NEWS
08/11/2019 7:08 AM IST | Updated 13/11/2019 7:48 PM IST

How An Expansion Spree Put TISS On The Brink Of Collapse

The implosion of the once proud Tata Institute Of Social Sciences is a warning sign for education institutions across India.

TISS for Everyone/Facebook
Students of Azim Premji University protest in solidarity with TISS, Hyderabad.

After this story was published, U. Vindhya, Acting Deputy Director of TISS Hyderabad, sent a detailed rejoinder. The full text of the email, along with the reporter’s response, can be found here.

HYDERABAD, Telangana — A walled but a neglected 100-acre stretch in Telangana’s Mamidipalli village is a telling sign of the fall of its ‘owner’—Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The land in the Kothur block of Mahbubnagar district was given to TISS in 2009 by the state government for its Hyderabad campus. While a threat of closure looms over the temporary campus that operates from the congested premises of a private school in the neighbouring Ranga Reddy district, not a brick has been laid at the Mamidipalli site.  

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Mamidipalli is a reminder of TISS’s indiscriminate expansion spree that has failed to find support from the Union government or the Tata Trusts, leaving one of the country’s storeyed institutes staring at an uncertain future.

Founded by the Tata Trusts in 1936 and declared a deemed university by the Centre 20 years later, TISS has been at the forefront of spreading social awareness through its various programmes. 

Its once generous aid programme helped students from social and economically weaker sections to pursue higher education and research. Many of its initiatives shaped public policy in the fields of education, health and labour laws. 

But today, TISS is struggling to stay afloat. There is growing discontent at the mother campus, in Mumbai, over a drop in financial aid. The Guwahati campus is still incomplete and the one in Hyderabad has been rocked by student unrest for almost a year.

What went wrong?

Set up by Tata Trusts in 1936 as Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work, TISS was declared a “deemed university” in 1956. The Centre has since been bearing the institute’s financial burden, including maintenance and teaching and non-teaching staff salaries.

When higher educational institutions got a boost under the eleventh five-year plan (2007-2012), TISS decided to expand.

Apart from its two campuses in Maharashtra—Mumbai and Tuljapur—TISS went to Guwahati in 2009. Manmohan Singh –led United Progressive Alliance government allotted a Rs 100-crore grant for the campus.

Simultaneously, the Hyderabad campus came up in the then united Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress was in power. Chief Minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy offered 65 acres for the campus but did not promise financial aid unlike what his party’s government did at the Centre.

Not just new campuses, the institute also added more than 20 new programmes and opened at least six new departments, which required both faculty and infrastructure, putting more strain on finances.  

In 2014, the expansion plan ran aground. A change at the Centre, with the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power translated to budget cuts in the education sector. 

The education sector accounted for 3.5 percent of the budgetary allocation in 2019-20, which was higher than the previous year but lower when compared to 4.6 percent in 2014-15, the first budget presented by Narendra Modi-led NDA government.

“As per what transpired in the six board meetings which have taken place in the last two years, TISS went for expansion without taking required permissions from the University Grants Commission”

The problem is not just the budget but also the way expansion was carried out. 

“As per what transpired in the six board meetings which have taken place in the last two years, TISS went for expansion without taking required permissions from the University Grants Commission,” a source who attended the meetings said. 

The management went on to set up campuses without considering the financial burden, the source said. “At the time it was understood that TISS would get funding from the UGC despite regime changes at the Centre because of the institution’s reputation. The plan did not work out,” the source said.

That leaves TISS saddled with a partially developed campus in Guwahati and a temporary campus in Hyderabad. 

TISS has also been forced to cut student aid by half, with the administration deciding not to give aid to students from other backward classes in 2018, sources saidStudent aid is now offered to pupils from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.  

Officials at TISS-Mumbai and the ministry of human resource and development refused to comment on the fund crunch.

Fund problem

TISS, which still has members of the Tata Trusts on its board, has lost favour with Tatas, too, sources said. 

While the institute has been in a dire state since 2015, the Trusts have refused funding except on “rare occasions”, TISS-Mumbai faculty members, privy to administrative affairs, have said. 

“Since 2006, the Tata Trusts has not been a big financial donor for the institute, even though they cash in on the goodwill generated by TISS’s academic programmes. The trusts turned a blind eye when the financial status weakened in 2015. Despite repeated requests from the TISS administration, the trusts has refused to support the institute financially,” a former administrator said. 

The trusts, however, did bail out TISS on two occasions in 2017 and 2018 when students strike brought the main campus in Mumbai to a halt, sources said.

“The trusts released an undisclosed amount on two occasions,” an administrator said, adding the TISS management approached the trusts for funds on more than a dozen occasions. 

A group of non-profits, Tata Trusts have a majority control of the $100 billion Tata Sons. These trusts have been working in disparate areas, including healthcare, education, energy, rural uplift and culture.  

As the Tatas didn’t have a say in TISS’ academic programmes, the trusts didn’t want to offer financial aid, a former administrator said. 

“The trusts has, however, been very benevolent in times of dire need, even though their financial mandate does not cover TISS anymore,” a former board member of the Trusts said.

The TISS-Mumbai management did not respond to HuffPost India’s queries. TISS-Hyderabad’s acting deputy director U Vindhya told HuffPost India that she was not privy to financial transactions between TISS and the Tata Trusts.

When contacted, a Tata Trusts spokesperson said, “The Tata Institute of Social Sciences was founded in 1936 by Tata Trusts with the assistance of University of Chicago. It was subsequently taken over and is now an institution of the Government of India. Along with the Trusts’ commitment to India’s livelihoods, health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, migration and urban habitat, social justice and inclusion, sports, arts, craft & culture, the Trusts, to the best of their abilities within limited resources, continue to support TISS every year. We do not declare individual grants”.     

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Changing academic climate 

In the Mumbai campus, the financial burden is telling on the academic climate, student leaders say.

“The composition of students enrolling in TISS has changed in the past few years. With the enrolment of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds getting affected by budget cuts in student aid, it is apparent that students who come into TISS are mostly elite,” a student leader, S Shefali, said.

In reply to an RTI query, the TISS administration admitted a drop in scheduled castes and scheduled tribes students, but didn’t release the corresponding numbers, Shefali said. A list of other backward classes’ students was not made available despite several RTI queries, she said.  

Shefali also accused the administration of interfering in “non-academic programmes”. “Strikes are now looked down upon. What is worse, even talks organised by student bodies or teachers associations, which criticise governmental policies are disrupted,” she said, adding the administration had stalled three such programmes between 2018 and 2019.

A former faculty member said that the administration had communicated on more than one occasion that activities on campus were under watch. “ ‘You are being watched’ someone literally told me once,” she said.

S Parasuraman, the former director of TISS, who is accused of having stopped talks on the campus, was not available for comment.

Hyderabad blues 

But, it is the Hyderabad campus, which has seen three student strikes in the past one year, where the mood is really grim. 

On July 15, the campus was shut down after students went on a strike demanding lower hostel fee. When the campus reopened 10 days later, 30 protesters were issued show-cause notices and some were barred from contesting student union elections.

The campus was in the news again on September 28, when a student who has been at the forefront of the protests, accused the administration of pushing her to the edge of suicide.

“Just because of your false intention, today at least I have reached a stage where I have to choose between giving up my life, dreams and all the struggles to reach this place or to continue pushing each day till I am able to,” she wrote on Facebook. The post was written shortly after two students filed complaints against her for allegedly discriminating against them and “assaulting them”. 

The institute doesn’t have a permanent campus in the city it is named after, students and former faculty members allege.

“The state government has asked the TISS management to detail out their construction plans for the Mamidipalli land, failing which the government plans to take back the allotted property,” a former faculty member said.

Principal secretary, education, Janardhan Reddy, told HuffPost India that the government was “aware of the land situation”, but had not taken a decision. The revenue department “will be looking into it”, he said.

Students worry that “the institution does not seem to care anymore”. TISS discontinued its undergraduate programme in Hyderabad in 2018. “After reopening the campus in July, the administration has turned very hostile toward students. It is likely to affect our future,” the student told HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity.

An earlier version of this story said in two places that the lease on the TISS Hyderabad campus was about to run out. This has been corrected.