Reflections on Biometric Attendance: Kriti Budhiraja
This is a guest post by Kriti Budhiraja
The latest in the list of efforts to “meet international standards” is the proposal to introduce biometric attendance for teachers across Delhi University. According to Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental, this new system is in keeping with the “spirit of transparency inculcated by the Right to Information Act.” But this commitment to a “spirit of transparency” becomes immediately questionable when one reflects on the undemocratic ways in which proposals such as these are being pushed through. Much like the semester system which is going to be implemented despite widespread dissent, it is rightfully feared that Deepak Pental may go ahead with this proposal while paying scant regard to teachers’ hostility towards it.
Echoing the idea written into the controversial point system of assessing the performance of teachers, it has been suggested that biometric attendance will further aid in the process of evaluation. The agenda, it seems, is to formulate an “objective calculus” through which a teachers’ performance can be measured. This argument is based on the assumption that it is possible to quantify what goes inside a classroom, including such intangible and academically significant things as the relationship between a teacher and her student. Herein lies what Amy Gajda calls the “assertion of academic difference”. According to her, standardized measures of performance are simply not available in the world of academia. However, this doesn’t imply that evaluation must then be arbitrary. Instead, it means that judgments are subjective and cannot be made accurately through quantifiable criteria.
A teacher’s presence in college, in particular, is hardly a useful criterion of judging her performance in class. In fact, it is not even an accurate indicator of whether or not she takes class! Thus, even as a surveillance mechanism, the biometric system of attendance is utterly futile. But unfortunately, the possibility of infringing into the classroom through CCTVs doesn’t look too distant. Indeed, it was at least proposed in some colleges of DU and is already in place in a large number of schools. This is deeply disturbing as it would substantially edge out the scope for free and independent thought which is absolutely intrinsic to academia. Moreover, as is the case in most institutions where such mechanisms are already in place, the information will be exclusively available to higher authorities. The assumption written into this, of course, is that while the Principals and their coteries needn’t be subjected to surveillance mechanisms; teachers and students’ must be monitored and controlled constantly. Unfortunately, this is being couched in the misleading language of improving performance through greater autonomy for colleges. But as we see, autonomy for college in fact translates into a detachment from the protective net of legislations that uphold the autonomy of teachers.
Interestingly, proposals such as biometric attendance and aggressively objective systems of evaluation are also being justified in the name of meeting international standards. But this love for international standards suddenly disappears the moment it comes to spending on education. If we are to believe Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman’s analysis, “education” is the one word that explains America’s economic success. According to him, it was a commitment to universal basic education in the 19th century which ensured that America took the lead in the “higher education revolution” of the 20th century which ultimately resulted in enormous economic prosperity. While this analysis may be incomplete in some respects, it does make an important point about the need for investing in public education. In India, however, education gets no more than 3% of the GDP. Even within this charity-like allocation, the priorities seem deeply skewed, as is evidenced by the proposal to introduce an expensive system of biometric attendance in a university that still complains about lack of funds for books in its libraries. What is worse is that these absurd proposals are being made by bureaucrats who are themselves products of the university system.
Indeed, if they were able to study at prestigious universities abroad, they must be grateful to the firm foundation provided by the honors system that they are so keen on dismantling. And if they are genuinely committed to overcoming the shortcomings of the university, there is enough and more to focus on, including greater allocation of funds for libraries, time and resources for research, etc. However, instead of displaying an awareness of shortcomings and strengths which should come with experience, they seem to be committed to a project of reversing its strengths and simply ignoring its real shortcomings.
More than anything else, they seem to be smitten by the corporate sector, where surveillance mechanisms and objectivity are considered absolutely unquestionable. But if the corporate sector sets the standards to go by, then why don’t they introduce corporate salaries into the teaching profession? Or even well thought-out and useful training programmes for teachers? Clearly, the agenda is something else. It is neither to introduce transparency, nor to make education more expansive and meaningful. Instead, the agenda is a larger conspiracy of getting rid of the very responsibility of providing education. Biometric systems of attendance, semester system of education and a point-based system of evaluating teachers are mere pieces in a jig-saw puzzle which threaten to take the shape of the monster called privatized education, which will ultimately mean the death of liberal arts and the narrowing down of space for independent critical dissent.