Why We Should Stand With JNU Against UGC’s Admission Policy

Cutting down vacancies need not be the only way that the UGC specified supervisor-researcher ratio can be ensured.

Students protest outside the administrative building at JNU. Credit: Titash Sen

Students protest outside the administrative building at JNU. Credit: Titash Sen

A year ago, we witnessed police on the JNU campus, students in custody, foot-soldiers outside the gates, trolls and sections of media delivering judgement which raised a clamour for the university to be shut down. The government became the nation and the administration aspired to govern through issued orders and by suspending students. If the campaign to shut down the university had perturbed sections of academia then, there is no reason why they should not be deeply perturbed now.

Universities are being shut down now by creating mechanisms to keep students away from universities and tying up teachers’ hands. Continuing in the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry’s partisan tradition, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is spearheading a process with authoritarian university administrations as its foot-soldiers. The outcry that is consolidating in campuses today recognises the far reaching consequences of the UGC’s diktats on the country’s academia.

The UGC circulated a gazette notification in May, 2016, spelling out a set of regulatory measures for minimum standards and procedure for MPhil and PhD degrees, which is now, prior to new admissions, becoming instrumental in realising exclusion across campuses.

These set of guidelines are problematic, broadly in two counts –  it undermines the autonomy and democracy across campuses, where a heavy-handed framework does not take into account the existing institutional and departmental procedures that have evolved over time and, it fails to take into account the heterogeneity that exists in Indian academia, particularly in research across disciplines. In addition to this, the guidelines seek to bolster already authoritarian university administrations which stand as severed from the spirit of education as a means of social justice as they do in their understanding of research.

Campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which did not wait for the UGC or the government to set an example of an inclusive campus. JNU has been repeatedly identified as the country’s best university. It was only to be expected that the university would not allow its hard earned inclusive admission policy to be broken down.

An aspect of the UGC notification that has immediate effect on the upcoming admissions is the stipulation of a fixed teacher-student ratio. This might sound like a reasonable regulation, but in reality, it stands against creative and original research. The notification specifies the number of students a faculty member can supervise at any given point in time, and thus, sets a boundary on the teacher-student ratio. Setting guidelines rules can potentially contribute in creating less ambiguity across institutions, but, as argued acclaimed political scientist Gurpreet Mahajan, they could also weaken universities and irreparable harm to every sphere of the society.

In short, the one-size-need-fits-all approach that this notification reflects would be counter-productive for original research in Indian universities. By no means am I trying to put forward North American or European universities as models in higher education, but for those who keep on referring to MIT, Harvard or Oxford – can a national regulatory body issue rules to fix the number of students that one faculty member can supervise at these institutions? I understand that the context is different, but that is precisely the point that regulatory authorities like the UGC need to take into account before promulgating quick-fixes.

Further, the notification curtails autonomy. The role of a university administration is not to carry forward the government’s ideological and political agenda, but to protect the constitutional prerogatives of ensuring diversity and social justice in education while fortifying the autonomous and democratic functioning of a university. The current vice chancellor of JNU, however, has a history of failing the entire university community. Within weeks of assuming office, he invited the police inside the campus. Now, armed with the UGC notification, he is trying to wreck JNU’s inclusive admission policy on the whole.

JNU’s admission policy is the result of decades of debate and discussion and of struggles that the students-teachers had engaged with. It takes all forms of historic and social marginalinasations into account, reviews itself regularly, keeping social reality in account, so that students from deprived sections are not deprived of higher education. When most other universities are insensitive to these questions, JNU’s admission policy has emerged as a model.

JNU was formed by an Act of parliament. The academic council (AC) is the highest statutory body with regard to academic decisions. But the vice chancellor is violating all the existing norms, showing disregard to the AC, bypassing it to impose the UGC notification on JNU. The UGC notification and subsequent changes in admissions were never properly discussed in the AC meeting. Even the specific clause of ‘supervisor-researcher ratio’ was never discussed in the meeting. In short, the UGC circular has not been adopted by JNU’s various decision-making bodies. The massive seat-cut that the vice chancellor is pushing for, which would keep a large number of students out of the bounds of university, was never discussed with the student community. But the vice chancellor is continuing to lie through his teeth. Not only is he sabotaging the inclusive admission policy, but he is also misleading the entire nation.

The number of seats in JNU has been fixed as part of the implementation of the OBC reservation and the concomitant expansion of seats, infrastructure and faculty as was mandated by the 93rd amendment of the constitution. Besides, cutting down vacancies need not be the only way a certain specified supervisor-researcher ratio can be ensured. Students should not suffer simply because JNU delayed its faculty recruitment process or because both the UPA and the NDA governments in successive years, failed to increase funding and provide enough resources.

A university does not grow in the cradle of an idiosyncratic, authoritarian or conformist administration. It is the teachers and students, the academic community as a whole, that shape it over years – where the questions of inclusion and social justice are brought as guiding principles, it creates diversity, equity, flourishes creative research, and contributes to critical pedagogy. If connivance and manufacturing consent become an objective, a university fails society.

Satarupa Chakraborty is a researcher in Philosophy at the JNU, and the General Secretary of JNU Students’ Union.