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Two events caught my undergraduate teacher’s eye in the last couple of months: one, a farewell and the other, a cancellation.
On the evening of July 31, a video trended on Facebook of professor Keval Arora, an English teacher and theatre society faculty advisor of Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. When Arora walked out of the classroom on the day of his retirement, a huge group of his former students was waiting outside to pay their love and respects.
The person receiving all that adulation wasn’t an accomplished author most cited in recognised journals (he didn’t even complete his doctoral pursuits). Nor was he a public celebrity of any stature. But his students from over the last 40 years were lining up outside, overwhelmed with gratitude and marking, with their presence, the critical expertise, creative energy and emotional richness conversations with him had brought to their lives.
The video summed up the beautiful possibility of the campus as a space of growth.
On August 26, a division bench of the Kerala high court cancelled the appointment of one of the state’s most prominent public intellectuals, noted Dalit-feminist scholar-activist, Rekha Raj, to the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahathma Gandhi University, Kerala – an appointment that had gained special attention as she was an SC candidate who made it in an unreserved seat.
The basic eligibility criteria for the post was 55% marks in the National Eligibility Test (NET). As per University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, even if a candidate hasn’t cleared the NET, she may be considered for the post if she has a PhD. Further, the University decided that since a PhD is part of the basic eligibility criteria, such candidates would not be given the extra marks in the evaluation that are given to PhD holders who had qualified with the NET. This is how the practice has been.
The division bench disagreed with this view and insisted that a NET-less candidate also be given the extra marks for her PhD. Further, the court also reduced the marks awarded to Raj for her publications, citing technicalities. All these factors altered the rank list for the post, resulting in the court directing that Raj be dismissed and the second place candidate, Nisha Velappan Nair, be appointed to the position.
More than the technicalities, what I found strange was that the court didn’t feel the need to consult the body of experts that had been duly constituted for the interview, nor did it regard the autonomy of interview board in making its decision. The total disregard for the interview board was quite appalling.
I want to table my arguments around the changes in the Indian university system keeping these two instances at both ends – one, a fulfilling culmination and the other, an abrupt ejection – as I go on to formulate my argument: that what we are witnessing now could be the ‘demonetisation’ of Indian public universities.
The wrongs in the educational scenario echo the reasons declared for the Union government’s demonetisation exercise in 2016: there were fake currencies (read inflated marks and quality-less qualifications), corruption (read nepotism and bribes) and unaccounted-for wealth (read inaccessibility of certain sections). And these charges are not without any merit.
Whether the solution lies in a sort of demonetisation or in the soft bulldozing of institutions is a different matter for another time. First, let me list out four reasons that have deeply contributed to the making of these conditions: COVID-19, the Common University Entrance Test (CUET), the National Education Police (NEP) 2020, and National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) accreditation.
It is important to recognise that the presence of phenomenal mentors of the Keval Arora-kind was made possible by a university system that envisaged universities as spaces where different experiences, ideas and responses of the student body come together to create newer actions and energies, while developing certain skills and perspective for the student to think within their chosen discipline.
In the construction of a vibrant and rigorous space, one of the most important factors is one of the least dramatic: the academic calendar. A single calendar allows students to come together, spend time in the classroom and library, participate in extra-curricular activities and thus, become a collective. For this, students across different years need to have their classes together, go on preparation leave, take exams and go off for vacations, all at the same time.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought in many lasting damages in our higher education system. First, it de-synchronised the different batches of students, making first, second and third year classes start at different points.
While it is true that COVID is to blame, what is upsetting is the total inattentiveness of university leadership and regulatory authorities to the loss of a collective space – they seem to think that finishing portions, conducting exams and declaring results constitute the only work of a university.
If COVID taught us one thing it is that each individual’s health is a social concern. It should follow that participatory, consultative mechanisms are the only way to break out and get ahead. Instead, the government seems to have gone towards mindless centralisation and the CUET, the common entrance test for central universities which relegates the ‘Plus Two’ course into a basic qualifying-mark provider, is case in point.
If 45 central universities need one common entrance test, as it makes things easier for student applicants, then the faculty of all these universities, with different disciplinary specialities, orientations and histories, should have worked together to formulate the question papers. Instead, a test designed by an agency with no participation from any of these universities, has been launched.
The third reason is the NEP. This policy uses fancy words such as ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, ‘innovation’, ‘multi-disciplinarity’, ‘holistic education’ and ‘global scenario’ to reformulate universities as a sort of academic mall for students to shop around. This so-called ‘fluidity’ is going to scuttle any academic autonomy and sense of belongingness to a collective, and give total control of the space to the administration. These fancy words are likely to goose-step teachers and students out of the frame of their educating conversations.
The last and the oldest contributor to the state of the university today is the NAAC – introduced in 1994 – and its total disregard for the work that happens in classrooms and campuses.
NAAC, in its evaluations of higher education centres, looks for the publications and seminar presentations of teachers, documented proof for ever-so new methods, missions and declarations of visions that are supposed to make each institution “one of a kind”.
This makes teachers abandon their primary duty of being there with students and makes them clerks, submerged under pointless paperwork for the scrutiny of NAAC experts. If something is not documentable, quantifiable and presentable in the NAAC report, it’s as though it didn’t happen. To satiate this need to present and publish, journals and conferences have mushroomed in our country and most in academe would agree that their sole purpose is NAAC points.
The inability to understand and respect campus space, its rigour, confidence and mutual accountability, is what prompts bureaucratic impositions on higher education. And these notions make judgements, such as in the case of Raj, possible. The new higher educational horizon, genetically incapable of valuing – or even accommodating – a Keval Arora, will lead to the devaluing of academic bodies and communities, and create more Rekha Rajs.
There is no claiming that the Indian education system has been, traditionally, egalitarian or inclusive. It has also been an area where historical social inequalities created by feudal-caste nexuses were largely maintained and perpetrated, and greedy managements, unfair politicians, lazy teachers, selfish parents and populist notions have all contributed to this.
Ethical critique, timely updation and quality correction are clearly in order, but wasting these historically formed spaces through policy impositions and hurried decrees is not a counter move; it is simply being contrarian.
If we want our public universities not to be demonetised, the campus space has to be owned and activated in the pursuits of knowledge dissemination and creation.
N.P.Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.