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Reflections on Biometric Attendance: Kriti Budhiraja

December 18, 2009

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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Aarti Sethi permalink*
    December 18, 2009 12:00 PM

    Dear Kriti,

    This is deeply disturbing indeed. Can you tell me in which colleges was it proposed that there be cameras in the classrooms, and where might one find information on this? I have seen the cameras installed at various chowks in DU, but I haven’t been able to find any information on this classroom buisness.

    Also, is there anymore clarity on exactly what shape this biometric attendance would take? Will teachers have to clock both college and individual class time? And finally, reports say that the system has already been put in place in the administrative wings of the university, do you have any details on this?


  2. Kriti Budhiraja permalink
    December 20, 2009 10:25 AM

    Biometric attendance is one among a host of surveillance mechanisms that are already in place in the University. As you rightly pointed out, there are cameras installed at various chowks in DU. There are also cameras inside college campuses, such as LSR, where there’s one at both entrances. The monitors of these cameras are of course in the Principal’s office. With regard to the question of cameras inside classrooms, it would be best if you ask Sunalini to give you details. Such proposals were made in the wake of 26/11, when India was gripped by a sudden need to install ‘security measures’. However, these were struck down unanimously wherever they were made. Maybe Sunalini can tell you the exact names of colleges where it was proposed. I am not mentioning them here simply because there is some confusion between two colleges and I don’t want to post anything factually incorrect. :)

    Anyway, the point is that given the new-found obsession with ‘evaluating’ teachers, coupled with this pretext of ‘security’, the possibility of cameras inside classrooms doesn’t seem very distant.

    About biometric attendance – as my source of information is also newspaper reports, I don’t know a lot more than what has been reported. And yes, reports do say that biometric systems of attendance have already been put in place in the administrative wings of the university. In fact, according to an article that I chanced upon just now, the MCD also plans to introduce biometric attendance for teachers in its schools. [,_MCD_mulls_Biometric_attendance_system_for_teachers_9943/] With regard to its specificities in DU, I am not sure if it is meant to clock individual class time or the time spent in college. But Deepak Pental has been quoted saying that it is a way of keeping track of the number of hours spent by teachers in college. So I’m assuming that at least as of now, it is does not concern itself with the hours spent in class. But this proposal has been deferred by the executive council for the time being, following protests by DUTA.

  3. Pankaj Jha permalink
    December 20, 2009 11:46 PM

    Absolutely on the spot, Kriti! Reading your piece, I feel humbled and stronger. Let’s not underestimate the strength of our own voices, provided we are willing to speak up.

  4. Sachin N permalink
    December 22, 2009 12:53 AM

    Moderator, some typos and errors in the post at 12.45 am, so please publish this one.

    Wonderful post, Kriti. This generates many points for discussion.

    Corporatisation of the academia is no longer a hidden agenda. It is not merely a question of whether we have a comparable pay structure, but that of the whole package. An assembly-line education factory is proposed through the complete segmentisation of responsibility. Over-prioritisation of ICT techniques instead of developing conducive learning environment, biometric surveillance in the name of transparency, quantification of pedagogy and research etc are the new opening gambits of a neoliberal approach out to convert education sector into nothing but a profitable business.

    I teach in a college where the Principal smuggled in a spy pen camera and secretly videographed the proceedings of a statutory body like the Staff Council. An enquiry by a retd HC judge is on in this matter, though the VC and the Governing Body refused to accept the outraged teachers’ demand for the suspension of the Principal for the course of the enquiry.

    The new cost cutting and revenue generation model implemented in the Western higher academia outlines fixed tenures and video and audio recording of the lectures by the teachers (in order to reuse it even when they are no longer in the payrolls). Some of my friends are now trying to subvert this by refusing to teach in the classroom and instead, lecture in the lawns and the open spaces in their universities.

    Semester system in DU will achieve two concrete results
    – ensure the failure of the undergraduate Honours programme (due to the lack of infrastucture, large number of students) and consequently the liberal university structure in DU, which will ultimately help to privatise higher education (remember Foreign Universities Bill, Birla-Ambani report and teh spurt in Deemed Universities post 1991)
    – considerably reduce the work load of all disciplines (in some cases it is as high as 1/3rd) and thereby employment.

    The current leadership of the Trade Union body, by delaying the resistance, has greatly damaged the cause of teachers, students and the larger public. Forced by the mounting pressure put up by many staff associations and departments, they have now declared an action programme to thwart the VC and his marauding Empowered Committee to Implement Semester System, albeit without an all out intensification of struggle. Lets hope that a collective resistance will prevail against the attempts for implementation and their larger designs.

  5. Kriti Budhiraja permalink
    December 22, 2009 12:40 PM

    Hi, please have a look at TOI, 22nd December 09.

    Page 6: DU to Again Debate Biometric Cards

  6. somnath permalink
    December 28, 2009 10:42 AM

    Dear Kriti,

    While biometric attendance is a misplaced measure, some of your other “objectins” are misplaced too..

    It cant be anybdy’s case that money, or the alck of it is the only problem bedevillign DU..

    Semester system is not an unknown animal in India..Our best instituions (IIMs, IITs) already have it..A multidisciplinary approach to higher education is what is sorely missing in our universities..

    Teacher eval is also critical..How many DU profs really teach? How many simply carry on as a routine? How many profs have worthwhile research ongoing? Again, even in India, the IITs and IIMs have a failry decent prof eval system in place, with student feedback being a very important element of that..

    About the so-called privatisation of higher education..If we are to spend the desired sums of money on education, where will the money come from? In case higher education is a passport to a paying profession, why shouldn t the student pay? And why should Indian students not have the HArvards and Yales available right here, some in partnership with DU, rather than spending 8 billion dollars every year to get them from the US?

  7. Aarti Sethi permalink*
    December 28, 2009 4:55 PM

    @ Somnath,

    While no one is making the case that the only problem bedeviling DU is lack of funds, however the proportion that India spends on education in general is abysmally low – about 3% of its GDP.

    Further, no one is making a case against a semester system per say, and besides the IITs and IIMs, even a solid social sciences research university like JNU has a semester system. But using JNU, IIT and IIM as examples misses a very big difference between these universities and DU, and this is the point that many teachers in DU have raised.

    The total strength of JNU is about 5,500 students, IIM is about 500 and The various IITs have a total student body strength between 4,000 and 5,000. Further in each of these institutes the making of syllabi, setting of exam papers and evaluations is internal and conducted by individual departments.

    Delhi University is a totally different animal. It has 63 affiliated colleges and a combined student body of over 2 lakhs. Delhi University is a huge centralized collegiate system, where syllabi, exam papers and evaluations are all conducted in a centralized manner. The scale at which examinations are conducted is quite mind-boggling. Pushing through a semester system means this will have to be done twice a year, and without adequate preparation and forethought chances are it will result in tremendous chaos.

    Finally, though the privatization of education is a much longer discussion, I am not so persuaded by this “where will the money come from logic”, I do not believe there is not enough money, I do believe there is a lack of political will. Not all courses are passports to a paying profession, the liberal arts and humanities, themselves under threat, fall into this “un-economic courses” category. Now either we believe that history, philosophy, literature, sociology are to be junked in favour of more market-friendly streams like economics, commerce and computer-science, or then we say that there is a value to a rigorous liberal arts degree which is not translatable into monetary value.

    Finally, there is certainly something to be said for having a college the caliber of a Harvard or a Yale in India. However I am not persuaded a) that the kind of teaching resources one can avail in certain courses, say Indian History or Literature or Political Science, at the post-graduate level in India is not comparable to Harvard and b) that this must necessarily be accompanied by a dismantling of a state-supported education system. From what I know, America has both, a robust state-supported university system and private institutes of higher learning.

  8. somnath permalink
    December 28, 2009 6:59 PM

    Hi Aarti,

    The centralisation of the DU evaluation system is precisely the sort o legacy that needs to be scrapped. In my understanding, it happened because there wasnt enough belief and confidence about the ability of each instituion (college) to carry out its own system of eval that would be credible..Unfortunately the current crop of profs in DU, at least a very large number of them, tend to confirm that belief..

    As a part of the entire restrucuring exercise (as “reform” is a bad word in left liberal circles!(:) the entire admission, pedagogy and evaluation process should actually be decentralised and left to individual colleges..DU should be seting broad administrative and currciular guidelines, and carryign out “quality checks” and the like – but not beyond that…It is already being done in some faculties/colleges in DU (DCE, CBS, FMS, DSE) – it should be made broadbased..

    A kid with a grad degree with “majors” in accountancy, economics and history will find a much better market for herself than doing an hoonours degree in history..It is absolutely in the interest of the young kids of India, and the idea should be to see how it can be best implemented rather than not implementing at all..

    Some colleges would obviously struggle, but they will simply be ignored by the “market”, ie, the student population and the better colleges will be able to with autonomy generate resources for higher enrolments..

    About your point on “market unfriendly” courses – of course there is a place for literature and pol science in society, and these courses will need to be state subsidised..But this subsidy can be better met when the “paying” courses are allowed to generate surpluses…Quite frankly, there are far too many kids doing Honours courses in pol science in the likes of Dyal Singh college – this is an obvious waste of time and money for everyone concerned..We dont need that many pol science or literature or history grads..We do need a lot more kids trained up in accountancy and comp science to feed a growing economy..

    And a Yale and a HArvard is not required to teach Indian history, but is surely required in areas like law, science, medicine etc..Even in liberal arts areas like international studies, strategic affairs where Indian universities are sorely lacking in depth….

    A state-supported system will remain the backbone of higher education in India, but the resources available can be multiplied many times over by getting the pvt sector in, thereby allowing the state to focus its efforts better..

  9. gautam bhan permalink
    December 29, 2009 7:52 PM

    Dear All,

    There seem to be many different types of arguments here and it might be useful to pull them out:

    1. Semester vs Year-long programmes at DU. I dont know enough about DU or the proposed semester based system, but I will say that I can’t stand by Aarti’s argument about the logisitic ability to manage two examinations rather than one. There are several pedagogic arguments against having heavy end-of-term evalulation systems in and of themselves and while Aarti is right that it will be very difficult to conduct them on such a scale, I think the point is precisely that they should not be so conducted at all.

    I think the point is a different one: what is the nature of assessing a learner in a learner-centric environment? how should we think of assessment and transact it, especially at scale? Quite frankly, if you get these principles right and in favour of the learners rather than the system, then whether you transact a semester or a year would be rather a secondary question.

    I would love to hear other criticisms of the DU semester system plan, however, since many people I respect are against it and I have very little idea (as I have confessed) as to its details and actual ramifications.

    2. The Value of Non-Marketable vs Marketable Courses: I think this debate will never go away. There will always be courses that learners will gravitate to and their market potential should never be denied or somehow made an excuse to think of these courses as less “intellectual” as is often done. After all, many learners go through higher education to gain better employment pathways and not respecting this desire is foolish and insulting to them. There are, however, two points to be made here:

    Especially at the undergraduate level, there is a case to be made to say that better economists, engineers, and computer scientists are those with better liberal arts backgrounds in addition to their technical knowledge. There is a case to say that they are also better learners, citizens, people and human beings. There are, in other words, both instrumental and pedagogic arguments to be made about bridging the divide between disciplines rather than arguing about “valuable” and “less valuable” disciplines.

    What is more disturbing to me than the fact that disciplines see themselves disconected from each other and never integrate in an average undergraduate’s education is that these disciplines are further institutioanally hierarchised through cut-off’s and eligibility criteria. How do you expect learners to consider knowledge equally when one needs 40% to get into one course and 90% into another? Yet what is the answer to this in terms of real world solutions with different demands? I have no clear answers at scales such as these, but that does not mean that the question is not worth asking.

    If the DU needs centralising in something, it is in thinking of a kind of academic Commons – an interdisciplinary shared knowledge space that all students at the undergraduate level should go through and must go through. A commons that will help them understand the foundations of different ways of thinking, that will bridge the technical and poltical instead of pitting them against each other, that will explain management to the activist and activism to the manager. It will make them see how similiar some of their work is, albeit to different ends. Or it will at least give them a chance to fight it out and learn. Let them agree to disagree later, but let them share a set of terms and problem spaces at least.

    It would, and I would put money on this, make a lot of people take different degrees than they thought they would when they came in. That will also balance out your market demand.

    b. In that vein, let us rememebr that the ‘market’ doth not stand still. No one would have predicted the market value of an NIIT diploma or a Mass Comm degree ten years ago. Its not only MBAs and engineering degrees that are market worthy. It is the role of higher educations to push against both the differentiation between degrees but also to recognise that it has a role in pushing the market in certain directions by indicating the value it has for its various degrees. The market also responds to the percieved value that DU places upon a degree in sociology. They arent reacting to sociology per se, but to the way it is taught in DU. In the US, for example, the same McKinsey [to take a favourite market example] hires sociologists and english majors that in India will only take MBAs and IIT grads, or (gasp) economics grads from LSR and Stephens.

    To say that the “market” is to be taken as recieved reality is absurd. the market is looking for people, in most cases, whose learning occurs after their hires. The market that is looking for already acquired technical skills is small. If engineers were only building infrastructure taht the rest of us couldnt, however, we wouldnt be having this debate.

    3. The State and Private Education: lets let this be for now since I’ve gone on long enough and really, I think the principles of pedagogy are enough of a a debate than to add on the political economy of their transaction.


  10. gautam bhan permalink
    December 29, 2009 7:57 PM

    oh, and I forgot to say, that the biometric surveillance proposal is, of course, so incredibly foolish and wrong-directioned that I have little to say about the kinds of violations it does to pedagogy and learning of any kind.

  11. Kriti Budhiraja permalink
    December 30, 2009 3:05 AM

    Hi, sorry for entering so late in this discussion, but I have one quick and crucial point to make about the semester system –

    As Aarti has already pointed out, a semester system in a university as enormous as DU would be very different from a semester system in say, an IIM or a JNU. This is because the latter operate at a much smaller scale than DU, which consists of over sixty colleges and two lakh students, thus making the semester system infrastrucrally difficult to function.

    However, I don’t think Deepak Pental is unaware of this. In fact, it seems to me that more than the much proclaimed interest in inter-disciplinary study, it is the inevitability of autonomy (read: privatization) that is guiding the Vice Chancellor and his Empowered Committee. Indeed, if they were genuinely interested in making the experience of undergraduate study more meaningful, they would have been far more attentive to the reservations expressed by those who are closest to the ground reality.

    From what I understand, these reservations are not simply logistical, even though such logistical concerns are obviously connected with the larger issue of privatized education.

    More than anything else, the dissenting voices are anxious about preserving the substance of an undergraduate honours programme. While an intensive, module-oriented teaching programme may be welcome at the post-graduate level, it would be academic suicide to introduce it at the undergraduate level. This is because by the time of our masters, we have a sufficient grounding in the fundamentals of a discipline. But when we’re fresh out of school, we usually have to start on a clean slate, as we know little about the subject, thus making a deeply engaged teaching-learning process absolutely essential. Given this, a vast majority of teachers are afraid that a semester system of education will encourage a hurried and shallow teaching process, thus compromising on the scope for in-depth study.

    In my own very recent experience of an undergraduate programme in Political Science, I felt that the subject came together only by the time I reached third year. This is because an honours programme gave us time and space to grasp the nuances of the subject, draw important connections between the papers we studied over three years and finally evolve our own perspectives and politics. This process was gradual and sub-conscious; and the relationships we built with each other and with our teachers over participatory classroom discussions played an integral role in letting us discover the subject. From what I understand, this experience stands to be compromised by the semester system. This is rather unfortunate, because in a system that encourages minimalism and exam-oriented learning, students would no longer have the benefits of taking off from a strong and firm base.

    But of course, this doesn’t mean that the present system is flawless. Gautam’s point about the nature and purpose of assessment is crucial; so is his idea of academic commons. However, I’m not sure if replacing the current system with a semester system of education is addressing any of these concerns. If anything, it is further reducing the scope for a more engaged understanding of the subject, as students would be constantly under pressure to finish the syllabi and prepare for the next exam.

  12. Somnath permalink
    December 30, 2009 8:19 AM


    I agree with you on most fo the points..

    The question of the semester education in DU, however is not simply of one year end exam v/s two in a year..It is about pedagogic independence of institutions..In our best schools (IITs, IIMs and a few more), individual profs have the freedom to design the entire pedagogic process – courseware, evaluation process and the final evaluation…The instituion lays down very broad parameters (grade point systems, sort of approach for a particular “course”/subject, etc)..Above all, these instituoins enable students take a multi-disciplinary approach to learning with a bouquet of courses to choose from..So the flagship PGP programme in an IIM enables a student to take up courses and do majors in areas as diverse as Sociology, Economics and Information Systems…

    In DU, the current centralised system right from admission to evaluation is patently unsuitable to create a world class university culture. Add to that the “honours” system of undergrad degree, and you have the recipe for a clearly underpar setup..

    No wonder the Mckinseys of the world recruit English majors in the US but not in India! They know (and these days they are increasingly led by Indians at the top echelons) the diference..

    Market value is important to the extent of determining the “price” of a course..Unless marketable courses are priced appropriately, there wont be enough surpluses generated for degrees in literature and pol science to be subsidised with, or for that matter to upgrade infrastructure..

    Unless DU (and other unis) change radically to decentralise pedagogy, free up individual creativity, things will remain where they are, which is celarly sub par..The semeseter system is but one step, but a crucial one at that..Else DU will continue being a centre of few valuied colleges/faculties and a mass of pol science grads from Dyal Singh college!

  13. Somnath permalink
    December 30, 2009 9:24 AM

    Hi Kriti,

    Young kids can vote at the age of 18, they cant make the right choices in terms of courseware?

    Further, in the current honours system, the kid is forced to make a “specialised” choice – does he read political science, economics or commerce, or literature? Is that an easier choice than offering him a menu of courses to choose from, with a compulsion to major in at least one?

    The argument of size is related to the structural flaw (and assumtpion) of centralised admission and pedagogy..As I said before, each college, each department and faculty should be allowed to design its own pedagogical imperatives, including evaluation patterns..Why should there necessarily be an exam at the end of the sem for evaluation? In lots of courses/subjects, it may well be a project, or simply a series of classroom quizzes…Wont it be more interesting and fun to study sociology alongside information systems?

    finally, why should “autonomy” be confused with privatisation? Autonomy should be welcomed – the IIMs and IITs enjoy their reputation because of various factors, but the key is autnomy..And the zealousness with which they protect the same..

    finally, it is a fact that the Indian economy has a lot more use today for grads trained up in statistics, info systems, accountancy, economics rather than those trained in literature and pol science..It should be natural therefore for colleges to offer many more courses and seats for the former than the latter..At the risk of repeating, there are today far too many pol science undergrads studying in the likes of Dyal Singh college – its not worth anyone’s while at all..

  14. Somnath permalink
    December 30, 2009 11:41 AM

    Happened to read the response from Sachin N on top..Precisely the sort of attitude that is symptomatic of the prevailing mediocrity in Indian unis, DU included. the entire debate has been spun around to discussions on whether there will be enough jobs left for professors etc…

    Sachin, if anything, there is a shortage of teachers in the country, a corollary of a general shortage of higher education infrastructure..The question to be asked therefore, is not whether there will be “unemployment” as a result of the reforms, but how many more opportunities will get created…

  15. Sunalini permalink
    January 1, 2010 1:04 PM

    Wow Somnath, you seem to speak with divinely ordained authority, holding a pair of godly scales with the almost-but-not-really-world-class-Indian economy on one side and the poor Dyal Singh pol science student on the other. And with swift brutal justice, you find the Dyal Singh student kind of er…lightweight, and toss him aside on the dustheap of history. I do wish you would state your own ‘subject position’ as we pathetic social scientists like to call it. In other words, your location in the world. The reason I ask is I am a D.U lecturer, and as somebody who has taught in this ‘mediocre’ system for many years, I have come to understand things that I may never hope to adequately explain to anybody who isn’t from here. But I do try, because I think as teachers we are in the business of publicly questioning pre-given valuations of good and bad, right and wrong – its the premise of a good liberal arts degree. At the risk of sounding corny, being a teacher is also about being aware when good things, even miracles happen around us, and they do, all the time, regularly and routinely, within this system. Of course, somebody who is already holding those godly scales wouldn’t have the time or lenses to see them.

    And that really is the point. Delhi University has turned the lives of thousands of students (and teachers) around in millions of quantifiable and unquantifiable ways, but we’ll never know, because oohh we are so focused on the national Big Picture all the time. So we need Statistically Spectacular Success, and nothing less, from our education. Nothing that can’t be directly co-related to GDP jumps and stock market leaps will survive the dustheap of history. And people like us (Kriti, Sachin and I among others in this case) will obviously sound insane to defend this. And obviously there must be some petty motive, like protecting our own little job securities. This giant deciding machine from inside of which you speak, Somnath, is so confident that everybody inside it has an opinion on everything outside, including complex worlds they probably have little experience of – D.U. for instance. People inside this machine also have a habit of speaking in self-evident axioms – “In DU, the current centralised system right from admission to evaluation is patently unsuitable to create a world class university culture”, or for that matter, “it is a fact that the Indian economy has a lot more use today for grads trained up in statistics, info systems, accountancy, economics rather than those trained in literature and pol science..It should be natural therefore for colleges to offer many more courses and seats for the former than the latter”…

    Really? ‘Fact’, ‘World class’, ‘natural’, ‘sub par’. Ever thought of subjecting these categories to some creative re-interpretations? The world will start looking very different, trust me. You want to change D.U? Start by putting money into teacher training and pedagogic research from day one and set up a democratic process by which the real stakeholders (teachers and students) have freedom to re-design the system. I really could go on and on, but will get around to writing that post soon.

    I will say this though, Somnath. The ironic thing is that enough talent exists within the system for the administration to creatively re-deploy it, and really get something wonderful out of the process. But lets make no mistake – its not the students the authorities are thinking of, and certainly not the teachers. They are thinking of deep, lined pockets. And no, don’t tell me the market is rational and will sort things out. Not after this year’s beauteous Fannie-Mae capitalism at least. The writing on the wall is clear – the Indian state is running out of of the social sector at top speed, so those who can afford fancy education and degrees, go right ahead and buy your own ‘world-class’ cocktail from the semester system. The rest, shut up and dont dare to protest. Dont bloody dare suggest there’s anything right with the old system. Especially you, Dyal Singh boy.

  16. somnath permalink
    January 1, 2010 8:15 PM


    The debate is not about public v/s private, it is about evolving a better, more viable model of higher education..

    1. Public expenditure on education has NOT gone down in the decade gone by, though that is the red herrring often used..Refer to the budget documents..In fact there has been a sharp acceleration in the last couple of years..

    (you will find the data on expenditure heads across various years)

    And at least in India, you cant “buy” the world class cocktail – admission to the IITs and IIMs (as also DU!) cannot be had for the love of money..So the debate here is not about “student affordability” at all..

    2. The multidisciplinary semester system is in vogue in the best univrsities in the world, as also the best instituions in India..That holds no lessons for DU? Not just DU, but all other unis – but DU is about the best “central university” we have! I havent seen one critique of the concept yet, barring one that says, “oh but in a big university with centralised exams, how do we implement it”?

    3. And the current centralised pedagogy in DU (and most other unis in India) is the very antithesis of “democratic process” that you refer to, I would call it autnomy..Academic autonomy starts with the freedon of the individual teacher to define her pedagogic construct..To reiterate, a large part of America’s fame in higher education, as also of the IIMs and IITs, stem from the degree of academic autonomy in these instituons..And the zealousness with which they guard the same (refer to how these institutions reacted to ministers with vested interests like Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh)..

    4. World over, the United States included, there is a re-emphasis on maths and science as preferred trainings for kids…NKC has even made it a focus area of its attention..

    Along with maths and science, for the Indian economy there is a skills shortage in a wide variety of vocational disciplines and “applied” areas like economics and accountancy..What therefore is the justification of the uni system not emphasizing on what the society wants?

    You took affront to my categorisation of pol science graduates..How many of them do you think the Indian economy (and the economy includes such “non market” professions as teachers, philosophers etc) needs?

    Aout my “subject position”, I have been privileged (and lucky) enough to have studied in some of the elite institutions both within DU and without..And as a part of my job, I routinely interview grads from unis across the world – so I do have a perspective of both DU and the “better model” available within India..

    Lastly, about “privatisation”..Whats the problem if we have Harvard setting up a joint campus in India with DU? Or a Yale? One of the prime structural issues with higher education is a tremendous shortage of teachers – even the IIMs and IITs with their higher payscales, better consulting opportunities etc are struggling big time..the reason is simple, the average starting salary of an IIM grad is about twice that of the seniormost prof there..Such “JVs”, if you like, will enable attraction of a lot more smart kids into the teacching profession..And please do not bring in “affordibility” here…The fees in the IIMs and IITs are quite high these days (I think about 10-12 lacs for the PGP programme in the big three IIMs), but I know for a fact that the IIM have a principle of not allowing a single deserving candidate miss because he doesnt have the money..Harvards and MITs and Yales have multi billion dollar endowments precisely to ensure the same point…

  17. somnath permalink
    January 2, 2010 8:26 AM

    Just came across this article by KN Pannikker..Hindu’s Op-ed.

    Very similar model in Kerala (not a neo liberal govt!) to what is being discussed here..

  18. Harshita permalink
    January 2, 2010 11:58 PM


    I’d like to ask you about how you think academic ‘autonomy’ — especially of the critical variety, which is the crucial concern of all those people you are arguing against — can be preserved and upheld when the main focus of said academia, you say, should be to gear employees for the Indian and Global Economy.

    In a country with a massively different socio-
    cultural-economic context when it comes to access to education (among other things) from the countries which claim to have ‘world-class’ university — I marvel at how easily you dismiss the ‘public vs private’ dimension here. Public education at the very least has to maintain a facade of being accessible to all. Private education does not. The aspect of structurally widening/deepening _capability_ to access higher education across socio-economic strata is not, and will never be, a concern for privately owned and managed education. Do multi-billion dollar endowments really come with no strings attached?

    Of course affordability is a huge factor! My classmate in JNU who has a family income of less than 10000 a month, would have no place in a JNU attempting to be even more ‘world-class’ by recovering its running costs through fees. And she has as much a right to be there as anyone else, she wrote and cleared the same exam and studies as hard or better than her classmates. Would a Harvard or Yale (both of which, by the way, cause a majority of their students to spend years of their ‘economic’ lives repaying their huge student loans) tying up with the universities make her life any better?

    Finally, I wonder if there’s even any point trying to bring up the importance of social sciences education, which you think is unnecessary in the face of maths and sciences. Perhaps it is easier to compute and calculate our way through the Economy on the way to World Class Lives, but that’s an entirely different debate altogether.

    A last point about the ‘shortage of teachers’ which you attribute to pay packets — our experiences seem to be vastly different, I think; for the best teachers I have been privileged to study from, hardly seem to be in the profession for the money.

  19. Sunalini permalink
    January 3, 2010 11:09 AM


    Ok I am beginning to get the picture here. One, when you use the word ‘world class’, you really mean five institutions that exercise such a powerful pull on your conceptual universe – quoting from your comments above, they are – IIT, IIM, MIT, Harvard and Yale. You may say I am being facetious, but really, its a profound expression of your worldview that while you speak of universal categories like ‘world class’, you repeatedly return to these five institutions as yardsticks. Ok, maybe you’ll say there are many others which you didn’t mention, so let me help you out: Cambridge? Oxford? Perhaps LSE, Wharton, Berkeley and if you are really feeling expansive and inclusive – Stanford, Caltech, oh yes, Columbia. You can add a couple of others, but the essential point would remain the same. Here’s a geography exercise for all of us. Take a world map, and some coloured pens. Shade the entire land area from dark to light – most meritorious to least. ALL ON ONE MAP. Don’t dare suggest there could be different sorts of maps of the world, or different keys/measures. Ok, when you’re done, hold it up, let’s see? Ahh, there it is. America has lots and lots of glorious colour scattered all over its Ivy Leagues, Europe has a few, Australia has a small patch; Africa and Latin America are indistinguishable, sorry! But wait, there are tiny pinpoints of colour on India. On…you guessed it – the IITs and IIMs.
    Now make a temporal map of the next century, like a prediction map. With your highest patriotic convictions, splash that American colour all over your beloved India, so that the pinpoints may expand into all states and regions…ah, paradise!
    That, in a nutshell, is your view of the world, Somnath, your idea of merit, value, achievement, academics…Harshita and others have said most of what I would say to your comments, but since I provided a map of your world, let me also provide a dictionary, with annotations:
    1. “Better, more viable model of education” – Elected representatives (automatically must be corrupt, with ‘vested interests’) out; Bureaucrats, meritocrats and technocrats (who possess a mystic rationality and have made careers out of creating systems of top-down competition and evaluation) in; teachers with state-supported salaries (by definition lazy and non-performing) out; industry captains (embodiments of wonderful capitalist philanthropy) in, and so on…

    2. “The better model” (of education) available in India – this one’s easy – IIT/IIM

    3. “Maths and science as better trainings for kids” – hohoho don’t teach them woolly-headed stuff like poetry or philosophy – they’ll end up loony, or worse, critics of the world.

    4. “What society wants” – ‘What the current capitalist world economy wants” – in other words, number-crunching zombies, both managerial and working

    5. “Autonomy” – Freedom of the competitively recruited, elite-institution-trained, meritorious know-it-all to take decisions.

    6. “Democracy” – Market

    Really, what can I say, Somnath. You and I (and others here) inhabit different worlds. I make the preposterous suggestion that value lies outside your five institutions, maths and science and the economy. By the way, I am well aware of the vastly increased plan outlay of higher education. But I am equally aware that the money is going to be used to reinforce the elite map of the world I described above. Having the experience of D.U and J.N.U (and I hate to add this, but Cambridge University too) inside me, I know that that would be nothing short of tragic. A tragedy you wouldn’t begin to understand, I am afraid.

    P.S – I owe you thanks for the KN Panikkar article above – it supports my arguments beautifully.

  20. Sunalini permalink
    January 3, 2010 12:13 PM

    Just wanted to add, since this whole debate started with the semester system: most D.U teachers whose teaching and academic commitments I would respect (I can’t resist clarifying that their total number is a big one!) would say the following: we are not in principle opposed to multi/inter-disciplinarity; in fact the previous VC of DU Deepak Nayyar had introduced a complicated system of interdisciplinary courses in Honours programmes that allowed economics students to study environmental history or contemporary citizenship for example, apart from compulsory courses in languages. The BA general programme was also thoroughly redesigned, making it one of the most attractive options for bright entrants into the system who wanted to keep their options open. This system’s been running for around five years now, and while it has glitches, its been an interesting experiment, which we have diverse opinions on. BUT, like the current semester proposal, that system was implemented arbitrarily without enough undergraduate teacher input, or a testing period where we could creatively work with it. Plus, in the absence of infrastructural support, it enormously increased the clerical work each teacher had to put in – I don’t see anything ‘world class’ about teachers with PhDs becoming little scrooge-like figures, squinting over their calculators and internal assessment proformas when they should be browsing online journals or being at a seminar. I can hear Somnath snorting, saying when was the last time a DU professor attended a seminar? I would say, ask the UGC. Under the existing service conditions, DU teachers have to teach 21 hours every week, including at least 14 hours of lectures. That’s world beating, man, forget world class. Nowhere in the world have I come across such teaching loads (and I’ve been checking everywhere). The semester system proposes to reduce lecture time, but in a diabolical, roundabout way – reduced lecture time will justify reducing the number of teacher appointments in colleges, thereby offsetting the increased teacher intake recommended by the Court to cater to OBC students), plus, the new conditions seek to increase time spent in college by each teacher from 21 to 40 hours a week – in other words, a regular 9-5 job.

    Now lets see – as teachers we don’t have our own offices or computers or wi-fi…if we are lucky we have one staff room with seating capacity of 30 for a faculty strength of 120. And one library which we share with students – an average of 2000 in each college. Most of the time the ten-odd computers in the library are commandeered by students and the online journals are inaccessible. The current system works on the premise of flexible hours (euphemism for “no publicly provided infrastructure for teachers, so when not teaching, go elsewhere to do evaluations or prepare your lectures”). If they really wanted us to teach world class, they would have to give us world class facilities. Since I don’t see a single rupee being spent on libraries or computer facilities or travel grants for seminars and stuff, I must conclude that the extra 19 hours we will spend in college will be used for clerical work – calculating internal assessment points and attendance of each student manually, working out the logistics of conducting the complicated examinations of the semester system, and various extra curricular responsibilities, upon which our promotions now partially depend…

    The point is about authoritarian scheme implementation really, and its not a trivial one. What D.U teachers who love their teaching and research are saying is this: there is little trust between the average undergraduate teacher and the authorities who dream up new schemes, fantasising all the time about American, oops, I mean world class standards. Respect the experience of the system and work with it, don’t make us guinea pigs in your drooling global fantasies. And this particular semester system is, let me repeat, not about expanding student opportunity and teacher employment. Its meant to introduce bloody, prolonged chaos into an already impoverished and over burdened university system, punish and divide teachers by reducing academic components and increasing clerical components of their careers; and make it easier for private universities to liaise with the best (most elite) portions of the current system, thereby offering students with social, cultural and in most cases, financial capital a heady array of courses that they can pick and choose from.

    The rest of the system, as Somnath puts it with charming honesty, will be ‘simply ignored by the market’. Old Testament justice. Charming.

  21. sunandan permalink
    January 5, 2010 11:15 AM

    This discussion reminded me of an old concern I had heard when I was a student at Calicut University, Kerala. An university not-teaching employee who is also a hardcore trade union activist says: “This university will be a much better place if there were no students and teachers.”
    I completely agree with Arati, Sunalini, and Gautam Bhan; and Somnath never surprised me as he is the representative of the typical Indian middle calls man who is daily enlightened by Shekhar Gupta of Indian express.
    But my concern is different and may be irrelevant. But as a student I think I have to mention it here. These are the questions:
    1. Why there was no struggle by teachers /union to remove the compulsory attendance system for students? Do they believe that only by attending their class students can learn? (I am aware that this system was never perfectly followed)
    2. Why did teachers/union never demand for directly connecting their salary to the student evaluation of their work? Principals observing the classes with cctv is obscene; but can’t students evaluate their teachers?
    3. While we are questioning the power relation between VC and teachers or Principal and teachers how much we are comfortable in challenging the hierarchy of teachers over students.
    In short I was disturbed by the total absence of ‘student’ and student’s interest in the debate.

  22. Sunalini permalink
    January 8, 2010 9:17 AM

    Thanks for your questions, they are important. Let me try to answer them;
    1. There was a struggle by Delhi University teachers association against the compulsory attendance for students system. But there are three reasons why it didnt become a larger struggle:
    One, its a question of political stamina, if I may use a silly term. Teachers were reeling under multiple new regulations – the incredibly clerically complicated system of concurrent courses, reshaping of the BA programme, addition of dozens of new courses, finding suitable people to teach them, etc. As I said in my comment above, it was implemented without any preparation, or support staff. Removing compulsory attendance for students was very much part of at least two DUTA agitations I went to, but in the midst of all the other demands it got lost. As I have written in a post in Kafila, its not that easy to put together a political agitation every time the authorities do something stupid, and in the last five years, there’s been a glut of stupidities…which to put your energy into?!

    Two, some teachers felt (I don’t agree with them, but don’t doubt their sincerity) that attendance component for students may help those students who have a weak educational background – in other words, those from government schools or from small towns without good schools. This could be the only way for them to get those precious 5% extra marks in the final result – by sitting in class. Its all very complicated in a hugely class- and gender-divided society as India. In my experience, the attendance component did actually help such students. It also allowed those girls (I teach in a women’s college) to make the argument at home that being in college everyday was important for getting their final degree. Thus providing them a welcome chance to get out of the house everyday and escape whatever chore their parents may have had in mind for them. If they defaulted on attendance, in a college like ours, a letter would be sent home, and no parent wants that.

    Three, as you said yourself, it was never taken very seriously. James Scottian daily resistance I would call it. Those teachers who are committed to their jobs went about doing it anyway, and those who couldn’t be bothered (and there are very complex reasons for non-performance in the government sector, which I will debate sometime) continued with their old ways. In the absence of a real overhauling of the system in the way of things I have mentioned earlier (facilities for teacher academic improvement), compulsory attendance for students (or teachers through biometric systems!) does not change anything.

    2. About student evaluation, its tricky again. The question is of trusting authorities to use that information in an enlightened way. Please remember – the entire bureaucracy of Delhi University and other such universities – is drawn from the same universities. Once these people are in power, their calculations change enormously. They start looking down on us lowly teachers, and a priori assuming guilt before we are proven innocent. Most colleagues who I know to be good teachers periodically use student evaluation for themselves, to improve their teaching. Would we trust how those evaluations (often complex as forms of knowledge in themselves – contradictory, not easily quantifiable) are deployed by Principals and other authorities? Already, there are plans to make promotions dependent on how many extra-class responsibilities you fulfill in college. How does one get those responsibilities? In most colleges, by proximity to the Principal. In principle, like the semester system, I am in favour of evaluations. In this system though, it will deepen the absurdities of the power structure.

    3. About hierarchy of teachers over students, I absolutely agree with you. It is a disturbing feature of our times, and a symbol of our world that teaching like all other activities/professions, is organised hierarchically – the corporate sector, government, media, everywhere…they just call it by different names in those places. But pedagogy is a complex enterprise. If you lose a certain moral legitimacy with students (and its easiest to gain it not just by being good at your job, but by being slightly larger than life – not authoritarian, but not equal either) then teaching becomes a daily adventure! It becomes about who wields de facto power within the classroom. Students from well-off backgrounds (or with crisp public school accents) can end up dominating not simply other students, but teachers from smaller towns or from less known universities. As Foucault said, power and hierarchy are everywhere – most disturbingly amongst students, in the classroom, from kindergarten onwards, or we wouldnt have ragging…

    Ideally I would put all my energy into creating the kind of non-hierarchical society we want to live in, but since I also have to earn a living, I redirect that energy into using the power I have to create an egalitarian classroom. I am well aware that students primarily listen to me (at least in the beginning) because I am an authority figure. But I can and do use that authority to change the rules of the game. To make it absolutely clear that nobody brings their privilege into that space. Eventually, that becomes part of the commonsense of students lives. Or so I hope. Of course, power is continually misused, and we must find ways to stop it. Everywhere it occurs.

    As for lack of student interest and voice in this debate, I want to point out that this post was written by an MA student, just out of college, and was first published in the university-wide student newspaper ‘DU Beat’.

    I would like you to clarify what exactly the trade unionist meant when he said students and teachers are the problem. If he meant that we do not join cause with the non teaching employees, he/she is absolutely right. Its a huge failing of the teachers movement in India that it does not ally with other kinds of trade union causes. Its a sign of class insularity amongst teachers. But if he/she meant something else, I couldn’t really say.

  23. Arvind Prasad permalink
    June 19, 2011 11:12 AM

    I guess Ms. Kriti that your conclusions on this issue of Biometric System of Attendance in the last para is completely wrong. I appreciate the argument that attendance system is not required if the academic environment, as teaching learning is not a time bound process. It needs flexibility in thought and time to achieve an enhanced system of learning. Flexibility in academics is required to ensure that the teacher breaks the convention without fear of comeuppance. The flexibility in time is to ensure that the teacher doesn’t sit in his sanitized insulated tower(read department) but interacts with the world to discover the relevance of his accumulated knowledge. This can also be achieved by publishing papers and participating in the society for its development. I wish to inform you that we stand nowhere today in the international academic world. Our publications have to yet reach a critical quality standard. In failure of this I include that hallowed institutions of this country. The reason for this is very clear that the teachers are usually not found in their institutions for any serious work. I again repeat that if the publications are world class( I am not subscribing to the idea that it should be firangi judged) or a class in itself, and if the teaching of the individual is exceptional then the person should not be encumbered. But such idealities don’t exist at any level(neither the govt nor the private sector).

    The correct conclusion is that attendance of teachers in the campus is an issue that is now assuming serious dimensions and it needs to be tackled. If the D.U teachers do not want a bio metric system then why shouldn’t other teachers all over India demand this including the school teachers. Is school teaching a lesser cerebral task? And if attendance is not to be monitored then lets not complaint of the missing school and college teachers in most parts of the country.

    The entire idea that teaching is not a time regulated process seem to be devoid of any strong logic. It is time regulated and therefore we have lecture hours. In the off lecture hours one is supposed to be available to the student. I have had extremely bad experiences of the availability of teachers off contact hours. Even if available any serious academic queries would be unwelcome as the teacher was in tearing hurry to attend his avocations.

    Lastly privatization of education is bad, a painful reality, showing lack of commitment of governments towards education. But bio metric attendance system is seriously not the best way of doing this. Policy decisions stifling the education space by selling it to shikshan samraats started long before the idea of bio metric sank in.

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