The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) administration recently took the bold step of making 75% attendance compulsory for students. Students and teachers have vehemently opposed the decision. They have written against compulsory attendance, protested in large numbers and taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger. And finally, students decided to vote on the issue. On March 8, 4,456 students had their say: 4,388 (98.7%) against, 41 (0.92%) in favour.
While student/teacher protests or votes should not determine policy, it is time to take a step back on the compulsory attendance issue at JNU to ask some basic questions.
Is the decision of the JNU administration to introduce compulsory attendance a wise decision? Will it help improve the university’s academic performance? Could the objective of imposing compulsory attendance at an institution primarily devoted to postgraduate studies and research be something other than academic?
JNU is one of the best universities in the country – but it also suffers from major limitations. A of major problem that has persisted for a long time is that of scores of students remain on campus for far too long. Many are those who prioritise politics over academics. Many other students spend many years on campus to prepare for competitive exams or to look for jobs. A smaller number simply make JNU their home while working full-time outside the campus. They are sometimes able to spend nearly a decade on campus either by remaining registered as PhD students pretending to be busy with research or by getting admitted to a new programme after completing the current one.
The JNU administration believes that most students who stay on campus for many years are politically active and left-wing. The truth is that they are a mixed lot. What is obvious is that these students – whose priority is clearly not academics – benefit from generous subsidies, whether low student fees or hostel space, at the expense of other potential students. The compulsory attendance policy is targeted at such ‘lingerers’.
Most of the better universities in the world – whether or not subsidised by the government – do not require compulsory attendance at the postgraduate level (and often at the undergraduate level, too) because students are expected to know that poor attendance or absenteeism impacts adversely on academic performance. This is not true for postgraduate studies at most Indian universities, including many schools and departments at JNU. It is possible for students to perform reasonably well without attending lectures even when postgraduate taught in about the same way as institutions abroad because faculty members, administration and students prefer to go through the motions of following existing rules and regulations.
According to a JNU professor, “In a worst-case scenario, a student can get a degree without attending a single class or draw scholarships worth tens of thousands of rupees a month without doing any work or even coming to the university, except occasionally, to have some papers signed by the supervisor.” But this observation begs the question: how is it possible for a student to get a degree at a reputed institution without attending a sufficient number of classes?
The problem seems to be more about how our universities – including JNU – function than about making attendance mandatory. Compulsory attendance avoids the harder task of making departments at JNU more accountable in terms of how easily they grant degrees or allow PhD students several years of extension while they do things other than research.
The problem with the attendance policy is that it goes against the ethos of research-focused institutions like JNU. It has also been badly designed and could hurt students who are genuinely engaged in research.
The compulsory attendance rule is also for students who have completed their coursework and are engaged in research and writing towards their MPhil or PhD. While those in the sciences stream must come to the department to work in their laboratories, those in the social sciences and humanities often need to do field research, which involves working in other libraries or carrying out research – around the country. On paper, however, department heads may give permission to students to be away on field research but the idea of securing permission to do so is problematic.
Compulsory attendance for students at the research and writing stage takes away students’ freedom to carry out research and writing at any time of their choosing. For example, a student may wish to work in the laboratory or in their hostel room until late at night – but with the new rules, she must wake up on time to go to the department only to sign a register and then return to catch up on sleep. This is silly.
The kind of attendance regimen JNU has come up with for postgraduate students – particularly those who are in the research/writing stage – is unheard of and will be detrimental to research performance. Ideally, the attendance requirement should be scrapped for postgraduate students. Instead, a strict time-frame for MPhil and PhD programmes, determined in a sensible way for different disciplines, needs to be enforced, particularly for subsidised stay on campus. Beyond the five- or six-year period, the PhD student should not be permitted subsidised stay on campus.
The JNU administration needs to understand that the compulsory attendance policy in its current form is deeply flawed and scrap it.
Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.