JNU Is Changing – but for Better or for Worse?

Reforms introduced by JNU's BJP-appointed vice-chancellor, ostensibly aimed at curbing left-wing politics, may affect its academic standing.

JNU VC M. Jagadesh Kumar. Credit: Twitter

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is one of India’s best universities. Known famously for its strength in the humanities and social sciences and infamously as a hotbed of left-wing politics, JNU is more than a sum of both. Last year, with a cumulative grade points average of 3.77, the institution received A++ grade, the highest possible, from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, topping the list of universities across India. In the National Institutional Ranking Framework, it competed exceedingly well against the Indian Institute of Science and the IITs to finish among the top 10 institutions in the country.

University rankings are influenced by an institution’s research performance in the sciences, engineering and medicine. It is evident that JNU’s lesser known science departments do quite well in terms of research. In sum, whatever JNU’s flaws, no more than a couple of comprehensive institutions in the country come remotely close in terms of academic performance.

Given JNU’s status as a leading institution, the bad press it gets is quite astonishing. Much of the smear is because JNU politics has been historically dominated by left-wing politics, and left-wing ideas remain popular among JNU students and faculty. It is hard to come across any serious criticism based on the university’s academic performance, but criticism is aplenty. It is almost as if critics of JNU have determined that while the typical academic institution must be judged by its ranking or by some other marker of academic quality, JNU must be judged solely on the basis of the strength and disruptive power of left-wing ideology and politics.

Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP government at the Centre seems to have decided that JNU needs to be ‘fixed’, not so much in terms of improving its academic standing, but by decimating both left-wing student politics and left-wing ideas. In its zeal to accomplish this goal, vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar has tried to implement poorly-disguised measures for the purpose of improving the quality of education, but which are actually aimed at marginalizing the left. While the long-term effects of these initiatives cannot be predicted, it is certain that JNU, as we know it, will change as a result, for better or for worse.

Three such recent initiatives by the JNU administration involve ‘tampering’ with faculty selection committees, introducing compulsory attendance and the decision to introduce engineering and management programmes at the university. All three typify the administration’s efforts to neutralize the left rather than address academic issues.

First, breaking away from prior practice and allegedly in violation of University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines, Kumar has been meddling with faculty appointments. He has interfered with faculty selection committees to ensure that left-inclined faculty members – in particular those with PhDs from JNU – are not hired as faculty members. What seems to have happened as a result of these interventions is that less-qualified people have been appointed members of selection committees and they have selected new faculty on the singular basis of their remoteness or antipathy to left-wing ideas or connections. The issue here is not that left-leaning or home-grown candidates are being rejected by selection committees but that merit has taken a backseat.

There has been an argument in the past that faculty appointments were biased in favour of home-grown left-wing applicants. That did not, however, prevent JNU from becoming one of India’s top 10 institutions, perhaps because left-wing appointees were not entirely lacking in merit. The worry is that the current lot of faculty appointments are being made with utter disregard for merit and this will hurt JNU’s academic performance over time.

Second, the introduction of 75% compulsory attendance earlier this year has nothing to do with addressing JNU’s academic problems but is aimed at expelling left-wing students from the university. The JNU administration seems to assume naively that campus politics is dominated by the left because students belonging to, or sympathetic of, left-wing parties have the time to participate in politics. They think that these students accomplish this by not attending classes. Further, they assume that if students are made to attend 75% of their classes, they will no longer have the time for student meetings, indoctrinating new students or participating in demonstrations. And if they choose not to attend lectures, they will eventually be unable to sit for exams and expelled. If this is indeed the logic behind pushing for compulsory attendance, it is silly.

The truth is that students of all ideological persuasions will be hurt by compulsory attendance. Those belonging to right-wing parties will also have less time to attend meetings, etc., if they are to attend 75% of their lectures. It is not surprising that the opposition to compulsory attendance among the students cuts across party lines.

Students attend classes because not doing so hurts their grades, which in turn impacts their life in small or big ways. Students at JNU and at other Indian universities are casual about attendance because it is possible for them to perform reasonably well without attending classes. Thus, the problem at JNU has more to do with how post-graduate courses are structured, taught and evaluated. Addressing this requires adopting a different set of measures but JNU has refused to do that.

Third, JNU’s decision to seek permission from the UGC to introduce engineering and management is a more long-term initiative to curb the influence of left-wing politics. While some have praised this move, those with a romantic view of what JNU is, or ought to be, have strongly criticised it. But since engineering and management students are not known to have much affinity to left-wing ideas, their larger presence on campus will undoubtedly weaken the influence of the left. At the same time, the introduction of engineering and management at JNU is likely to make it more diverse and an even better institution.

There is no doubt that the JNU’s left-wing politics often plays a disruptive role, much to the annoyance of the average student or faculty member. It is also true that JNU has probably underperformed in many ways. Despite this, JNU’s academic environment has been ranked as one of the best in the country.

What JNU needs is a package of reforms that place the academic performance of the institution at the centre. This is clearly not the intent of the current administration. The irony is that some of the new policy initiatives,  such as introduction of programmes in engineering and management, though intended to dilute or decimate the left, may actually serve to improve the academic standing of JNU. Other measures however will hurt academics. On balance, it is certain that some of these reforms will change JNU. Whether for better or for worse, only time can tell.

Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.