Why is JNU vital to public education and discourse in India? A student and a professor argue for the institution

  • JNU has been able to keep a window open for the inclusion of students from weaker sections of society, although a lot more needs to be done to make it truly inclusive

  • The proposed fee hike will deliver a huge blow to the ideal of social inclusion. Furthermore, it will endanger the idea of public education as it exists in JNU

  • The idea of public education imagines universities to be a space that is affordable to all, accessible by all, especially by those who have been denied the opportunity to enter institutes of higher learning

A total of 51,818 students applied for admission to Jawaharlal Nehru University in the year 2017-2018, as stated in the 48th Annual Report (1 April 2017 to 31 March 2018) of the university. The diversity of academic courses offered by JNU, through its 13 schools and four special centres, is reflected in the report that states, "Based on the options exercised by the applicants, the total number worked out to 79,725 options exercised by candidates in the entrance examination for various disciplines/subjects/programmes of study." These figures reveal the aspirational value that JNU has as an institute for higher education for students in India.

The annual report also specifies, with regard to the students admitted in this academic year, that "Of the total 1,556 candidates, 623 came from the lower and middle income groups whose parents' income was less than Rs 12,000 per month and 904 from the higher income group with an income over Rs 12,001 per month… As regards the rural-urban composition of the students was 684 and 872 respectively. Further, only 570 candidates had their schooling in public schools and 986 came from other schools."

These statistics reveal that a significant section of the student body in JNU hails from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds. The admission policy of JNU also allows students from reserved categories (SC/ST/OBC/PWD) to take admission in the university. The draft hostel manual which proposes a steep hike in the living expenses of JNU will jeopardise the inclusion of students from these marginalised backgrounds.

JNU has been able to keep a window open for the inclusion of students from weaker sections of society, although a lot more needs to be done to make it truly inclusive. The proposed fee hike will deliver a huge blow to the ideal of social inclusion. Furthermore, it will endanger the idea of public education as it exists in JNU. The idea of public education imagines universities to be a space that is affordable to all, accessible by all, especially by those who have been denied the opportunity to enter institutes of higher learning. For example, the annual report has the following specifications:

  • As against the statutory requirement of 22.5 percent reservation for SC and ST candidates (15 percent SC and 7.5 percent ST), 20 percent candidates (12.87 percent in SC category and 7.13 percent in ST category) belonging to these categories joined the university, respectively.
  • As against the requirement of three percent reservations for Physically Challenged candidates, 2.44 percent candidates joined the University.
  • As against the reservation of 27 percent for OBC candidates, 26.07 percent OBC candidates joined the university.

If the proposed fee hike is implemented, JNU will no longer be affordable to a large section of students who are already enrolled, and will become prohibitively expensive to future students aspiring to study there.

But public education has another crucial significance: It envisions education as a means to bring about a change in consciousness, as a weapon for social transformation.

While the urge to become employable through the acquisition of skills is a material concern for students in public universities like JNU as well as private institutes that provide technical education, what distinguishes the former is the principle that education is not reducible to corporate meritocracy. A management school, for example, will help to inculcate certain skills to boost a person's employability in the market. But it will not only charge a hefty fee as the cost of those skills, it will also curb the space to understand and critique the organisational principles of society.

 Why is JNU vital to public education and discourse in India? A student and a professor argue for the institution

File image of JNU students protesting. PTI

Thus, instead of merely providing a corporate package of technical skills to help create economic value in society, public education enables the development of critical reason that permits critique of social institutions. It makes way for a critical, social education away from corporate bargains and the mediations of the market.

This is reflected in the words of Jitendra Suna, a PhD research scholar, who contested in the JNUSU elections of September this year as the presidential candidate from the BAPSA-Fraternity alliance. Jitendra's journey from a lower-caste family in Kalahandi, Odisha to JNUSU presidential candidate has been narrated in the media. He says that the proposed fee hike will make it impossible for Dalit students like him to gain admission or to even continue studying in JNU.

In his words, "Getting higher education is essential not only to get a degree so that we can get a job, but also to carry forward the project of emancipation and critique of Brahmanical hegemony which the anti-caste movement has undertaken for so long. The Shudras and Ati-shudras have been denied access to education but the present government does not want them to study in universities such that their Brahmanical domination can be preserved."

The rationale provided by Jitendra helps to explain the stridency of protests carried out by JNU students over the last week. This is a fight to keep a university of public education affordable and accessible to all. Those who hail from disempowered sections of society demand that the principle of public education should be to elevate a person from the lowest strata of society to the highest echelon of education.

But this universalist principle of education is vehemently opposed by the present regime. The proposed fee hike is a step towards dismantling the ideal of public education and ushering in corporate deals, where only those students who are able to pay an exorbitant fee will enter a domain of knowledge production that will have no room to question why a majority of the public is being kept out.

To prevent the formation of such elitist enclaves, JNU students are demanding that the state should facilitate public education as a public good. To retain the hallmark of a freely accessible public university, JNU students are protesting even in the face of extreme vulnerability from the police and other carceral agents of the state. The clampdown on public universities must be resisted, so that historic injustices that have been perpetrated through Brahmanical exclusion can be redressed.

Soumyabrata Choudhury is associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. Heba Ahmed is a PhD student at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 12:16:55 IST