All over the world, universities are being asked to become financially “autonomous” as public expenditure on education is slashed rapidly by governments that spend many times as much on tax cuts to the rich, on military budgets, on “bail-ins” and “bail-outs” of banks and corporations. Even so, academic autonomy lies in the vice-grip of governments that fear intellectual rigour and which seek to undermine the academic autonomy of universities. Today, however, that hideous spectre, seen before in the apocalyptic 1930s in Germany, Italy, and Spain, looms over universities in this country, and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a test case.
Too easily, we confound education with competitive and technocratic imaginations of wholesale standardisation, the latest on the list of damaging misconceptions about research education. So then, what is a university? A university is a unique reflection of a deep commitment to fair and humanistic social values, and of a rigorous engagement with immediate reality.
Research universities like JNU constituted through an act of Parliament, have the duty to uphold values such as “national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach to the problems of society”, thus fostering “the composite culture of India”. In fact, a glance at the parliamentary debates that went into the formation of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and to the passing of the JNU Act a decade later, indicate that the question of academic autonomy of a university vis a vis the state was considered crucially important for the survival of a new postcolonial nation.
Ever since JNU was founded, it has strived to far surpass the bare minimum standards set out by bodies such as the UGC. It has been unique in its admission policies, its development of research programmes, and its proactive work on sexual harassment, which other institutions have borrowed from. On each front, the present dispensation, however, wants to drag down every single effort made by the university community during the last 50 years to below the basic minimum, even as it talks of being an institution of eminence. An administration that is supposed to be a caretaker and defender of the statutes of the institution has systematically flouted them.
Because the composition of its highest decision-making bodies is based on a rational process of fair academic representation from its schools and departments, the present administration has sought to change the composition of these bodies flouting all rules. Following that, through a deliberate misreading of UGC guidelines, it has cut down admissions in MPhil/PhD programmes by 83 per cent. The administration has sought to change faculty composition as well. It has amended rules so that the principal administrator can appoint anyone at will on selection committees, whether the person is from a given specialisation or not. And then individuals who do not qualify according to the stipulated selection criteria are recruited. Swift action is taken against any chairperson from the discipline who raises her voice against this travesty.
In an attempt to change the composition of the student body, the present administration has violated constitutional provision for reservations and the CEI Act. Student and faculty associations are not allowed within a hundred metres of the administrative building under threat of persecution for “group bargaining”, an expression out of place in a university. In an institution where students have happily attended classes that often spill into the canteens and corridors, administrators have suddenly tried to enforce attendance. Students and faculty have boycotted this paternalistic injunction that infantilises our students, especially when both faculty and students take great pleasure in being present, each day, and learning from each other.
In yet another demonstration of its technological hallucinations, the administration has declared that now, viva voce examinations will happen over Skype. Who will explain to clueless technocrats that flesh and blood academic discussions need physical presence, that not everyone has access to new technologies, or the skill to use them? Moreover, when taken to court over illegalities in separate cases, the administration has failed to uphold university statutes and the JNU Act. In place of standing up for the autonomy of JNU and its particular character forged through collective efforts of an academic community, men with little respect for academic values are demolishing the institution.
One question remains. Why does a university administration violate the statutes of an institution that it is supposed to steer? The answer is simple. The university is a microcosm where the larger experiment — the destruction of a democracy and its values — is being tested. This is how the new forces of regression and barbarism are telling the world, like on many other occasions in global history, that if this larger plan is to succeed, then our universities, gentle citadels of fair and unbiased learning, must be urgently dismantled and destroyed. Burning books, lying about history to young minds, demolishing cultures of learning, has never boded well for any society. And therefore, this is not the story of a small research university, but a terrifying harbinger of a larger experiment that will ultimately consume us all.
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