Jawaharlal Nehru University is in resistance mode again. The protests, this time, have implications not only for JNU but all universities in the country. The university administration’s proposed procedure for admission to PhD programmes, and the cap on number of PhD students per supervisor, following the UGC’s 2016 regulation, has caused immense discontent among the students and faculty. There would be serious ramifications if other universities mechanically follow the UGC’s 2016 regulations. The UGC and the university should rethink them.
Three issues are at stake. First, the 2016 regulation requires clearing a written examination and an interview for entry to a PhD programme. This change was required because, in many universities, admissions to PhD were conducted in an arbitrary manner, often leaving it to the faculty’s willingness to supervise. Introduction of the written test and viva formalised the admission procedure. Recognising the university system’s diversity, though, the UGC left it to individual universities to apportion weightage to the written test and the viva. The JNU administration’s proposal involves one round of elimination at the written examination stage; the final selection would entirely be based on the performance in the interview. The faculty and students think this would go against the established weightage of 70 per cent for written and 30 per cent for viva. The proposal also comes at a time when there is demand for reducing the weightage of the viva to 10 per cent.
JNU’s formula of apportioning weightage has evolved over a period of time based on the university’s experience, much before the UGC’s 2016 regulation. From 1969 till early 1984, JNU used written and viva for MPhil, PhD, undergraduate and post-graduate programmes; weightage was also given to family income, the backwardness of the district from which the applicant hailed, gender, and to first generation learners. The university undertook a major exercise in 1984, which led to the viva and the income criterion being discontinued for undergraduate and post-graduate admission. A committee led by historian Bipan Chandra showed the courage to drop the income criteria because it was misused. Similarly, the recent demand to reduce the weightage of viva for admission from 30 per cent to 10 per cent is based on the evidence of biases faced by Dalit, Adivasi and OBC students during interviews. The administration should have considered the university’s experience while suggesting elimination at the stage of written exam, without any relaxation for Dalit and Adivasi students. Students and the faculty believe that making the final selection entirely contingent on performance in the viva will go against the merit and social justice provision in the university’s Act. The administration could have worked out an acceptable weightage for written and viva, and not gone mechanically by the UGC rules — they, in any case, do not ask for mechanical adherence.
The second issue relates to the cap of eight students per MPhil/PhD supervisor. This provision does not go well with JNU’s research-oriented character and is also inimical to the diversity in the university system. Some universities are more research intensive than others. The UGC‘s cap on the number of students per supervisor is intended to reduce the faculty’s burden, but that should be be left to the collective decision of the faculty. In fact, the university’s 126th Academic Council had decided “to implement in a phased manner the guidelines on number of MPhil/PhD students with each faculty member till the recruitment as per sanctioned strength is completed”. The same academic council resolved to implement 27 per cent reservations for OBCs. The JNU faculty has supervised more students in the best interest of social justice, but it did not allow standards to fall — evident from the university been given the Visitor’s Award for the Best Central University.
The students and faculty fear that the supervision cap will lead to a drastic reduction in the number of students admitted this year. Given the low enrollment in higher education, the effort should be to expand the faculty — and not reduce the intake of the students. If all central universities apply this limit, the number of students will reduce significantly and precipitate crises. This is certainly not in the spirit of the 2016 regulation.
The third disagreement pertains to the recently modified system of faculty selection, which gives the VC the power to decide the experts who will conduct the interview. In the earlier system, the VC selected experts from a pool provided by the academic council through the centres.This time-tested system drew on the understanding that the departments know the best experts in their disciplines and at the same time left the final choice to the VC to safeguard against any bias.
At the core of these disagreements is the possibility of an erosion of a governance system that draws on collective academic opinion on the campus. Decisions on vital issues should be taken with the consent of relevant bodies, including that of the faculty and students. The UGC, in fact, encourages the use of best practices. I remember conveying the UGC’s opinion as the agency’s chairman: “…universities are autonomous institutes and have necessary freedom to… adopt practices which they consider appropriate for promoting excellence, and equal access within the broad framework of national policy. Thus, while… reforms have to be initiated on a priority basis, the universities, may also combine with other best practices which the university has evolved.”.
The UGC’s role is to coordinate and maintain the standards of higher education by laying down a general regulatory framework. It provides space for the specificities and best practices that promote excellence and good governance. The UGC should issue a clarification to the universities about the flexibility on the relative weightage for written and viva, and students limit for supervision. It’s equally important for the JNU to retain the present system through a dialogue with the faculty and students and convey to the UGC what suits the university the most .
The writer is professor emeritus, JNU and former chairman, UGC