Friday, August 14, 2015

It’s High Time We Learned Something From our Students

What did the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) have in mind when it reportedly told the striking students of Pondicherry University that academic violations by their Vice-Chancellor had nothing to do with them and would not affect their degrees? Surely the quality of academic leadership has some bearing on the quality of education an institution provides, and if not, then why waste tax payer money on the salaries and allowances of V-Cs, directors and chairpersons of academic institutions?
It is heartening that the young are not buying the MHRD’s warped logic. The sustained agitation by the Film and Television Institute of India students against Gajendra Chauhan and other members of the FTII society, and in favour of transparent criteria for selection, is well known. Less covered, but equally important, is the strike by the students and faculty of Pondicherry University protesting the fake CV and plagiarism of their V-C, Chandra Krishnamurthy, appointed by the previous UPA government and kept in power by the current NDA regime. Earlier, the students of the postgraduate English department at Delhi University had complained about the quality of faculty recruitment after some particularly egregious appointments by the Vice-Chancellor.
Students know that once an institution has lost its reputation due to academic scandals, their degrees mean nothing, especially in a globally competitive world. More fundamentally, when students begin to feel a sense of foreboding at the value of the education they are getting – the feeling that while they may get a degree, it will ultimately teach them nothing of real value – the crisis is even greater. If students are unable to respect their teachers and administrators, they will ultimately be unable to respect themselves.
The fact that it is students who are raising the question of qualifications and transparency is sad. Must they alone bear the burden of attempting to maintain educational standards, without help from those whose job it is? Over a period of time, of course, as standards drop, even the young get contaminated by the general atmosphere of mediocrity and patronage the system thrusts upon them. Those who survive with critical minds do so in spite of, rather than because of, the education they receive.
Standing up for standards
When the FTII society includes members like Narendra Pathak, who is appointed for no other reason than that he is the President of the ABVP in Maharashtra, the students have cause to be worried. The ABVP’s recent disruption of a film show on Muzaffarnagar at Kirori Mal College in Delhi because it showed the Hindu Right in bad light, is just one in a series of ABVP and allied Hindutva attacks on readings, seminars, and films. This shows clearly the kind of educational atmosphere they think is fitting for young minds: closed, intolerant and aggressive.
When the wife of the Education Minister of Chhattisgarh is caught using an impersonator and the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s only reaction is that the minister shouldn’t be blamed since he didn’t write the exam himself, what signal does this send out to lakhs of university aspirants in the state? That cheating is fine so long as you belong to the ruling party?
For a government which came in on the promise of ‘Make in India’ and providing jobs for the young, its handling of education is nothing short of amazing. Rural schools are being shut down across BJP ruled states – 17,000 in Rajasthan, 3000 in Chhattisgarh – and it is doubtful whether the children of these villages will develop the literacy needed to compete even in a menial job market. As KP Kannan has pointed out, the recently released socio economic caste census (SECC) reveals that 68% of India is ‘low educated’, or has studied less than middle school. Most of these are adivasi, dalit, OBC and minority children.
The chimera of ‘world class’
At the level of higher education, the self-goals are equally apparent, and date as much from the previous government as from this one. We claim that we want ‘world class universities’ and complain that Indian universities do not figure in the top 200 rankings.
The term ‘world class’ is problematic because it embodies a hegemonic approach rather than admitting diverse educational traditions. For the sake of argument, however, if we assume that the American university system creates exemplars of ‘world-class’ education, why not emulate it in a more fundamental sense than just having a four-year degree? On the one hand, we recognise that evaluation of faculty by students is a desirable global practice; on the other hand, the government insists that it is beyond the competence of students to comment on the egregiously low standards of V-Cs or chairpersons.
The government speaks of incubating innovation, but which world-class educational system imposes a uniform syllabus on all the universities in the country? What the government is doing in the name of the choice based credit system (CBCS) is reducing universities to a chain of glorified coaching centres, or at best a souped up version of high school.
Even as there is constant change – from the semester system to the four-year program to the CBCS – there is also an almost permanent stultification, so that terms like choice and interdisciplinarity acquire a mocking, even sinister, edge. For instance, at the postgraduate level in Delhi University, 50% of the intake has to consist of DU students who took that subject for their undergraduate degree. We can no longer choose our entire student body on the basis of an open admission test, a practice which in the past has created welcome diversity in the classroom, and a basic inter-disciplinarity in research as a student progresses. At the undergraduate level, teachers say they are unable to offer a range of options because class-room space is limited, faculty strength is not adequate, and there is absolutely no clarity on what they are supposed to teach under the CBCS.
In terms of faculty recruitment, a committee of five professors is mandated to ‘shortlist’ applicants, but our intellectual input is limited to grading them in six categories which have already been decided by the UGC, depending on their BA and MA marks and whether they have taken the NET exam. Their Academic Performance Index (API) scores form the basis for the next round of mechanical shortlisting. The Vice- Chancellor decides on the experts who will form the selection panel. This is meant to be on the basis of faculty recommendations, but an autocratic V-C can make his or her own choices, as the Delhi University V-C has been doing. Increasingly, moreover, instructions are sent from above – from the ministries and elsewhere – to ‘accommodate’ certain persons in teaching posts, which is duly effected through hand-picked experts. Some places like JNU are still autonomous in practice, but how long this will last remains to be seen. DU has long since fallen.
It is assumed that left to themselves, teachers are biased or nepotistic and cannot be trusted to recruit colleagues or evaluate students. Not only do those who want to subvert the system find multiple ways of doing so, but the suspicion becomes self-fulfilling. We have become so accustomed to being factotums of a university bureaucracy that many of us have forgotten, if we ever knew, how to use our own judgment.
So what we have is a nanny educational system in which neither faculty not students have much of a say but in which administrators and their political and bureaucratic masters call all the shots.
The inescapable conclusion is that we, as a society, really have no desire to be world class or even Asia class. We just want to be ‘time pass’, to borrow the evocative title of a book by Craig Jeffrey. The business establishment and much of the Indian elite has long withdrawn from Indian higher education in not just the financial but physical sense; expensive private schools groom students almost exclusively to go abroad; and philanthropists prefer to give their money to American Ivy Leagues or British universities, in a clear act of secession from the Indian educational universe.
The only thing we are ‘making in India’ is a mediocre educational system which will eventually come back to haunt us.