Two events caught my undergraduate professor’s attention in the past two months: one, a farewell, and the other, a cancellation.
The evening of On July 31, a video posted on Facebook of Prof. Keval Arora, an English teacher and acting faculty advisor at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. When Arora walked out of the classroom on the day of her retirement, a large group of her former students were waiting outside to pay their respects.
The person receiving all this adulation wasn’t an accomplished, top-cited author in recognized journals (he didn’t even finish his doctoral studies). Nor was he a public celebrity of any stature. But his students of the past 40 years were lining up outside, overwhelmed with gratitude and marking with their presence the critical expertise, creative energy and emotional richness that conversations with him had brought to their lives.
The video summed up the great potential of the campus as a space for growth.
On On August 26, a divisional bench of the Kerala High Court overturned the appointment of one of the state’s most prominent public intellectuals, noted Rekha Raj, a Dalit-feminist scholar and activist at the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahathma Gandhi University, Kerala – a nomination which had attracted particular attention as she was an SC candidate who made it into an unreserved seat.
The basic eligibility criteria for the position was 55% National Eligibility Test (NET) scores. According to University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, even if a candidate has not cleared the NET, she may be considered for the position if she has a Ph.D. In addition, the University decided that since a doctorate was part of the basic eligibility criteria, these candidates would not receive the additional points in the assessment that are awarded to doctorate holders who had qualified. with the NET. This is how the practice has been.
The divisional bench disagreed with this view and insisted that a candidate without NET should also receive the extra points for her doctorate. Additionally, the court also reduced the ratings given to Raj for his posts, citing technicalities. All of these factors changed the ranking list for the job, leading to the court ordering that Raj be fired and second-place candidate Nisha Velappan Nair be appointed to the job.
More than the technical details, what I found strange was that the tribunal did not feel the need to consult the duly constituted body of experts for the interview, nor the autonomy of the interview panel in its decision making. The complete disregard for the interview panel was quite appalling.
I want to present my arguments around the changes in the Indian university system keeping these two instances at both ends – one, a fulfilling climax and the other, an abrupt ejection – as I go on to make my argument: that this what we are witnessing now could be the “demonetization” of Indian public universities.
Rhetoric of demonetization
The wrongs in the educational scenario echo the stated reasons for the Union Government’s 2016 demonetization exercise: there were fake currencies (read inflated grades and substandard qualifications), corruption (read the nepotism and bribes) and unaccounted wealth (read the inaccessibility of certain headings). And these accusations are not baseless.
Whether the solution lies in some kind of demonetization or in the soft bulldozing of institutions is another matter for another time. First, let me list four reasons that have profoundly contributed to the creation of these conditions: COVID-19, the Common College Entrance Test (CUET), the National Police of Education ( NEP) 2020 and National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) accreditation.
It is important to recognize that the presence of phenomenal mentors like Keval Arora was made possible by a university system that envisioned universities as spaces where different experiences, ideas and responses from the student body come together to create new actions and energies, while developing certain skills and perspectives for the student to think in their chosen discipline.
In the construction of a dynamic and rigorous space, one of the most important factors is one of the least dramatic: the school calendar. A single calendar allows students to come together, spend time in class and in the library, participate in extracurricular activities and thus become a collective. For this, students from different years must have their classes together, go on preparatory leave, take exams and go on vacation, all at the same time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much lasting damage to our higher education system. First, it desynchronized the different groups of students, causing first, second, and third year classes to start at different times.
While it’s true that COVID is to blame, what’s upsetting is the complete inattention of university leaders and regulatory authorities to the loss of collective space – they seem to think that finishing portions, passing examinations and declaring results constitute the sole work of a university.
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that the health of every individual is a social concern. It should follow that participatory and consultative mechanisms are the only way to break out and move forward. Instead, the government seems to have moved towards blind centralization and CUET, the common entrance test for central universities which relegates the ‘Plus Two’ course to a provider of basic qualification marks, is an example of this. .
If 45 central universities need a common entrance test, because it makes things easier for student applicants, then professors from all these universities, with different disciplinary specialties, orientations and histories, should have worked together to formulate the questionnaires. Instead, an agency-designed test without input from any of these universities was launched.
The third reason is the NEP. This policy uses fancy words such as “choice”, “freedom”, “innovation”, “multidisciplinarity”, “holistic education” and “global scenario” to recast universities as a kind of shopping mall where students can shop. . This so-called “fluidity” will scuttle any academic autonomy and sense of belonging to a collective, and give full control of the space to the administration. These fancy words are likely to take teachers and students outside the scope of their educational conversations.
The latest and oldest contributor to the state of the university today is the NAAC – introduced in 1994 – and its utter disregard for the work that takes place in classrooms and campuses.
NAAC, in its evaluations of higher education centers, seeks publications and teacher seminar presentations, documented evidence of ever-new methods, missions, and vision statements that are meant to make each institution “one of a kind.”
This forces teachers to abandon their primary duty of being there with students and turns them into clerks, swamped with unnecessary documents for the scrutiny of NAAC experts. If something is not documentable, quantifiable and presentable in the NAAC report, it is as if it did not happen. To satisfy this need to present and publish, journals and conferences have proliferated in our country and most scholars would agree that their sole focus is NAAC points.
The inability to understand and respect campus space, its rigor, trust and mutual accountability, is what drives bureaucratic impositions on higher education. And these notions make judgments possible, as in the case of Raj. The new horizon of higher education, genetically incapable of valuing – or even accommodating – a Keval Arora, will lead to devaluing academic bodies and communities, and creating more Rekha Rajs.
No one claims that the Indian education system has traditionally been egalitarian or inclusive. It is also a region where historical social inequalities created by feudal-caste ties have been largely maintained and perpetrated, and greedy rulers, unjust politicians, lazy teachers, selfish parents and populist notions have all contributed.
Ethical critique, timely updating, and quality correction are clearly in order, but wasting these historically shaped spaces through hasty political impositions and decrees is no countermeasure; it’s just going against the grain.
If we want our public universities not to be demonetized, campus space must be owned and activated in the pursuit of knowledge dissemination and creation.
NPAshley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To see more illustrations of this type, Click here.