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Dreamum Wakeupum, HRD Ministry!

November 23, 2012

Monobina Gupta, who writes on Kafila had a piece in Times of India recently on the ravages of restructuring at Delhi University. While researching this piece Gupta sent me and several others a list of questions about the reforms. I reproduce below her questions and my answers in full. If you’re convinced by what follows, please sign this petition.

  1. How has the academic culture/ environment changed over the last five years? Has it been a slow process of attrition or sudden negativity with Kapil Sibal getting more and more aggressive?

Interestingly, strictly speaking, we’ve seen not so much attrition as an acceleration of initiatives in the purely quantitative sense accompanied by academic chaos and a disturbing decline in intellectual input. It’s possible that we now have a greater variety of courses on paper, more research projects and more published papers by faculty, but the quality of each of these has to be questioned in the light of the pressure under which they are being produced. Intellectual activity, whether anybody likes it or not, cannot be compared to most other types of output or production. It requires a very different administration, temporality (like any creative activity) and support. It needs to be largely self-directed and self-motivated, with a few broad parameters set by authority. There can consensus on standards, but these need to be set by the academic community in a public and transparent way. They cannot be set by bureaucrats and administrators and enforced by the gun. What Sibal’s regime did, consciously or unwittingly, was to define the entire teaching class as enemies, at the administrative level. The effect was that Delhi University’s VC found it in himself to bypass established democratic and consultative procedures and ram through the proposed changes. Every time teachers asked that established norms be respected and we be consulted through due process or if we suggested that intellectual and scholarly processes take time, the administration stonewalled us and threw us out of the reform process. Under Sibal, decades of collegiate functioning was torn apart, and every fight got ugly. Suddenly, ‘debate’ and ‘democratic consultation’ became dirty words. It is to be expected that a change in the higher education policy of a country as massive as India would generate passionate debate. Since this debate was not taking place in the national media, we teachers should have been considered the most valuable interlocutors, but we were stunned by the speed and ferocity of the reform process, and the criminalisation of our right to dissent and ask questions. Who has decided what the time frame for reforms is, and why aren’t we involved in this decision? Ultimately, the administration might wish that we didn’t exist as the troublesome, questioning human element in the teaching learning process, but unfortunately this is not going to happen unless they invent androids!

  1. Can you outline the main points of difference in the way the education is perceived by the ministry/ policymakers and those who actually do the teaching?

One, for the HRD ministry, education is nothing more than ‘skill-building’. I’m afraid this is true not only of Sibal’s regime. UPA II as a whole seems to have blindly internalised the idea that an extensive liberal arts education or focusing on pure sciences is simply unaffordable and undesirable for this country. If you see the preliminary statements issued by the new ministers for education, this is the vision they are probably going to work with. I find we have a peculiar schizophrenia as Indians – we are dazzled by the speeches of American Presidents and the level of debate in the United States and Europe; forgetting that they and their speech writers are products of a liberal arts education that took centuries to build and develop. For our own children, if we can afford it, we send them abroad. But we can simultaneously sit on ministerial and university committees here and recommend the wrapping up of whatever remains of that older, broader educational vision; and say all we need is marketable skills. Marketable skills are important, but why are they being defined in opposition to a basic, humanist, liberal arts education?
Two, the ministry works with observable output – here you can’t really blame them. Their entire training as leaders and administrators is to see output rather than the process. This would still be acceptable if that output were to be defined as a general increase in good quality graduates (preferably in more than one language) in all universities across the country. It would also be ok to measure output in terms of the number of graduates that went on to get higher degrees, or gained admission in professional courses and/or got decent, satisfying jobs. But since we don’t have the political will to collect that sort of data, we take the short cut and define output as the number of courses being offered and the number of teaching hours enforced per week. Students are probably going to fail the semester system en masse because we as teachers simply don’t have enough class time to undertake whatever remedial measures may be required to equalise differences in school education, economic and regional backgrounds. But these figures are not considered when we claim premature success for the new semester system.
Three, the HRD ministry seems hell-bent on moulding our system to the global system, which in effect is really the American system. Teachers who are passionately committed to their teaching here, on the other hand, say why this hurry to throw out indigenous practices in education, including innovative pedagogical practices suited to a large, diverse and developing economy? And why only the U.S as a model? It’s not as if the American economy is waiting to lap up all our graduates! It’s not as if we have anything close to U.S standards when it comes to the number of good universities or infrastructure, or government spending on education? So you leave out the larger debate on how much a so-called ‘emerging knowledge economy’ should be spending on education as a proportion of its GDP (we have lower spending than most of our South Asian neighbours and many African countries), and leave out the quality and content of that education, but you put superficial changes like the semester system and four-year undergraduate degree in place. They have 4000 unfilled teaching posts in Delhi University alone – why this shyness in spending money on recruitment when you’re looking to forge ahead? I suspect they want to bring in the American system without acknowledging the need for quality teachers – sadly for them, this won’t happen.
  1. What are the stringent administrative measures starting with the semester system to installing CCTV cameras and biometric attendance register that have come into effect?
As I mentioned above, installing biometric attendance for teachers is a short cut – a kind of bargain basement option in the absence of collecting real data and feedback from teachers about the costs and benefits of the new system. You can hold a gun to teachers’ heads, make them report to the classroom, but without a massive overhaul in teacher recruitment and training (which involves re-thinking the NET exam and the often substandard refresher courses we have to compulsorily undergo for promotion), you will not miraculously raise teaching standards or the standard of graduates. You will certainly ensure a dull, conformist vision of education that will help you promote teachers who pass a quantitative test of teaching hours, and dazed students whose sole purpose is to gain points for attendance in class and pass the exam.
  1. On the one hand the government is taking away the autonomy of teachers, the curriculum (the Ramanujam or cartoon controversies) – all in the name of ‘reform’ – on the other they are introducing all these administrative measures. How is it going to affect the classroom culture?
I’m always a little worried when they speak of autonomy. It is one of those words that has such massive currency in our times; it sort of whitewashes what we really need to be talking about. Teaching and academia, like many other social activities in society, is a relational enterprise. It’s about somebody or something relating to somebody or something else. Complete autonomy is a bit of a myth – even in the most free market societies, teachers, students and even bureaucrats and ministers are answerable to other constituencies. The million dollar question is: answerable to whom, and on what standards? Earlier, colleges were directly answerable to the university who was in turn answerable to the ministry. However, ironically since our better functioning universities were doing reasonably well in terms of global standards (our students have been gaining admission in the private sector and abroad in large numbers, if that is the test you want to administer), they were left relatively alone. There was an understanding that teachers could administer themselves by and large, with some pushing and pulling. Now, strangely, in the past five years we as teachers at Delhi University have seen an administrative assault and reduction of autonomy at an unprecedented level, all in the name of reform. However, as I said, it doesn’t seem to me that those at the very top of the decision-making process – the VC, the bureaucrats and the HRD ministry itself – are themselves autonomous. They are clearly hostage to the disastrously shrunken educational mandate of UPA II. So who is autonomous here? Ultimately, autonomy will come to mean the freedom of some institutions to charge whatever fees they can for whichever course they want to offer. So, privatisation. Let’s simply check the record of private higher education institutions in pure sciences, liberal arts and higher research in this country. Do we want a country full of substandard doctors, MBAs and call centre executives? China seems to be showing much much better vision as far as academics is concerned.
As for the classroom, I’m wearily waiting for the day they install CCTV cameras in my class, record my lectures and run a computer program to see if I used five key words. Forget the magic and serendipity of teaching, forget the autonomy of the classroom.
  1. If you could, please cite some of your personal experiences.

I have returned to teaching after a study leave for PhD. The past semester was the most unsatisfying I have ever had. I found myself actually telling students to not ask questions or have a discussion because I had to finish the syllabus, and they face an exam within months. There is no time for extra curricular activity, no time for students participating in seminars and conferences, and no time for me as a teacher to devote to students who need a little extra attention. Also now, I’m worried that as an academic, I need to publish or I won’t get promoted. If the HRD ministry really wants global standards, why don’t they reduce our class time to about 6 hours a week and give us individual offices, teaching assistants and office hours? No, we have to continue to teach 18 hours a week to classes up to seventy five students, up to four courses a teacher, plus all the evaluations and lecture preparation, and somehow, in addition adopt global standards of research. Postcolonial schizophrenia I suppose! For the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve been teaching, I find myself being envious of those teachers who simply register their presence to college authorities without worrying too much about the quality of their lectures or their students’ individual needs. Those are the employees who will probably thrive in the new system.

  1. How do you visualize higher education in the future?
We are heading towards a kind of entropy of standards. All else I can’t say, probably a new class divide in which those who can afford a real degree and the life chances it offers will go abroad, and those who are told they are only good enough for skill development and getting the first job that comes their way, they will stay here.
  1. What do you have to say to the allegations that teachers don’t teach and therefore need all the ‘disciplinary’ measure that are now introduced? How do you explain this hostility to the teaching community?
I don’t really know where this hostility comes from; I know how hard we work. One thing that has always amused me is how little real work gets done in the average office, for instance. I have friends in the private sector who are constantly faffing around, even if they spend ten hours in their plush offices. It’s a very diverse picture, and there is little debate or agreement on what productivity or output really is. The problem for us as teachers is that a lot of the real quality we can bring to our jobs is often intangible and unquantifiable. So we have no sales report or automobile part to show for the hours we put in. There can be enlightened debate on reasonable standards as I described above, but as far as I can see, that is not happening.
Also, the Indian education system has taken the cheaper route of informalisation as far as infrastructure is concerned. So it actually depends on a largely female labour force that tries its best to balance work and domestic responsibilities. So as I said, we don’t have offices, if we’re lucky, we have one staff room (recently we got air conditioning) that can seat maximum 40 teachers for around 125 teachers. We don’t have individual computers or laptops or even a functioning wi-fi. The system is premised on a lot of the non-class work being fitted into our day as and when we can, at home, or elsewhere. All of this adds up to an appearance that we don’t work. But only we know what a responsibility each student and her academic development is. Many of my colleagues that may fit into the classic stereotype of the bad/lazy teacher, may have had bad/lazy teachers themselves. How are you going to break the cycle? By giving teachers support in their intellectual development, investing massively in libraries, workshops and good quality seminars or by brandishing a syllabus in front of them and asking them to record their fingerprints and irises in a biometric machine?
6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2012 11:43 PM

    Thank you, Sunalini, for expressing what so many of us feel.But for all the voices being raised, it seems nothing can get through to the VC and his men- no arguments, no logic, no anguish, no anger.Nothing.

  2. November 24, 2012 8:34 PM

    Thank YOU, Sanam and others, for your untiring efforts to resist. I completely understand the frustration.

  3. November 28, 2012 1:32 AM

    The article appears to let Sibal and co. off too lightly as bumbling bureaucrats with a ‘target fetish’ and no control over resource allocation. After all, they do (or should) supply feedback about investing in human resources/capital to parliament and other significants.

    A horde of teachers set to become a nation of advertising executives. Technicists can take care of the rest. Isnt that good for the market/everyone?

    (p.s_ the author also places too much on cartoon pedagogy; already teachers need to be multimedia experts, but cartoonists?!)

  4. December 6, 2012 9:43 PM

    aj, I’m wondering which article you’ve read! Where have I suggested that teachers need to be cartoonists? Also, the idea is not to let off Sibal (if you read my other posts on higher education, you would be sure of my position on Sibal) but to wonder if we need to be worrying about the new HRD leadership too. I’m sorry but I also barely understand your second paragraph. Perhaps you care to explain?

  5. December 10, 2012 4:24 PM

    This comment was in response to your passing reference: AK Ramanujam/cartoon controversy, and the heat both issues succeeded in generating_ my ideas relating to the latter was hardly what you had written about, sorry.

    My 2nd para too needs plenty of explanatory context: the admission re. lazy/bad (even humanities/liberal arts teachers) could logically require eventual administrative followup/ the axe (since you had raised the issue of ‘marketabality'; but hopefully all this wont affect ‘hordes’ requiring ‘redeployment’)

    Thanks Sunalini, your article addressed a number of current issues in education. Hope University News/Mhrd listens?

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  1. Autonomy for what, from whom, and for whom? | Kafila

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