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Universities & the end of social justice: Why must the recent happenings in JNU concern us?

Debaditya Bhattacharya | Updated on: 12 February 2017, 11:06 IST

It is high time that we realise that the constitutional commitment to public-funded education is not merely a question of enabling 'access' to knowledge-institutions - but, substantively, 'access' to infrastructures of 'quality' education.

The irony of public policy in our country lies in the fact that 'access' and 'quality' have effectively been divorced from each other - and our much-advertised government schemes (invoking the rhetorical flourish of a Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan or a Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) have been reduced to quantitative metrics of enrollment within regimes of bad education.

The statistical evidence thus manufactured in the form of Gross Enrollment Ratios (GER) and increased numbers of schools or colleges has simply gone on to subsume qualitative concerns about teaching-learning processes/infrastructures under numerical assumptions of 'reach'.

Put in clearer terms, the 'funding' of public education has been successfully delinked from what was once understood as the project of 'institution-building' - that is, the painstaking task of setting up 'good public institutions' - which may democratically empower future citizens and prepare them for social-economic mobility.

It is but commonsense therefore that government institutions, in facilitating access at lower/subsidised costs and to a potentially large 'mass', must necessarily imply lower and poorer knowledge-outcomes for their beneficiaries.

Good education, we argue, naturally involves greater costs and need not be accessible and affordable to all. This seemingly 'natural' order of things consigns the poor and the socially disadvantaged sections of the population (including women, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, queer and the working classes) to 'legitimately bad' education and consequently, into continued histories of intellectual damage or structures of life-long discrimination, exploitation and inequality.

The disappearance of 'quality' concerns from primary and secondary education in the country is thereafter easily translated into a question of 'merit' of individual incumbents seeking entry into higher education.

The anti-reservation debate within institutions of higher learning consists in a resolute denial of the social and structural pedigrees of 'merit', as well as institutional histories of reproducing 'incompetence' through what I called 'legitimately bad' education sponsored by governments.

In the process, the constitutional mandate of social justice is thrown to the wind - and the average middle-class taxpayer's conscience is made opaque to differences of social privilege that public revenues or public services are precisely aimed at redressing.

Auctioning admissions

The latest in a series of systematic attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) since the anointing of its current Vice-Chancellor in January last year, consists in destroying the public character of the university that has historically brought together policy-imperatives of access and quality.

The time-tested admissions policy of JNU has attempted to live up to the principles of social inclusion through a unique mechanism of awarding "deprivation points" to different categories of disadvantaged students, on the basis of gender, caste, religion, domicile and occupation.

JNU's admission process has in its own right become a model for ensuring social justice in the field of higher education across the country, in an effort to make the best of knowledge-resources be available at the lowest of costs.

It is this democratic spirit of social justice - as the declared aim of everyday negotiations within the university - that the current administration is hell-bent on erasing the memory of.

The recent Academic Council (AC) meetings of 23 and 26 December concluded precisely with an engineered mandate to transform the right to higher education into an entitlement of the privileged few.

The VC's bulldozing of serious changes into the structural policy of M.Phil./Ph.D admission - without allowing any discussion or debate on the issue - practically amounts to converting research-education from being a public good to a purchasable commodity afforded only by assumptions of both 'merit' and 'means'.

When a majority of the teachers present at the meeting raised these objections against an undemocratic hijacking of the proceedings by the VC, the Registrar issued a press release accusing the protesting members of having 'disrupted' the meeting and then went on to suspend nine students for entering the scene.

There were threats of disciplinary action thrown around at teachers for speaking to students on the issue at a public meeting, and it was claimed that the said AC meeting concluded with all agenda items "discussed and approved" - a patent lie!

A subsequent Executive Council (EC) meeting on 3 January, 2017 furthered the utter arbitrariness of institutional policy-making, first through a deployment of police forces outside the university premises and then a surreptitious change of venue for the said meeting.

The EC ended up ratifying the fudged-and-forced AC resolutions, before proposing an enquiry committee against professors for their crime of publicly addressing students in front of the administrative building.

Intellectual rights and the Hindu right

Now, what were these changes introduced into the admission policies of the university, and how do they attempt a death-blow to the public character of JNU?

Were these changes really warranted, as the university administration claimed, by the "5th May 2016 UGC gazette notification on admission procedures for various academic programmes and courses"?

The two-part procedure for research admissions in JNU currently insists on a 30% weightage for viva-voce marks, as opposed to the remaining 70% consisting in scores of the written entrance examination.

There was already a demand for further reduction of interview marks, in that the latter remained a potential opportunity for manipulating scores and regulating student-intake on the basis of subjective preferences and social prejudices of the interviewing faculty.

There have been cases of manipulation and social exclusion reported in the past (and as noted by an internal committee appointed by the VC himself!), and we all know how interviews are habitually the best instruments for preferential or prejudicial evaluation of candidates.

It has also been understandably observed that students who have been victims of systemic injustice through their growing years often lack the social-civil capital to muster a degree of self-possessive individualism necessary for interview encounters.

The relatively minimal margin of external influence on selection processes, made possible by reduced interview weightage, both standardised and objectivised JNU's policy of affirmative action on the basis of the applicant's written performance.

In this, it ensured a more thorough implementation of social justice principles and opened up research opportunities to those who have been traditionally denied the right to intellectual labour.

The 142nd AC meeting - deliberately convened during university vacations in order to ensure an under-representation of voices from the teaching community - concluded in utter mayhem, when the VC summarily overruled the opposition of members to declare a changed admission policy as passed.

Having suppressed voices of dissent at the meeting, the functioning of the highest statutory body (on matters of academic policy-making) was reduced to a unilateral exercise of emergency powers by the VC.

Apart from sly tweaks introduced within faculty recruitment processes thus empowering the VC to install his own stooges on selection panels, the eligibility-norms for admission into research programmes were thoroughly overhauled.

The new selection criteria not only curtailed the relative significance of the written entrance but practically made it an elimination-exercise towards the interview process that was now to carry 100% weightage.

Furthermore, a uniform cut-off of 50% was determined as the 'qualifying score' for the written test - thus doing away with all semblance of affirmative action in the form of 'deprivation points'.

The viva-voce, with its arbitrary parameters of subjective assessment by individual teachers, could now easily be used to keep away not just the socially disadvantaged (who might have escaped elimination at the written-stage) but also witch-hunt the politically 'branded' among internal applicants.

By fixing a homogeneous cut-off for all sections of incumbent students, even the government policy of reservation stands to be flouted in regulating entry into research-programmes.

Insofar as Dalit-Adivasi-poor students may be deliberately exempted from taking admission on the basis of interviewers' recommendations, the topics for potential research could also now be pre-scanned and selectively sanctioned as per larger ideological agendas of the Hindu Right.

It is no wonder therefore that among the agenda-items declared as 'passed' in the AC meeting was an unapproved Standing Committee report recommending fee-hike as well as a much-debated syllabus for certificate courses on Yoga philosophy.

What is under attack is, at the same time, access to and the quality of knowledges produced by a public university - and thus substituting its public character with the rationale of a Swachh Bharat swept clean of non-elite non-upper-caste non-Hindu non-male sections of the population.

'Minimum standards' as minimum access?

The university administration's continued reference to the May 2016 Gazette Notification of UGC as necessitating this policy-change is not just bad reasoning, but an inadequate defense on three specific grounds.

First, technically speaking, the mentioned document - appearing in the Gazette edition of 5 July - issues "guidelines" for "minimum standards and procedure for awards of M.Phil./Ph.D degree".

These guidelines, while being binding on central institutions of higher education, only mandate structural adherence and does not in any way prevent internal policy-regulations that are not in direct violation.

As Clause 5.3 maintains, admissions "shall be based on the criteria notified by the Institution" while only "keeping in view" UGC's guidelines/norms. Secondly, if structural compliance of UGC 'norms' is all that the notification warrants, JNU's existing policy was in no way deviant.

The much-cited Clause 5.4 of the notification only urges a "two-stage process" for research admission - a 'qualifying' written stage and a subsequent viva-voce. This mechanism was already in place in JNU, where only students who qualify the entrance are thereafter called for an interview.

The UGC guidelines do not, in any way, specify the relative weightage-ratios of the two for purposes of final selection - and therefore, universities are free to determine their own parameters of cumulative evaluation on the basis of the two stages.

That the 'qualifying' written exam must not count in the final computation of results is nowhere hinted at, nor is the viva-voce declared as the sole criterion for calculations of eligibility. A 'qualifying' exam technically means that it paves the way for a subsequent stage in the eligibility process, without necessarily and logically rendering itself null and void in overall determinations of candidature.

Third, the blanket cut-off prescribed as "qualifying marks" in the written exam (as per sub-clause 5.4.1) is obviously subject to the immediately preceding main Clause 5.3, which empowers institutions to notify their own criteria "by taking into account the reservation policy of the Central/State government from time to time".

Clause 5.1 of the same document vindicates this autonomy of universities and their own statutory bodies to "decide separate terms and conditions" for the Entrance Test of M.Phil programmes.

Going by the letter of the contentious UGC Notification, there appears no legal-technical reason for an AC meeting to even pass a resolution on it on the grounds that prescribed "minimum standards" were already met.

However, the UGC's May regulations were exactly calculated to produce such interpretive confusion and result in intentional policy-distortions. This was precisely why the timing of the former's public release was manipulated.

Though notified by the Commission on 5 May 2016, the text of these regulations was printed exactly two months later in July - when massive sections of the teaching community led by DUTA were waging a nation-wide campaign against another Gazette Notification of 10 May affecting appointments, working conditions and promotions of teachers.

The sinister guidelines for research admission were accurately timed so as to lose visibility or escape scrutiny within the climate of popular upsurge that had already brought the government to its knees, and begun moulding public opinion.

Precedents in policy

If the UGC notification could have been carefully interpreted as not indicting the JNU model of admissions, why then did the administration take such pains to forcefully ratify it (both in the AC and subsequent EC meetings) at the cost of alienating, silencing, threatening and punishing the student-teacher community?

The answers may be found in a slew of 'academic reforms' in the recent past, which seek to re-configure universities as self-financed spaces of consumption and research opportunities as only accessible to those who can afford to pay their way through it.

In October 2015, a full commission meeting of the UGC had decided to discontinue research fellowships for M.Phil./Ph.D, thus de-incentivising a research career and discouraging the entry of socially marginalised students into the field.

Though the then-MHRD-minister was forced to relent in the face of unprecedented student protests, the UGC's bursaries were soon further axed in the next Union Budget 2016-17, in order to informally push towards privatising higher education.

The non-plan budgetary allocations for the regulatory body were slashed by nearly 65%, while the estimates for planned expenditure were roughly fixed at the same limit as the year before.

This only meant that the UGC's purse-strings were to get tighter over its disbursals to central universities, thus encouraging more and more revenue-generation from within campus communities.

Such curtailing of resources for public universities was exactly in line with the World Trade Organization's mandate in favour of private multinational trade investment in higher education, urging a withdrawal of state spending on social services.

The GATS framework, under which Indian higher education has been 'offered' to the global market, insists on a 'level playing field' for private players through reduction of subsidies for national institutions.

Interestingly, the move towards official contractions in government expenditure was also accompanied by the setting up of a loaning body like Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) in September last year.

The latter, by linking infrastructural investment in higher education with the debt market, went on to justify revenue-increase through "internal accruals" (like fee-hike) in order to repay institutional loans.

Beyond nostalgias

Given the unabashed championing of the paying clientele within public policy discourses around higher education and research, the present attempts at 'sanitising' JNU and its rights of access are quite of a piece.

The social justice policies that have contributed to JNU's public character by combining the demographics of 'access' with fantasies of 'excellence' need not be a matter of pride (as most of us JNUites tend to believe!), but a painful reminder of its singularity.

The more we hold on to the 'idea of JNU', the greater the reason for us to lament that there is very little of that idea that survives in most other universities of this country today.

And greater therefore is the responsibility to clutch on to the 'idea' - not of JNU as an Edenic retreat against the wasteland that is Indian public education - but of its roots in a measure of historical justice. Because every idea contains at the same time a dangerous desire for circulation.

And therefore, the hope for it to infiltrate an other space, an other time, and - in the end - an other politics.

The author teaches literature to undergraduate students in a Calcutta University college.

First published: 15 January 2017, 8:14 IST