutions is very much needed.”

The student organisation’s state president Pradeep Deswal said the government’s reversal was a “victory of every student”.

Former state Finance Minister Sampat Singh said with “youths emerging as an influential section in the society because of their large number, which also matters in electoral politics” the government did not want to drag out the issue.

“However, I still have apprehensions that the issue has not ended but has just been diverted for the time being,” Singh said. “This will come again as the officers have said that the loans were offered for capital expenditure in the universities, hinting that the grants-in-aid may continue only for revenue expenditure, which is meant for salaries and wages of the teaching and non-teaching staff. But if the government makes such a decision again, it will certainly backfire.”

Singh, a six-time MLA, added, “The students have nothing to do with capital or revenue expenditure. They just know that their fees should not be increased. And if universities opt for a self-financing scheme, it will happen at the cost of their pocket. For example, if the university decides to give admission to 25 seats out of a total of 100 seats under the self-financing scheme, then the burden will be on the students themselves. Universities are not earning bodies. Education, health, and social welfare are not meant for profit-making. To earn revenues, you have departments like excise and taxation, revenue and tourism. The issue here is not only the salary of teaching and non-teaching staffers. The issue is how to ensure research in universities and higher quality education to the students who come from the families of farmers, labourers, and other weaker sections of the society.”

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