Something eerily similar to the now notorious “notebandi” is being planned in Jawaharlal Nehru University, with the university administration’s decision to drastically curtail admissions to research degrees, this year, by 86 per cent. This follows a July 2016 UGC regulation which has reduced the number of students that teachers can accept for supervision. The notification, which has led to consternation in many universities nationwide, is yet to be debated and adopted through due academic process.
In May every year, some 85,000 young people take the entrance examination at 76 centres across the country to enter JNU for an undergraduate, post-graduate or research degree. Every year, a little over 2,100 students are admitted to 48 schools and centres across the university, of which about 1,800 are for post-graduate or higher degrees. The story is similar in several other universities across India. This large number of aspirants is neither because JNU has received the highest university accreditation from the NAAC — 3.91 on a 4.0 scale — in 2012 nor because it won the Visitor’s Award for the Best Central University earlier this year. Most of those who apply (civil service aspirants apart) do so because universities like JNU are recognised, both nationally and worldwide, as research universities. JNU, for instance, produces a creditable 600 PhDs per year. Of the 5,219 students who were pursuing their PhDs last year, a good half (2,661) were students belonging to the SC/ST/OBC categories. In addition, due to JNU’s uniquely derived, and hard-won, deprivation points, a large number of students are from regions that count as backward or underdeveloped (the statistics are from the National Institutional Ranking Framework, Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and JNU annual reports).
This profile of the university is now set to change dramatically, as the JNU administration shows unseemly haste in following, and indeed exceeding, the directives of the UGC (which supersedes its own regulation of 2009). In its shockingly mistaken interpretation of these guidelines, JNU has taken a notification about supervision to mean admission, and has slashed research student intake by 86 per cent. As a result, many centres and schools will see a zero admission of MPhil students this academic year.
Why do JNU centres and schools have a higher than the recently-mandated number of research students today? In part, this is because a number of centres, such as the Centre for Law and Governance, or the Centre for Community Health and Social Medicine, are exclusively research centres, with only MPhil and PhD programmes. There will be no teaching in such centres, perhaps for years to come. This is nothing less than a planned waste of public resources. Also, following the 2006 reservation of seats for OBCs, the existing faculty were required by law to shoulder the enhanced load of an extra 54 per cent students until all vacancies were filled. The supervisor-student ratio, therefore, has inched up from 6.5 to 9 plus. This was done willingly by teachers, with no adverse impact on student satisfaction or output.
The JNU administration has overlooked the fact that a number of students will complete their degrees this July. It does not recognise that there are centres where MPhil students do course work for a year, requiring no supervisor. Nowhere has the UGC mandated that additional procedures that have been developed over decades of thought, discussion and struggle, must be extinguished in one fell stroke. This is what the JNU administration has done, by removing deprivation points for MPhil and PhD degrees this year, after agreeing to maintain them on February 11. For students from underprivileged backgrounds and regions, and for women, this means nothing less than a cruel end to the hope of a higher education.
Following serious critiques of, and objections to, the proportion of marks allotted to the viva voce of candidates, on February 11, the administration agreed to change this criterion — the proportion of the viva voce marks was reduced from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. But the new admission procedures, passed without due discussion in the highest body of the university, the academic council, now introduce a three-stage process which makes the viva voce marks count for 100 per cent.
We might pause here to consider what the new UGC guidelines, and especially JNU’s interpretation of them, portend for the public university in India. The academic “notebandi” which is being challenged by teachers and students, will, if carried forward, snatch away “the gift of an interval”, to adapt the words of the political theorist, Michael Oakeshott. The MPhil programme, which now stands generally threatened, is a crucial phase that equips students with little or no inherited cultural capital with the means to conduct research.
Reservations for Dalit and OBC students have changed the demography and texture of university campuses in India quite dramatically over the past decade. They are pushing universities towards evolving a new pedagogy and more democratic and egalitarian academic practices. We have not succeeded in addressing all the new challenges of the classroom and of supervision, but the need for such change is felt more then ever before. With the plans that are afoot, the possible emergence of a new intelligentsia from among these aspirants, with the potential to transform not only the future of our academic institutions but also our political imagination, has now been curtailed.
No doubt, there are many ways in which teachers can and must be brought to account, and improvements made in research and supervision. But the JNU administration’s determination to dismantle first, and think later, deals a blow to democracy, and all institutions of higher learning. For all of last year, JNU was under sustained political attack, which it survived. The new administrative assault on the institution, and the latest round of fire from the shoulders of the UGC, is a continuation of that war by other means.