Jadavpur University

A struggle in Jadavpur

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Jadavpur University students protesting in Kolkata on July 10 against the university’s decision to scrap admission tests for six departments in the Arts Faculty. Photo: PTI

The recent attempt by the authorities to meddle in the admission process that the Jadavpur University community has painstakingly developed over the years has come to an ignominious end for the time being. But the battle for rights is by no means over at the university.

The national media have not paid sufficient attention to the recent three-week-long confrontation between the university community and the authorities at Jadavpur University, one of the country’s premier institutions of higher education. Now that order has been restored in the university for the time being, it is time to look more closely at the dynamics of the entire episode. What is happening at Jadavpur reflects certain aspects of the situation in higher education in West Bengal under the Trinamool Congress government and this has striking similarities with what is happening in the rest of the country under the present dispensation at the Centre.

The episode started with the Executive Council (E.C.) of the university deciding in the last week of June to extend the date for the submission of applications for undergraduate admissions to July 2; the undergraduate admission tests to be conducted in the first week of July (notified on June 9) in six departments in the Arts Faculty, namely, English, Bengali, comparative literature, history, philosophy and international relations, were jeopardised by this unilateral decision. The uncertainty triggered protests by both teachers and students. The E.C. added fuel to the fire by issuing self-contradictory diktats in one meeting after another.

Prof. Suranjan Das, Jadavpur University Vice Chancellor, at a press conference in Kolkata on July 10 after the Executive Council made one more reversal of its earlier changes to the procedures for admission to six departments of the Arts Faculty.   -  PTI

The admissions committee, consisting of all heads of departments in the Arts Faculty and internal ex officio members, has the responsibility to conduct examinations with the assistance of departmental teachers. In a meeting held on June 27, the E.C. gave the Arts Faculty admissions committee the bizarre direction that this year equal weightage must be given to marks of board examinations and results of the admission test and that the departments must not be involved in the admission tests. This raised the contentious issue of outsourcing, and resentment spread because of the unwarranted aspersions that the direction cast on the departmental teachers. On July 4, turning its earlier decision on its head, the E.C. decided by a nine to six majority to scrap the admission tests altogether and have direct counselling on the basis of marks obtained by candidates in various board examinations.

Rationale for admission tests

The departments concerned want to hold admission tests—as an answer to the argument that there should be so-called “uniformity” in the admission process—because, in their view, marks obtained in the final examinations of various school boards often do not reflect either the student’s inclination towards the subject or her capacity for reading, thinking and writing independently. These attributes are crucial for the various disciplines, and it is the departmental teachers alone who are competent to assess whether someone who may not have scored high marks in the board examinations may still turn out to be a good scholar in the subject. The admissions committee, with the active help of the teachers in each department, had evolved tried-and-tested methods that enabled it to admit suitable candidates, who have proved their worth by meeting the university’s standards of academic excellence. This was always ratified by the E.C., and there had never been a breath of suspicion regarding the admissions process.

All those who supported the departments, including the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, felt that the E.C.’s decision signified an intolerable interference, for no ostensible reason, in academic matters in which the prerogative of the departmental teachers under the admissions committee cannot be curtailed. The teachers in the departments concerned were so upset that the majority of them officially dissociated themselves from the admission process. Even teachers in other departments where no written tests were being held refused to be involved in the process of counselling and checking mark sheets. Many eminent former professors and alumni came out publicly to demand restoration of the admission tests.

West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee.   -  PTI

The students also felt rightly that this completely directionless behaviour of the highest authorities in the university was jeopardising the future of thousands of students who had been prepared to take the admission test in the hope of having a second chance to prove themselves. Their protest took the form of an indefinite dharna and then indefinite fasting until the combined pressure forced the E.C. to make yet another reversal, on July 10, to the earlier 50/50 formula, but it dropped all talk of excluding departmental teachers from the process and left it to the admissions committee to decide how the tests would be conducted.

Politics & corruption

Disaster was temporarily averted, but with the exception of the stand taken by six department heads (not necessarily of the departments concerned) against the scrapping of admission tests on July 4, the E.C.’s twists and turns cast a shadow on its credibility. On a number of earlier occasions, State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee, had expressed his displeasure with the admission tests in Jadavpur and the insistence of the departments that marks obtained in the board examinations were an insufficient criterion for admission. Interestingly, Dilip Ghosh, State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has also publicly spoken against the tests in Jadavpur.

It was therefore strongly felt that arguments against admission tests came from a higher source than the E.C., although some officers tried to explain that the similarity between the Minister’s opinion and the trajectory the E.C. followed was a mere coincidence. This is the time of year when undergraduate colleges under various affiliating State universities in West Bengal go through the admission process. There are many reports of the complete vitiation of the process by intermediaries claiming to be members of the students’ wing of the Trinamool Congress asking the candidates for large amounts of money in exchange for assured admission.

More than one student who could not pay the money or who failed to get admission even after paying has committed suicide. Today, in colleges under the University of Calcutta, altogether 40,000 seats are lying vacant as a result of this mayhem, and the university had to extend admission dates by more than a month. In Jadavpur, a unitary university, admissions are still fair being largely under the control of the admissions committee and the teachers concerned. The question being raised today is, Will not these departments be liable to succumb to a system that is much more chaotic and likely to allow access to undesirable elements engaged in selling seats for a consideration?

I am not charging the university authorities with collusion. Since the Trinamool Congress came to power, it has twice changed the University Acts of 1981 and then in March 2017 superseded the earlier Acts with a new one applying to all State-aided universities, including Jadavpur. The Education Minister has said more than once words to the effect that since he is footing the bill, it is for him to call the tune, and the sole purpose of the new Act has been to curtail the financial, administrative and even the academic autonomy of the universities and to bring them under the absolute control of the State government and through it the ruling party.

A university official reading the new procedures for admission to departments of the Arts Faculty, on July 10.   -  PTI

For some mysterious reason, statutes for implementing the relevant Act are still not in place. As a result, even the minimum number of elected members from the teaching community allowed by the Act do not find a place in the E.C. Even the deans are nominated, with the heavy hand of the State government lying on them. The Faculty Council, too, is similarly disabled. How can this truncated and diminished E.C. protect the best interests of the university? How can any Vice Chancellor whose appointment is under the direct control of the State government work independently?

Some time ago, the West Bengal government had sent directions to Jadavpur University that salaries and pensions would be disbursed directly by the Education Ministry rather than through the university. It later reversed itself only because it knew that this would lead to a confrontation with the university community, which might backfire. Humanities departments in the University of Calcutta are having their budgets slashed and are being told that to get support they will have to generate revenue. Such steps at the State level are a mirror image of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development demolishing the University Grants Commission to acquire direct hold over the purse strings vis-a-vis publicly funded universities.

The regimes at the Centre and in West Bengal are both marked by their ingrained neoliberal antipathy for the system of public education and the teachers and students who belong to it because they know that the stiffest resistance against attacks on free thought and on academic and administrative autonomy will come from these quarters. The recent attempt in Jadavpur by those in power in the State to mar through internal fiddling an admission system that the university community had painstakingly developed has come to an ignominious end for the time being. But the battle for rights is by no means over at Jadavpur University.

Malini Bhattacharya is a former professor of English, Jadavpur University.

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