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Monday, October 19, 2020

Universities are training grounds for citizenship, teamwork and leadership

Students become concerned about the larger social and political issues like poverty, social exclusion and injustice, and begin to try and give voice to the voiceless. This is something to be celebrated and not frowned upon.

Written by Shyam Menon | Updated: September 30, 2020 8:58:26 am
India is an incredibly unequal society. Higher education is a highly selective enterprise with restricted participation in the guise of meritocracy, thus perpetuating and exacerbating inequality. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

It was deeply distressing to read (‘Universities discuss how to get students to behave’, IE, September 9) the kind of expressions reportedly made during a recent webinar by some university administrators about students —“criminals, rowdy elements”… “new youth less exposed to scolding and beating”… “(must) ensure that they are marginalised, segregated and kept out of the campus at any cost”. It was appalling to find teachers who are charged with the responsibility of students’ welfare reportedly talking about students in such deeply adversarial and disparaging terms. These are expressions one normally associates less with universities and more with penal institutions. They represent cluelessness about the idea of the university and a lack of imagination of how teachers must engage with student communities while serving as university administrators.

Most teachers who have had stints as university administrators will tell you how delicate and challenging the job of engaging with student communities is. Whatever the challenge, one cardinal rule that all good academic administrators keep in mind is that at the end of it their relation with students is determined by their primary role as teachers. I have served five years presiding over the team of proctors at the University of Delhi. There were several major student agitations at that time. We were even gheraoed by students a few times.

But, those challenging occasions also brought to the surface the deeper human dimensions of our relationship with students. Our team of proctors always tried to keep engaging with students in a dialogic process, some of which were difficult conversations, but every time we were able to reconnect with our basic bonding with students. We tried to go beyond the conventional disciplinary role attached to the office of proctor and established institutional structures for ongoing communication with students and for proactively addressing their concerns and problems.

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When the Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) was being established with the imagination that it would be a self-governing collegial community of scholars, students were visualised as an integral part of that community. Students participated actively in some aspects of the administration. For instance, all public-dealing during the annual admission cycle as well as counselling prospective students was managed almost entirely by the students themselves. The Student Cell staffed by students themselves addressed their ongoing concerns. Prior to instituting the Student Council at AUD, the students elected a constituent assembly to draft their own constitution. They conduct their own elections.

Students at the university level are already adults and citizens with voting rights. They are major stakeholders in a university — theirs is the most critical investment in higher education since they invest some of their most formative years in that process. They have the highest stake in the performance of a university because their own future hinges on it. So, it is terribly incorrect to infantilise students and treat them as mere beneficiaries parasitising on the largesse of governments. They are, in fact, partners in the shaping and functioning of a university.

India is an incredibly unequal society. Higher education is a highly selective enterprise with restricted participation in the guise of meritocracy, thus perpetuating and exacerbating inequality. But university students often transcend self-absorption driven by personal aspirations, realising that their entitlements have come at the cost of someone else’s deprivations and marginalisation. They become concerned about the larger social and political issues like poverty, social exclusion and injustice, and begin to try and give voice to the voiceless. This is something to be celebrated and not frowned upon.

Similarly, if the youth are keen to give expression to concerns about possible futures — scenarios like irreversible geo-climatic changes, technological disruptions, nuclear war and so on — in which theirs is the highest stake, that should reassure us, because we will then know that the future will see the emergence of a wiser and saner leadership in all sectors. There will be a new kind of politics focusing on issues of the future, where the leadership is going to be increasingly younger. The youth has a greater propensity to think creatively about long-term concerns that will need questioning the very assumptions of the prevalent order, since they do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the status quo.

If this means being political, then that is the politics that every concerned citizen should be into. The irony is that when students get too self-absorbed and focused on their own personal aspirations, it is usually considered a character of “good” students – the ones who are apolitical. But, being “good” this way also has an underlying politics — the politics of perpetuating the prevalent power structures and relations.

Saundarya Jain writes: Demonising students for expressing their beliefs, dissent in universities is itself a politics in favour of the status quo

The university is a training ground for citizenship, teamwork and leadership. In a democratic polity, leadership is about taking people along and managing multiple views and perspectives, holding consultations, negotiating differences, resolving conflicts and exploring consensus. It includes learning to disagree without having to be disagreeable and to contest and argue without being uncivil.

Contestations within universities have an inherent element of role-play — there is some posturing involved in confrontations between students and university administrations. Such confrontations often manifest roles historically scripted within the paradigm of conflict theories with binary oppositional forces contesting to wrench control from each other. However, there is a need to go beyond this paradigm and creatively transcend these legacy scripts. New ways should be explored for partnering with students in planning, designing and administering universities, particularly academic structures, programmes and processes. The future may see the profile of students change considerably in terms of age and experience, given the possible flux in employment necessitating working people to return to university for periodic upskilling and reskilling. This will increasingly diffuse the distinction between teachers and students.

It is, therefore, time to discard some of our outdated conceptions about engagement with students. Otherwise, our universities are likely to get frozen in time and regress into mediocrity.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2020 under the title ‘Good students, bad students’. The writer is professor, Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi and former vice chancellor, Ambedkar University Delhi

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