Teachers resistance

Print edition : December 28, 2012

Students and teachers demonstrate against Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh in the university's north campus in New Delhi on November 29. Students and other employees have joined the teachers in their struggle against the hasty implementation of the semester system.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Teachers of Delhi University fight against the undemocratic introduction of the semester system, which they see as a route to the privatisation of higher education.

THE standoff between the teachers and administrative bodies of Delhi University, which started last year following the hurried implementation of the semester system at the undergraduate level by the then Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental, has taken a new turn. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) called off on December 1 the relay fast its members had been on for more than 50 days. However, it has vowed to take the struggle to another level by mobilising students and employees of the university. DUTA leaders maintained that the protests in several universities across the country can no longer be seen as university-centric. The agitation in Delhi University would now be directed against the Union government, which DUTA feels is responsible for the hasty implementation of the reforms. DUTA has been severely critical of the alleged autocratic style of functioning of the present Vice-Chancellor, Dinesh Singh.

In its general body meeting two months ago, DUTA decided to launch a hunger strike after it failed to get the VC to the negotiating table. In an unprecedented action by the university authorities, the salaries of many teachers were cut for their participation in the strike. The teachers charge that they have been completely sidelined from all decision-making processes of the university and that despite repeated requests, the administrative bodies have closed all channels of communication with them.

The hunger strike can be seen as the culmination of many unacknowledged single-day protest actions by DUTAsuch as marches and rallies to the VCs office, symbolic open-air classes, and over 50 letters to the VC since January 2012 requesting him to meet a delegation of teachers. Almost 1,000 national and international academics outside Delhi University have started a signature campaign to convey their concern to the Prime Minister about the VCs refusal to involve the teachers in policymaking.

In its general body meeting in October, which was attended by more than 1,000 teachers, DUTA censured the VC for his contemptuous disregard of the statutory bodies of the universitythe Academic Council [AC] and the Executive Council [EC]and destroying the entire academic fabric by unilaterally announcing new courses and academic programmes through the media and running the university as his personal fiefdom.

Delhi University, one of the most prestigious universities in India, has been the centre of attention ever since a slew of innovations were proposed in the university system. The VC has projected the step as one that will pull the universitythe first publicly funded one to introduce the semester system at the undergraduate levelout of its conservative ways and put it on a par with international universities that follow a similar system.

The VC has also proposed a four-year graduation programme whereby an undergraduate course would be for four years and the students could have three exit points. A student would be awarded an associate degree if he/she chose to leave the course after two years; a bachelors degree on completion of three years; and an honours degree on completion of four years.

The VC has also proposed a meta-college concept, wherein a student will have the freedom to pick and attend courses from different colleges under the university and also from other universities in Delhi such as Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The most recent announcement from the VC is a mobile college, for which a budget of Rs.50 crore has been set aside; the college would be run on a train and would travel to various places in the country to give students a novel and different educational experience.

Problem areas

While on paper the courses sound innovative, the devil is in the details. The university would be adding to its already enormous student strength and skewed student-teacher ratio. The number of hostels is also abysmally low in Delhi University when compared with other Indian universities.

The new proposals seem to suggest that the university has sorted out the many pressing concerns in the old system and managed the crisis of higher education well, a claim DUTA is contesting. Queries under the Right to Information Act (RTI) have revealed that close to 4,000 teaching positions are lying vacant; promotions of teachers have been long overdue; reservation quotas in teaching positions for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes have been ignored despite the University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines of 2006; the issue of the conversion of contributory provident fund (CPF) to general provident fund (GPF) has not been settled; and the pensions of retired teachers have not been fixed.

Abha Dev Habib of DUTA says that the administrative authorities of the university have chosen to maintain silence over these pressing concerns. We have been thrown out of the policymaking process completely. The AC and the EC have been subverted, and Vice-Chancellors have wielded their emergency powers too often even when the situation did not warrant it. One must ask whether D.U. can break away from the 10+2+3 system of education singlehandedly. Public-funded universities like D.U. are the last resort for many poor students who need subsidised education. The authorities have hardly shown any interest in finding out how the semester system is working. How can decisions be taken without any democratic dialogue? she asked.

The concerns of DUTA may not be off the mark. The hasty implementation of the semester system has posed more challenges than found solutions. Growing discontent against the semester system is noticeable. Because no democratic dialogue was initiated and no adequate time was given to the colleges for the implementation of the system, the earlier course syllabus for over a years time was cut into two to be taught in two semesters.

Saikat Ghosh, who teaches English in SGTB Khalsa College, said: The courses have not been redesigned to fit into the new time frame. The VC did not take into account all the feedback from teachers. For example, I taught the Renaissance paper in the second year in the annual system earlier. Now, in the semester mode, what they have done to this paper is to shift the plays by [William] Shakespeare and [Christopher] Marlowe to the second semester, while the background information, which students need to know first before studying the plays, has been shifted to the third semester! This is absurd. The semester system is successful only if the student-teacher ratio is small, as in the case of JNU, where I studied under the semester mode. Here, we are dealing with anything between 40 and 80 students per class. Also, the effective teaching time in a semester is only about three and a half months owing to holidays and exams coming in between. Ever since this system has been introduced, my students have stopped going to the library to consult books because they just dont have the time. Its the weaker students who suffer the mostthose from less affluent families who dont have much exposure, or who dont have an academic environment at home. The one-year format allowed us to help them but now we dont have time to pay them extra attention.

Members of Delhi University Teachers' Association protesting outside the Vice-Chancellor's office in New Delhi on March 20. They went on a relay hunger strike for 50 days in this academic year.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Nandita Narain, who teaches mathematics at St. Stephens College, told Frontline: Our worst fears have come true. Even the brighter students are unable to cope. The teaching hours have come down drastically. We are forced to take classes even on Sundays. When will a student get time to study and develop any sort of interest in the discipline?

The latest furore in Delhi University is over the way answer sheets are corrected. In the new evaluation system, each answer sheet is to be examined by three teachers and then re-examined by a head examiner. Ostensibly, this is being done to do away with the system of re-evaluation that was earlier done on students requests. But in practice, it has meant that each examiner corrects separate and specific parts of the answer sheets, making the procedure inconsistent and faulty. In effect, none of the examiners evaluates one entire answer sheet.

Nandita Narain observed: The burden of the new system has been completely passed on to teachers. Now every teacher is required to correct answer sheets because of the greater number of examinations under the semester system. Earlier, we had a rule that teachers need not correct papers on subjects that they did not teach. But now we have so many instances where even ad hoc teachers are asked to correct papers.

The question papers set for the semester examinations were ridiculously trivial, too, she pointed out. Never did we have such easy papers; but even then the students performed poorly. This destroys the intellectual capabilities and also any interest students have in a discipline. Many teachers have complained that students in a semester stream lack basic understanding of the subjects even in the third year of their graduation course, she said.

An RTI query revealed that marks were tampered with by the central examination department to present a decent pass percentage in the semester system. The issue has caused the university much embarrassment. DUTA has been protesting against violations of the University Act and its statutes and ordinances, and also the misuse of emergency powers to bring in courses and start centres such as the Cluster Innovation Centre.

While Dinesh Singh called DUTA an illegal welfare body made by teachers, the university administration called its activities farcical. Despite repeated requests, officials in the university administration refused to talk to Frontline.

The most pertinent concern is why the government is hastily implementing new programmes. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has been pushing for self-sustaining and autonomous universities in India, which though an attractive concept, will mean that revenue would have to be generated from students fees in place of government subsidies. This would mean a complete restructuring of publicly funded universities, and a massive fee hike in the future. Until now, public universities while delivering qualitative and quantitative education also provided education for all. But a fee hike would mean a vast number of poor students will be excluded from gaining higher education.

Granting autonomy is a collateral principle of this process. Centralised universities depend on government funds but autonomous institutions have to fend for themselves. Hiking student fees, getting industry sponsorships and creating public-private partnerships are also a part of this process. The National Knowledge Commission and the Planning Commission have already stated that there needs to be industry tie-ups to run universities. They have also stated that these reforms are essential for Indian universities to reach the standards of international universities.

If a politician-businessman sets up a university after investing Rs.200-400 crore, he would want returns. Under the law of the land, education is a not-for-profit sector, but clearly todays developments say otherwise, a Ministry official said.

The six Bills pending before the Rajya Sabhathe Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill; the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority of Higher Education Institutions Bill; the Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical Educational Institutions, Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill; the Educational Tribunals Bill; the Higher Education and Research Bill; and the Universities for Research and Innovation Billall clearly convey the governments intention to privatise education.

The ongoing tussle between the Delhi University administration and the teachers has to be seen in the context of this significant departure from the philosophy of liberal higher education in India. The Union governments shifting of focus towards more privatised education at the cost of publicly funded learning seems to be the central point of disagreement. Delhi University has always been a role model for other Indian universities. Perhaps, that is why it has become the playground for hasty reforms.

A DUTA statement said: In the garb of academic reforms, the university systems are being dismantled and redefined. It is important to note that the first announcements about the Meta University were made by the Prime Minister and the HRD Minister. These visions have not been left at the level of recommendations for the universities to consider but are being pushed in a top-down manner, taking away the right from the teachers in these systems of deliberating on these programmes to understand their relevance and implications.

Abha Dev Habib said: In higher education, the private sector is bound to be governed much more by the market to develop workforce rather than develop interest in academic disciplines, and encourage research potential and critical faculties. Moreover, such undemocratic reforms are unfeasible and would discredit public universities to a point where good students would stop coming. We must remember how the collapse of publicly funded schooling has led to the growth of private schools in India. Do we want the same thing to happen to higher education? When teachers are raising such important questions, the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government and the university authorities are giving them the same treatment they gave other peoples movements in Indiaof indifference and exclusion.

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