JNU seat cut row: Hiding under garb of 'improving' research is a systematic clampdown on higher education

In what is being seen as part of the clampdown on universities by the Centre, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — following a recent University Grants Commission’s notification – announced a massive reduction in student intake for its in MPhil and PhD courses for the upcoming academic session.

The seat cuts are unreasonable as they confirm the systematic clampdown of an institution, not to mention by deceitful means. And while the move comes as a blow, it was hardly surprising. For the government in power, given their outlook and intentions, would never shy away from an opportunity to hurt any likely sources of opposition to their fear-provoking designs. And what could have been a better time to charge than now.

The discourse around nationalism has been so slyly twisted that just about anything can be convincingly classified as national or anti-national. No worries if the argument starts running short of passion, you always have concerns of tax payers’ money to come in as reinforcements or sprinkling a bit of awareness about the army seems to always help.

After much speculation, the JNU administration finally concluded, with a seemingly harmless statement, that admissions for the new session will be in accordance with the UGC Gazette of May 2016. The emphasis being that it is just another UGC notification which should be accepted in good spirit, and implemented without making an unnecessary ruckus. But the notification is both dangerous and reflective of the present government’s attempts at blocking out reasonable suspicion about their actual motives.

JNU students protesting massive seat cut in MPhil and PhD courses on Friday staged a protest outside the UGC building. News18

JNU students protesting massive seat cuts in MPhil and PhD courses outside the UGC building. News18

The objective of the notification, as claimed by UGC, and as defended by the JNU administration and government, is to maintain a favourable student-teacher ratio; which, supposedly, would be better suited for good research. While this indeed sounds gracious in its intent, in reality, this is a veiled attack not just on a particular institution but on public funded higher education in general.

Even if one considers that the purported benefits of the notification are real, it still doesn’t explain why cutting down on the intake should have been the means used to execute this plan. Logically speaking, a good student-teacher balance could have been very well ensured by recruitments to the vacant faculty positions.

But, what is more disturbing is the manner in which the JNU administration went on to manipulate and misuse the established conventions – for instance, the academic council meeting – while fabricating the university’s consent to the implementation of the notification.

To add to this, the JNU Vice-Chancellor (V-C) repeatedly issued misleading statements, which ranged from assurances of no seat cuts to disappointment over a handful of students and teachers disrupting the implementation of an otherwise agreeable notification.

Putting aside the consequences, the V-C must be merited for tactfully utilising his might of deception. His statements effectively added on to the confusion amongst the prospective students, meaning that many would remain apprehensive about what was coming; that most probably there was no reason to be worried.

And for the news hungry, the image of an unruly bunch of students living off taxpayers’ money was made more believable; otherwise why would the students have opposed a notification that intends to benefit higher education. But as a matter of fact, both the image presented and the benefits claimed are problematic.

How then was such a problematic argument successfully maneuvered and circulated to an extent that not only all possible means to address the issue have now been exhausted but also the very articulation of disagreement is now met with scorn in public forums.

As mentioned before, this was an opportune moment for the present government to exact its ideology by feeding in an altogether irrelevant discourse prevalent among the masses for quite some time now. This is the same discourse that can promptly brand one as anti-national, for simply choosing to differ with a particular standpoint.

The sedition charges slapped against students of Panjab University for protesting against fee hike should be an appropriate example for highlighting its mindless use; nevertheless of creating an atmosphere of fear. At a time when a political party has become the custodians of nationalism, issues of real concern have been overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of upholding a strictly defined standard of being a "true Indian" – an Indian profusely in love with Bharat mata and gau mata.

While the public remains busy, professing their love for their country, and fishing out anti-nationals, the government is merrily going about dismantling institutions of public utility. With readymade sentiments available for acting against the nation, the government can now successfully stifle any dissent by just presenting it in the public forums as being against the interests of the nation.

Quick media trials and manufactured facts, instantaneously shared over social media, with absolutely no concern for cross-checking, have only made their task easier. And then there are the ever present bands of foot soldiers, always ready to bully down opinions, be it on Facebook, Twitter or on campuses.

The recent Ramjas College fracas reflects how intolerant these bands can get while imposing their will. For many, who aren’t directly affected by the seat cuts, it seems rather hard to believe that the government can in any way make gains out of seat cuts in an educational institution. This government in particular, after all, claims to be extremely dedicated to welfare.

But, if we draw out a pattern, cutting down on funding for higher education has always been a conscious strategy. Plans to discontinue non-NET fellowships or closing down centres for studying social discrimination have all been a part of this plan. While this naturally creates congenial conditions for eventual privatisation of education, the immediate gain would be to weed out possible mushrooming of reasonable dissent.

A government that goes ahead with deliberate 'blunders' like demonetisation and 'encourages' hate mongering has to be wary of institutions that promote critical thinking as a part of research exercise. A complete control over institutions, especially those of humanities and social sciences, is essential to maintain a general state of ignorance; which can then be efficiently channelised to conform to the devious plans of vested political interests. The attack on higher education is therefore tantamount to filtering out opinions that cast serious doubts over the way the government functions.

The threat of government’s interference in the autonomy of a public intervention can still be shrugged off as far-fetched. That is most likely the case, considering the fact that almost 86 percent seats in a university, which coincidentally was recently awarded the visitors award for best university by the President, failed to generate much questions apart from in directly affected circles.

Not that I am trying to attribute excessive importance to the fate of a university, something that would under other circumstances generated massive public outrage, but the manner in which the institutions of higher learning have been projected, either as taxpayers’ burden or as safe havens of unruly students, there remains a huge space for miscommunication.

It is here that it becomes important to discuss the inappropriateness of the UGC notification, even without its vested interests. Government interference can be overlooked as fanciful conspiracy theories but perhaps the flaws of an out of place notification, affecting admissions to a university, cannot and should not be neglected.

Intake of students is fundamental to the idea of having a university. Quite obviously, the purpose of having a university is defeated if there are no admissions of new students. In this particular case, JNU being primarily a research university, seat cut in MPhil/PhD programmes is almost synonymous to its formal closure.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Limiting the number of students under a supervisor to a uniform prescribed number across all centres and courses fails to take into account the variation in the way different centres and courses operate. Centres, according to the specific requirements of their discipline, can stipulate lecture courses or guided research work or a mixture of the two for the first year of MPhil.

Therefore, to club all centres together, despite their different requirements, makes little sense; as does one uniform admission requirement for all centres. Moreover, the supposed expansion in intake was a result of the inclusion of OBC reservation guidelines, which is very much legally mandated.

To use an unfavourable student-teacher ratio as a justification for seat cuts would invariably mean that the constitutionally recommended provisions, for creating a socially inclusive institution of learning, were faulty. And if that’s not the case, then this UGC Gazette is most certainly incompatible with the idea of creating a socially inclusive campus.

If at all there was a problem of high student-teacher ratio, how sensible is it to do away with admissions altogether, which is the case in most centres in School of Social Sciences, School of International Studies and School of Language and Literature.

Having zero intake of students cannot possibly be a quick-fix solution to larger questions of structural shortcomings, if at all there are any. The V-C pointed out some sort of a customary practice, of having dynamic intake as per vacancy when it comes to prospective research students.

A dynamic vacancy might work well with universities in the West, but in a country like India, where access to education has only recently opened up to hitherto marginalised communities and regions, this appears to be not just an unfair bargain but also a well-planned move to restrict education.

In a country where regional, economic and social inequalities stem from prejudiced beliefs and discourses of suppression, research in humanities and social sciences can provide the vocabulary to confront such inhibiting factors. Such research can highlight needs, expose distortions and articulate relevance of the marginalised.

Denying this opportunity by means of a UGC Gazette is a gross injustice. It would amount to taking away the means to communicate coherent alternate discourses.


Published Date: Apr 13, 2017 02:24 pm | Updated Date: Apr 13, 2017 02:24 pm