Amid Political Interference and Obsession With Ranking, Our Academic Culture is in Serious Trouble

We need a new awakening – a movement to be initiated by eager students and concerned teachers to restore the spirit of education and create a vibrant culture of learning.

Recently, a student of mine who teaches at a central university expressed his anguish. “Except meaningful teaching and research”, as he said, ” everything else is important – uploading the attendance register of students, organising programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or surgical strike day, and sending the video to the concerned authority as a proof of our loyalty”. Another student who teaches at a college in Delhi University faces something similar. “Sir, where is the time for study? It seems that the only thing we have to do is prepare and produce the documents – often with the art of packaging – for showcasing the department in front of the NAAC committee.”  

Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor of a central university in Bihar has been alleged to have falsified his academic achievements. Also, in one of the most celebrated universities in the country, a Hindutva activist has been appointed as a visiting professor while professor Ramachandra Guha has had to say ‘no’ to Ahmedabad University because the RSS student-wing, as it is reported, does not want this ‘anti-national’ historian to teach at Ahmadabad.

Amid this absurdity and pathology, all sorts of ‘experts’ (and everyone – from the section officer in the ministry to the businessman with dubious records – can target teachers for their ‘laziness’ and ‘inefficiency’, and this seems to be the favourite pastime of the Indian middle-class always oriented to the ‘efficiency’ of the West) would complain that we are nowhere because our universities do not get good ‘ranking’.

Also read: How JNU Administration is Scuttling Reservation and Academic Freedom

With the booming business of private universities (I am not including the exceptions) as education shops and ‘troubled’ public universities like HCU, JNU, Jadavpur, Aligarh and Manipur, we find ourselves in an academic culture that deteriorates every moment with wrong priorities, degradation of the vocation of teaching, political interference in the appointment of vice-chancellors, the techno-managerial practice of documenting and measuring everything – from attendance to lesson plan, from fund-raising projects to placement history and the obsession with ranking affecting severely the self-perception of an institution.

This must change. Possibly, we need a new awakening – a movement to be initiated by eager students and concerned teachers to restore the spirit of education and create a vibrant culture of learning. However, this needs honest contemplation and reflection.

We, the teachers

To begin with, I must admit that not everything is good with us. With empty classrooms, demotivated students, disinterested teachers, shallow curriculum, routinisation of exams as ceremonies of certification and mass distribution of degrees, many of our colleges/universities remind us of something that is fundamentally wrong with higher education. It is also true that as teachers, many of us have failed to do our jobs meaningfully. With bad and non-inspiring teaching, using ‘notes’ and ‘guidebooks’ (these days, Google) and blaming students continually for our own lack of interest in critical pedagogy, we are no less responsible for the growth of a negative perception about the teaching community.

However, at a deeper level, the problem lies somewhere else. As a society, we have not yet learnt to give dignity to the vocation of teaching and the realm of education. Is it the reason why at the moment of his arrival, the most ‘powerful’ prime minister did not think twice before choosing someone known not for her work in the field of education, but primarily for her performance in a popular soap opera as the human resource development minister?

Furthermore, be it the feudal obsession with the ‘official’/ ‘administrative’ power (the imagery of a ‘district collector’ surrounded by hundreds of constables), the market-induced urge for ‘lucrative’ careers (the MBA phenomenon), or the gendered discourse that distinguishes non-glamorous ‘soft’/ ‘feminine’ teaching from the glitz of ‘hard’/ ‘masculine’/’ professional’ work (the matrimonial columns reveal this hierarchy so sharply) – the reasons for the degradation of the vocation of teaching are many. In the hierarchy of occupations, teaching – even university teaching – is not seen to be as good as the job a techno-manager, a banker or even an income tax inspector does.

New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar coming out of his office at JNU on Thursday after being gheraoed by students protesting over missing varsity student Najeeb Ahmed. Credit: PTI (PTI10_20_2016_000287B)

Our universities need to be emancipated from politically appointed vice-chancellors. Credit: PTI

The consequences of this harsh reality are obvious. See the way teachers are treated. Talk to guest lecturers or ad-hoc teachers in Delhi (at times, even ‘smart’ students crack jokes on them) or see the way a private university compels a junior teacher to function essentially as a clerk (recently, as I was told, a young teacher in a private university left her job because she could not bear it anymore as the management told her to bring new students and earn some extra money – the way an insurance agent finds new clients and earns more for it). Even in a ‘privileged’ university, one hardly gets adequate infrastructure (imagine how finance officers and accountants make you run even for spending Rs 1000 – the money allotted per year for buying the stationary) for doing one’s work more meaningfully. Is it the reason why for many youngsters, teaching as a vocation is not their first choice? It seems we are caught into a vicious circle. While our lack of enthusiasm diminishes the dignity of the vocation, society as a whole further reproduces it by hierarchising, differentiating and stigmatising us .’Good’ salary, no work – that is the stereotype.

Again, the educational scenario has further degenerated because of undue political interference. Its worst manifestation can be seen in the appointment of the vice-chancellors. It is despairing that as a nation we seem to have expertise in the skill of destroying our universities by choosing the vice-chancellors (once again, I am not speaking of the remarkable exceptions) who are by no means great educators in tune with fundamental sciences, liberal arts and social context of learning.

Also read: Jawaharlal Nehru University – We are Dying, Mr. Vice-Chancellor

Instead, socio-political networking, affiliation with the ruling regime, sycophancy and proximity with power characterise them. As a result, two things happen which cause great damage to the academic culture. First, they tend to suffer from terrible inferiority complex. As they cannot relate to good teachers, great historians or mathematicians, involved professors and committed academicians, they seek to hide this sense of loss through the exercise of arbitrary power – interfering in the selection committee, erecting a wall of separation between the administrators and students/teachers, dividing the teaching community by generating the fear of victimisation, and above all, destroying the higher objectives of university life because of their loyalty to the ruling regime.

Second, as the leadership suffers from legitimisation crisis, the culture of the university becomes toxic, the quality of teaching/research suffers and with the taboo on creative/pedagogic dissent, mediocrity is reinforced. Speak less of good books, vibrant classes and good research. Instead, feel happy in doing election duty, organising the state-directed programmes and clapping as the VC hoists the national flag and preaches nationalism. Bad vice-chancellors, it seems, are determined murderers of the spirit of higher education.

Ranking for what, for whom?

Not solely that. In the age of competitiveness, quantification, foreign universities as reference points and the middle-class striving for ‘recognition’ from the ‘international’ forum, another disease has inflicted the academic culture – the disease of ranking. As I raise my voice against this obsession with ranking (ten ‘best’ universities, ten ‘centres of eminence’, ten’ top’ colleges – almost like ten top beauty queens), I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am not saying that quality is unimportant, nor am I saying that expansion of horizon, or learning from others, or critical self-evaluation is irrelevant. I am saying something else.

First, there is no uniform/standardised scale of ranking because each institution, depending on its historical and social location, has its unique mission. To take a simple, yet revealing illustration, a university like JNU cannot and should not be compared with a university in the first world precisely because here our task is qualitatively different – bringing higher education closer to many first-generation learners from the marginalised sections of a terribly divided society, evolving a point of mediation between vernacular traditions and knowledge disseminated through English, and bringing the university closer to the specific needs of the local community.

Also read: Autonomy in Higher Education, a Trojan Horse for Privatisation

As a teacher, if I succeed in tapping the linguistic/cultural capital of a tribal student from Jharkhand, create an enabling environment for her to get the best from the university and give it back to her community, I would think that I have done a good work, even if it does not help my university get a ranking on the basis of a standard defined by others. Likewise, if, for instance, a leading IIT insulates itself from people’s needs by producing engineers and technologists more suited for the American market rather than our unique conditions, its good international ranking, I would not hesitate to say, does not prove anything.

As a society, we have not yet learnt to give dignity to the vocation of teaching and the realm of education. Credit: Facebook

Second, with our obsession with ranking, we often fail to ask a deeper and uncomfortable question: Does the knowledge we produce and feel proud of to get this ranking really liberate us? Why is it that despite the presence of top ranking universities filled with the galaxy of Nobel laureates in the US, it remains the most violent nation in the world in terms of its military conquest and invasion of other territories? Or why is it that despite Oxford and Cambridge, the British engaged in the violent practice of colonising the world? Or why was it that the scientists and engineers from the best universities in Hitler’s Germany were involved with the holocaust? In this context, I often feel that my schoolteacher – an unknown person in an unknown school – who inspired me to see sunrise and sunset with wonder and understand both poetry and science – was God’s gift to me. I do not bother to know his bio-data or ‘ranking’.

Third, the obsession with ranking has generated chronic self-doubt amongst us, and instead of working on ourselves, we are either living with wounded consciousness or continually trying to defeat others. If Miranda House gets a higher ranking than LSR, what should an LSR teacher do? Or if Amity gets a better ranking than Jadavpur, is the latter really bad? Should it start another placement cell, construct a golf garden, use a hell lot of money for advertising on a television channel, ask its professors to get more projects? Working according to one’s unique mission, working honestly, evolving and blooming naturally – these silent and intense practices of academic life become secondary, instead, the ‘projection of achievements’ and ‘self-advertisement’ become the major focus for charming the agencies that rank and hierarchise us.

No, we need not shed tears for ‘poor ranking’. Instead, we should concentrate on something deep and fundamental. It is important to respect teachers, trust their autonomy, understand the specificity of the vocation and create a socio-economic environment that encourages young/vibrant/creative minds to join the vocation.

We need more teachers with self-dignity, not contractual labourers with perpetual insecurity. Likewise, we ought to rethink ‘knowledge’ – its deeper socio-political/epistemological/existential meaning, and its relationship with social history and people’s aspirations. We need to free our universities from mindless techno-bureaucrats who understand only the language of uniformity (same curriculum, same exam, same MCQ); we need to appreciate the beauty of diversity and creative openness – say, inviting poets (even without NET or PhD) as visiting professors of literature, urging the likes of Medha Patkar to teach a course on social movement, abolishing the highly oppressive and non-reflexive examination like NET for recruiting teachers, establishing a sustained relationship between the university and the local community, and appreciating the fundamental truth that not everything about academic life is for measurement, publication in journals with high ‘impact factor’ and ranking.

And finally, our universities need to be emancipated from politically appointed vice-chancellors. When those who are essentially against the higher ideal of education begin to dictate the terms, darkness descends. Everything falls apart.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of Sociology at JNU.