Shortcut to scholarship

Encouraging students to photocopy course material instead of reading real books only perpetuates India’s poverty of ideas.

Written by Krishna Kumar | Published:October 11, 2016 12:02 am
photocopy rights, photocopy books, photocopy books legal, book copyrights, education books copyrights, latest news, latest india news, aneesha mathur, delhi high court, latest news Students deserve a well-stocked library to overcome the backlog of good schooling. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

It needs considerable myopia to celebrate the recent verdict of the Delhi High Court upholding the legal validity of photocopying as a means to promote knowledge and learning. The case had originated from a practice involving the use of “course packs” containing hundreds of photocopied pages from books. The argument that books are much too expensive for students to buy proved strong enough to prevail against the plea made by some prominent publishers that bulk photocopying infringes copyright. There was an obvious David and Goliath feel to the case. David has won, but the victory conceals a dark hole. Even as the photocopying shop at Delhi University’s Library of Social Sciences resumes preparing its fat course packs, we must take some time off to peep into the dark hole.

If we do, we will encounter the reality of higher education in India and institutions like Delhi University, especially their libraries. It is no news that the university has been facing an acute financial crisis for several years. All central universities are affected by the slashing of funds suffered by the University Grants Commission (UGC). All aspects of university life are suffering, and some of the pain has now become a routine reality. The use of ad hoc teachers instead of tenured faculty is one aspect of the new reality. The decline of library services is another. Retiring staff has not been replaced for years. A paucity of funds has forced libraries to cut down on new book purchases and subscriptions to journals, especially those published overseas. The use of “course packs” is a reflection of this larger context.

Libraries in India are victims of a compounded misunderstanding. Many new age academic administrators believe that libraries need not be a priority anymore because the internet now provides plentiful access to knowledge. This is a typical Third World delusion that has taken many forms over the years. Each time a new technology comes in, our administrators get excited. They love to entertain the fantasy wherein India overtakes Western nations by taking a short cut in the fourth gear. Online access to knowledge is the current version of this fantasy. Vice-chancellors who regard Google as a global guru have willingly endorsed the government’s policy of hard kicking library infrastructure and permanent faculty. As a result, libraries can no longer buy major new titles or multiple copies of older, basic texts. The newly imposed semester system demands multiple copies of essential books because courses have to be completed within 16 weeks. Malnourished libraries can’t cope with the new teaching cycle; hence, the lure of photocopied packs.

The idea that photocopied material can substitute books needs to be examined on several scores. A student who has studied from photocopied “course packs” cannot enjoy revisiting a text later in student life or beyond. This is because the ink used by laser printers starts fading within a year or two. “Course packs” promote the values associated with an exam-centric culture of education. Far from creating a fascination for knowledge, such a culture reinforces an obsession with exams. “Course packs” contain the readings relevant for the exam. It matters little if the old pack fades because the student must rummage through the next when the new semester starts.

The acceptance of photocopying as a legitimate substitution for library holdings will perpetuate India’s academic poverty. The publishers who had protested against the photocopying shop located in the Ratan Tata Library are no enemies of higher education. They have published some of our best-known academic authors, providing them a global reach and reputation. No publisher of serious books anywhere in the world is currently having an easy time. Indeed, publishing as an industry is among the worst hit by global recession and budget cuts in education. If the measly profits on which academic publishing in India survives are to be nibbled away by photopying, the losses will have to be shared by all, including authors, teachers and students.

Students now come from a broader social spectrum than in the past. Many come from homes where no one had earlier gone to college. They deserve a well-stocked library to overcome the backlog of good schooling. Giving them a fading pile of A-4 sheets, instead of nicely bound books, compounds the injustice they have suffered throughout childhood. Among the rest of the student body today, many attended high fee-charging English-medium private schools. They have resources and impressive private possessions. It is the responsibility of an academic institution to induct them into a culture of owning, and not just reading, books. Good libraries do just that, by providing a physical ethos where books look beautiful. “Course packs” don’t.

By saving money on libraries and teachers, India can only sink deeper in the poverty of ideas and research. The rhetoric of quality education has already worn thin, and anyone can spot the brittle bones of our once-reputed institutions. No Indian university comes close to the world’s best. The three key criteria that push our institutions down in global rankings are: Teachers, libraries and significant research. All three are interrelated. Good teachers need assured careers with eager students and a rich library.

The greatest irony of the copyright dispute was the support that eminent scholars, including Amartya Sen, gave to the photocopy shop. Sen’s support saddened me because he belongs to the generation of teachers who believed that India’s nation-building would have to be original. It seems he too has reconciled to the prevailing view that the best option now left for India — and for Delhi’s old, struggling university — is to focus on photocopying.

The writer is a former NCERT chairperson

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    Abhinav
    Oct 11, 2016 at 5:49 am
    Exam centric study is a much larger systemic issue. To argue that removing the 'fat xerox course packs' would somehow alleviate this problem is nothing more than an Ostrich approach.
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      Rajat
      Oct 11, 2016 at 2:29 pm
      How else are we supposed to study 4 books each for 5 courses in each semester. Course packs are essential and in fact leaven the burden. Contrary to the first sentence in the article, it is the author who is being myopic here.
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      1. S
        Sanjay
        Oct 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm
        Do not really agree with you. A learned person like the author shoul have suggested alternatives to the problem that is lacking in the discourse to support publishers high cost to academic textbooks...I have not disagreed on good libraries that are essential....my take is different...thanks for your comment....happy that at least you read carefully what I said...
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        1. S
          Sanjay
          Oct 11, 2016 at 12:08 am
          Strange that an eminent educationist is not in favour of poor students access to knowledge at low cost. Instead he is supporting high cost publishers and thinking that the profit is meager in publishing. This is a clear case of lack of full information and up to date knowledge of the learned author. With digitisation the cost of distribution of knowledge has come to near zero, then why are the publishers charging unaffordable cost for textbooks? I wish the author had knowledge about open educational resources and proposed these as a solution instead of supporting publishers and warning of our collective failure to be on top of academic ladder. Having said these, libraries do need additional support to remain contemporary and relevant, and other infrastructure including Internet access can't and should not be compromised.
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            K SHESHU
            Oct 11, 2016 at 3:52 pm
            The problem is connected with poverty not ideas..
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              Alisha Rizvi
              Oct 15, 2016 at 10:12 am
              I partially agree with Krishna Kumar . I too think that university should have a good library instead or package for reading. The importance of reading a full book I realised when I came to jamia where the teachers asked us to review book of our choice. But I am pro photocopying as sometimes there are books with 100 pages that cost 300 or more for such books one will always go for photocopy instead for buying.
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                H Anil Kumar
                Oct 11, 2016 at 6:48 am
                I think the concept of learning in the clroom has to be supplemented by the exploration of thoughts and ideas of various authors (through their books). This is the missing link that the author is pointing out in the article. Very valid and relevant linkage to this argument is the sad state of libraries in India. This is one of the few pieces that I have seen written by an expert in Education and highlights the need to redevelop our libraries.
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                1. H
                  H Anil Kumar
                  Oct 11, 2016 at 4:35 am
                  One of the best pieces on the state of b higher education in India. Urge policy makers, teachers and librarians tigress this. Very glad to see a sensible diagnosis of the ills of higher education in India.
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                    Bhupender Yadav
                    Oct 11, 2016 at 10:51 pm
                    Krishna Kumar has nuanced the debate on "To Be or Not Be" a Photocopy. If books were affordable and the users/ students richer, the arguments he make sense. Sadly, they are not. So, Krishna Kumar seems like a lobbying for publishers rather than users/ readers.
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                    1. C
                      Chandler Pal
                      Oct 11, 2016 at 11:19 am
                      Full agreement on the plight of libraries and government apathy. But access to quality texts through photocopying is not a bad idea. In the present infrastructure, it is impractical to hope that libraries can meet the need of all students. Also we must acknowledge that in most of regional universities students opt for cheap guides and substandard text books. At least, students at Delhi University are reading essential readings, even if truncated and faded.
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                      1. M
                        Manjunath
                        Oct 11, 2016 at 5:40 am
                        Read carefully. The author is not advocating against providing knowledge at a lower cost. The argument is for learning through books as opposed to through photocopied material. The author clearly asks for well stocked libraries and teaching mechanisms that encourage reading from books. And that is laudable goal. Even for poor students who will then know the joy of books. As opposed to reading from `jugaaded' materlal.
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                          laiqzaman
                          Oct 11, 2016 at 10:01 am
                          Sir you are right ,as a teacher I can say that library are called hub of education but sir due to internet and copy book really change the mind set of student . in the past students were bound to take library books to make the students studious but internet and the copy book really change the active brain into pive brain
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                          1. S
                            sudheer n
                            Oct 11, 2016 at 10:27 am
                            An interesting article. which touches many important aspects relating to our pathetic situation in the higher education field.
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                            1. O
                              Observer
                              Oct 12, 2016 at 7:28 am
                              1. Do you tell me that there is an iota of difference in information between printed word and its photocopy and a softcopy? If so, get your head examinedlt;br/gt;2. Do you tell me that Indian universities teach something that needs to be referred to after exams? Once again, go and get your head examinedlt;br/gt;3. Do you tell me that there is an army of professors ready to write quality books but are deterred because of photocopying? Once again, go and get your head examinedlt;br/gt;4. Do you want to tell me that publishers honestly disclose to writers number of copies sold and pay accordingly? Once again, go and get your head examinedlt;br/gt;---lt;br/gt;All the verdict allowed was to steal from thieves and feeding the midgets (students, 90% of whom neither know, nor care to know about what the book is about).lt;br/gt;It is sad but no more hurting to current academic scenario.
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                                ramakrishnan s
                                Oct 11, 2016 at 4:24 am
                                Even in the good old pre- internet days book reading was rare.Students used to mug up selected pages from Bazaar notes printed on cheap news print paper.So it comes as no surprise that in this era of cutandpaste culture majority students resort to these mediums.I have come across many homes where the owners proudly show their wares and appliances with out a SINGLE BOOK in sight leave alone a well stocked library.Even when the govt has given individual book grants the money is rarely spent on purchase of books.Every govt has been giving many subsidies to one and all keeping polls in mind.The honourable court could have given stringent guidelines for FREE LIBRARIES in Taluka /Village places all over the country and sow the seeds of good reading material from primary school onwards.We can take the British council and American Library models to start with.I doubt how many people would havel read this article?
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                                  Ramesh Chhabra
                                  Oct 11, 2016 at 1:26 am
                                  Question arises whether photocopy is required for foreign publication only? Due to increase in Foreign Currency rates, Foreign publications are costly. Second question is whether Indian publications are also required xerox copy? If answer is yes then it is a matter of discussion between authors and government.If some one calculate, he or she will find Indian publications are cheaper than xerox.
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                                    REHAN ANSAR
                                    Oct 11, 2016 at 5:32 pm
                                    It is the condition of world's fourth largest economy that the students are relying on cheap guides and photocopying course pack for getting knowledge and performing and presenting research .
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                                      REHAN ANSAR
                                      Oct 11, 2016 at 5:42 pm
                                      It is very disappointing to see and read in newspaper that governments in INDIA are paying heavy sum of money as compensation to the convicts and victims of communal violence in INDIA.Governments should work on preventing such incidents and use this money for providing education .
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                                        REHAN ANSAR
                                        Oct 11, 2016 at 5:35 pm
                                        This article shows mirror to the INDIA's education policy makers.awesome article.
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                                          Ronald
                                          Oct 11, 2016 at 6:54 am
                                          After reading this piece I can't help but be disgusted! Such simplistic take on the issue of accessing knowledge such as 'print being erased from photocopied material'. Why don't you please understand that the poor guy won't even have access to the 'course pack' if not for the photocopy, forget revisiting it. This piece is nothing but an academic and Utopian take on higher education and forgets to take into account the changing world. Knowledge today runs into trillions of Terra Bites. Please don't restrict it within the walls of a 5000 square feet concrete structure.
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                                            Satish N.
                                            Oct 11, 2016 at 4:22 am
                                            Thank you for this well-argued write up.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;This w photocopying judgment is bizarre. It is like forcing my neighbour to share his fine cutlery (even if it is at a small rent) just because I have guests to impress on and he has the taste to have bought them. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;"A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit." Incentive for such devotion to creating knowledge is not allowing some xerox shop to make profit, who does not understand one bit of what is that he is duplicating. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Let us equip our university libraries. Xerox shop is akin to replacing 'jugad' for innovation. Nothing good would come from such shortcuts.
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