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India: A Strategy To Cripple A Seat of Learning

by Mukul Mangalik, 4 June 2013

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The Telegrqph, 4 June 2013

The four-year undergraduate programme, meant to be in place from July, is being thrust upon Delhi University in an undemocratic manner, writes Mukul Mangalik

“A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever-higher objectives.” — Jawaharlal Nehru.

Work in colleges and universities is meant to be about reading, writing, discussions, arguments and processes of learning how to think and how to choose patiently and without fear. It is meant to bring the universe to young minds, provoking them to ‘get out of bed, out of deep habitual sleep’, take stock of their talents and passions, pursue the disciplines of their choice with depth and ‘work to grow’ in ways that are true to their evolving selves. It is meant to give students and teachers the opportunity to “lean and loaf at ease observing a spear of summer grass” (loafing being the colloquial equivalent of contemplation), making the ‘insides of their heads interesting places for themselves for the rest of their lives’.

This is why perhaps processes of reform in higher education — dealing as these must with journeys of the mind and imagination, with the university as a site of knowledge creation and justice — have to proceed with patience, thoughtfulness and a deep regard for debate and substantive democracy.

This being true, all that has been happening in Delhi University in the name of ‘academic interest’ over the last two years has been anti-academic and inimical to a public university, which, in spite of all its flaws, has remained a site of hope and promise.

No university administration that takes academic pursuits and its public character seriously would ever push through the kind of massive changes that have been thrust upon DU by its administration in less than two years. It is unthinkable that this should happen without either a critique of the existing system or an open-minded and thorough discussion in well-established deliberative bodies on concrete proposals mapping out desired changes. At DU, with its half a million students, nine thousand teachers and close to 80 colleges, the time available ruled this out, and yet the unthinkable continues to happen.

The record speaks for itself. In July 2011, barely a year after everyday academic pursuits and college and university sports grounds had been sacrificed to the money-making machine of the Commonwealth Games, semesters replaced the annual mode of teaching and evaluation. This huge change was imposed on the university without debate or preparation. The seismic academic, social and administrative fallout of this decision continues to bedevil DU, and we are expected to believe that this is academic reform.

In 2011, one of the finest pieces of academic writing, A.K. Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas…” was excised from DU’s undergraduate syllabus by the Academic Council on extra- academic grounds. More recently, an exceptional bookshop, the U-Special, has been axed and the North Campus intellectual hub, the Students’ Activity Centre, of which it was a part, rendered dysfunctional, and we are expected to believe that the administration is concerned about the quality of academic life in DU.

The biggest structural change in the history of DU, the four-year undergraduate programme, meant to kick in from July 2013, will have implications ranging from the financial to the infrastructural, as well as grave consequences for employment conditions, academic quality, the public character of the university and the National Policy on Higher Education. It is being thrust upon DU more thoughtlessly, recklessly and undemocratically than ever, within a matter of weeks literally, and we are expected to believe that this represents academic reform.

The first time ever that a raw document doubling up as a proposal for the FYUP was presented to any statutory body of DU was as recently as December 24, 2012, when it was placed before a ‘special’ meeting of the AC. The AC, in a single sitting, accepted the hurriedly cobbled FYUP document, thereby abdicating its responsibility to substantive debate, democracy and higher education. The first official communication to department heads regarding the FYUP came in a letter from the Dean of Colleges dated March 5, 2013, asking them to get syllabi ready for all new courses on the basis of a skeletal structure provided to them within a fortnight. Harassment, intimidation, coercion, secrecy and the flouting of statutes and norms have haunted ‘dynamic’ syllabus making thereafter.

Compare this with the years of informed debate, discussions and painstaking effort that went into the transition from the two-year to the three-year structure of study earlier in DU’s history. Committees were set up, comparative studies and research undertaken, the results put up for deliberation and meticulous preparations made to ensure that the transition would be smooth and the results enriching for students and teachers alike. Much of this happened barely a few decades ago, during the vice-chancellorship of the legendary Maurice Gwyer. The contrast with the recent happenings in DU could not have been starker.

Clearly, the fact that nothing remains static does not mean that all change is by definition progressive. Sometimes processes tell us everything. The nature of results cannot be divorced from the means adopted to reach promised lands. The FYUP and all that has preceded it since 2010-2011 have been coercion and impatience-driven processes, exclusionary, uncivil and anti-intellectual to the core, systematically undermining democratic practices and procedures.

Such reform processes cannot be expected to concern themselves with the terrible consequences of thoughtless, arbitrary and hurried decisions on minds and imagination, on the possibility of learning to think independently and co-operating as equals in workplace reform. They cannot be expected to uphold Nehru’s vision. They can only be expected to set terrible precedents, deform and impoverish DU academically, diminish the value of its degree and destroy meaningful public higher education in India.

This is largely the reason for, and the meaning of, the deformed structure of the FYUP and the intellectual deficiency of many of the 50 courses that will have to be taught under conditions of inexcusable ad-hocism. Quantity, packaged in weighty or mystical course names — Foundation, Discipline, Mind-Body and Heart — is replacing quality while the multiple exit points will ensure that even this greatly diminished quality is unequally shared among students. Teachers, and especially the new student entrants to DU, are being flung into the fire with no fire fighters anywhere in sight.

No matter what the alibis, the most recent being employability and progress, the current processes of change in DU have nothing to do with academic reform. Together with the marginalization of teachers from decision-making, the usurpation of all powers by the vice-chancellor, the rule of fear over the university and the assault on freedoms and rights, everything is adding up to transform the university into a machine and students and employees into courtiers.

Capital alone, including the mushrooming higher education enterprises, driven by animosity towards public control and compelled by an insatiable appetite to commodify, appears poised to win. It seems that the development of the under-development of DU has become a necessary condition for Capital’s own unfettered bid to yoke Indian higher education to a profit-making logic.

The shocker is that this injustice against worthwhile public higher education is being enacted at public expense, the executors being the custodians of public good. Had an FYUP lookalike been caught snooping around publicly controlled natural resources, it would have been criticized for what it was — rendering wealth, held in the general interest, for private gain.

The citizens of this country need to wake up to the incalculable consequences of an offensive that is pushing DU away from the many for the benefit of a few.

The author is Associate Professor of History, Ramjas College, Delhi University


reproduced here from The Telegraph (Calcutta) for educational and non commercial use.