Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sunalini Kumar - Autonomy for what, from whom, and for whom?

It seems the unthinkable has happened – the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University has resigned over the UGC’s pressure to withdraw the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP). I won’t go into the debate on the FYUP, which has been covered extensively on Kafila and elsewhere. I am only interested in two issues that arise from the news coverage of the event as it has unfolded through the day.

One, the question of autonomy. Prima facie, as Apoorvanand and Satish Deshpande have argued comprehensively on Kafila, the resignation of a VC over pressure from the UGC seems to be evidence of bureaucratic or ministerial over-reach. Questions have been raised (rightly) over the timing of this pressure, coming as it does on the heels of a political shift of colossal proportions at the national level. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (I find myself in agreement with Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari’s language on this) to figure out that the change in Delhi University has political backing. For one, rollback of the FYUP was on the BJP’s agenda/manifesto – that is as political as it gets! 

Second, it was this very UGC that had been so coy about commenting on the FYUP for the past one and a half years, a coyness that amounted to tacit support. Only very recently had it moved its mammoth bureaucratic feet on the matter, constituting a committee to look into complaints from students and teachers that had finally reached its mammoth bureaucratic ears. The VC, being well acquainted with elephants, would be able to explain the mammoth temporality of this apex organisation better than any of us, having benefited from it for a goodly amount of time. Even after the constitution of the committee, the VC continued to be lauded by the UGC for his efforts at implementation of former HRD minister Kapil Sibal and his successor Pallam Raju’s efforts at radical educational reform. The committee met at a leisurely pace, no doubt fortified by several hundred samosas and robust air-conditioning in the UGC’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg office in central Delhi, while anti-FYUP protestors enjoyed the blazing sun or freezing cold outdoors, as they had been enjoying for a year and a half.
Now, voila, the same UGC is ordering the DU VC to revert to the three-year undergraduate programme, and if rumours are to be believed, threatening it with all manner of punitive action. So should we be worried about autonomy? The short response is yes. In an ideal world, there would never be a good reason to subordinate educational institutions to a national bureaucratic or political class. The long answer to the question of DU’s autonomy is however much, much more complicated. For one, if we accept that the FYUP was pushed by the Congress, it was never autonomous. So a rollback of the FYUP may be, as a simple mathematical reversal, a restoration of autonomy. But does that mean the HRD/UGC are in favour of autonomy? Of course not. The new government has no more intention of staying away from the education sector than the old government was interested in university autonomy. Education is political. 
Let me say that again. Education is Political. Ernest Gellner’s legendary study of twentieth century nationalism reminds us that around the world, education was one of the pillars on which modern nation-states were built. It is the reason we had those patriotic poems and nationalist histories in our textbooks, and it is the reason bodies like the NCERT, the UGC and the NAAC exist. It is the reason private universities must submit themselves to stringent standards laid down by national bodies, and it is the reason political parties have education policy on their manifestos.
Of course, does all of this mean that old, well-established public universities like DU must submit to the UGC? As I said, ideally, no. But why make a distinction between public and private here? Why should any fly-by-night educational operator not have the freedom to offer say a one-year diploma as and when she wants, with as much coursework and whichever method of examination she pleases? None except the most extreme market fanatics would say let this happen, and let the worst operators be driven out of the market. But parents would be up in arms. They would say their children’s future is at stake, that the state has a role to play. Point is, public universities deserve autonomy because they have earned it – they have well established administrative procedures in place, they are answerable to their constituencies – this includes students, teachers, graduates, parents and non-teaching staff; they make their curricula and examinations open to public scrutiny; and finally, they hold themselves accountable to the highest academic standards. In short, a university deserves to be autonomous insofar as it functions democratically and transparently as a whole, from top to bottom. A university’s autonomy does not mean the autonomy of its VC.
The FYUP violated each of these criteria, as so many have noted. It is critical to remember here that it was not simply a dramatic drop in academic standards that plagued the FYUP, it was the utterly undemocratic and downright authoritarian implementation that has butchered its capacity for autonomy in the long run. In fact the big question is not whether Dinesh Singh has finally resigned, but what he has left in his wake. He, more than any other VC in living memory, has destroyed the internal autonomy of almost every academic and administrative body constituted inside the University. He has overridden committees, hand picked appointees, rigged or influenced GBMs, threatened dissenters with bouncers and secret cameras, and finally, amended the statutes of the University to give himself an extension. Serious teachers and academics in the university have watched with horror as one ridiculous idea after another has rolled out of his office, sometimes having to pinch themselves to confirm they weren’t having a nightmare. If college Principals have started secretly weeping and wringing their hands about being treated like servants, you can imagine the autonomy of ordinary teachers and students.
So if we are suddenly crying for the autonomy of Delhi University, we are crying for the autonomy of this VC to continue to be a monarch. That’s the rub.
Second, the issue of students’ future being compromised by the current chaos at DU. I am puzzled, are these the same students who were being taught how to open a facebook account or make momos in their FYUP classes? The same students who, secure in attendance no longer being compulsory under the FYUP (possibly the only positive aspect of the programme), went on long holidays with their friends during term time? In any case, the courses were ridiculously easy, the questions often farcical, and, eager to prove the programme a success, students were awarded obscene marks like so much depreciating currency. The students are ok, they will adapt. They adapted to an academically compromised FYUP, now they may have to wait one more week for admissions to be completed. Term is not a natural force, like the seasons. It is created by humans – us. If we push back term by one week, as the VC had already done by the way under the FYUP, students’ futures will not be demolished. 
The DUTA and other minds in the University have long evolved alternative solutions for the transition back to the three-year programme – all we need is to listen to these proposals and implement the best ones. It won’t be rocket science. In any case, admissions under the three or four-year continue to be drearily and firmly related to cutoffs; those processes have already been completed. So we already have lists of students who will be admitted to political science or maths honours, say, in every college. The only thing that will change is what they will study in the next two or three years.
In essence, the outcry about autonomy and students’ futures both rest on a technocratic and meritocratic fantasy about education being saved from politics. In the case of the FYUP rollback, it is politics in fact that may have saved education. And I don’t mean politics by bureaucrats and ministers – I mean the politics of ordinary students and teachers’ associations who braved intimidation, hopelessness, demoblilisation and plain apathy to force this dramatic reversal to take place. The UGC, the MHRD, the BJP – these will only appropriate the energies of this struggle and make it their own. But the blame for that surely cannot lie with the protestors – it must lie with you and me, the guardians of public memory.
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