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University Grants Commission: Thorn in Higher Education

On May 4, UGC notified amendments in its 2010 regulations, causing massive protest of teachers

Dr Amna Mirza
Publish Date: Jul 1 2016 11:10AM | Updated Date: Jul 1 2016 11:19AM

University Grants Commission: Thorn in Higher Education

Education, in true sense, takes place beyond the curriculum. Education and learning can never be judged by mere degrees. What defines quality of education is the wisdom gained in the scheme of life -- where a stint at university or college definitely adds precision and clarity to the drill of erudition. As this narrative begins the focus will be on university education in India as that’s the location where based on firsthand experience one can draw contours of discourse.


'Soft power' is new currency of power where education is factored in as key parameter. When analysed under this criteria, a definite attempt to sabotage true academic discourse can be witnessed in recent times in terms of policies that are inflicting great damage on the system.


Dissent has been on display of late in the form of teachers boycotting evaluation of undergraduate exams, holding demonstrations and marches in protest.  University Grants Commission issued a Gazette on 6th May 2016 which defines new features of academic promotion and evaluation policy for higher education in India.  Why did it evoke such protests from the teaching and student fraternity?


'Kitab rally', satyagraha at Jantar Mantar, march to UGC office, demonstration at Parliament House, extended teachers association meetings and boycott of examination paper evaluation process were few of the many incidences where teachers irrespective of ideologies - left, right and centre -- were up in arms against the attack on public universities in the country. What made the movements interesting were its concerns touched all -- students, teachers, civil society, think tanks and one could comprehend that higher education in India is in state of crisis with the introduction of the new gazette of UGC which is a new addition to hitherto existing manner of dealing with Indian academia at large. The teaching fraternity made an attempt to reach out but the consultations did not bring any positive results.


One of the most contentious features of this gazette is increase in the workload for Assistant Professors from specified 18 hours to 24 hours.  The gazette stipulated Direct Teaching Hours (DTH) for Associate and Assistant Professors to be 16 and 18 respectively with tutorials outside the purview of DTH. Further it states that two hours of practical would be treated equivalent to one lecture. These norms would require teachers to do classroom teaching for at least 22 to 24 hrs.


The state of our universities demands efforts to invigorate the system through funding, research etc.  Sadly, what instead was doled out by the Government was the Gazette that spoke of 600 annual teaching hours. It is seen as a subtle attempt to hamper creativity and innovation where effort and time management do not match well. This mandate of working hours cannot be fulfilled even if all year teaching takes place devoid of holiday and breaks.


The Gazette makes tutorials optional and not to be included in teaching hours. This is indeed shocking. Tutorials have been always considered part of teaching hours and their exclusion shall have detrimental impact.


This increase in workload added to the fact that hundreds of faculties across universities are working for many years on contractual basis. It, indeed, bares the inhuman face of the current policies. Unless tutorials and practical are counted at par with lectures for the calculation of DTH, the problems of overburdening and reduction in the number of teaching posts cannot be resolved.


Earlier, a teacher was appointed against workload of 18 hours per week which included six tutorials.  With the gazette aiming to increase working hours to 24 hours, it shall jeopardise the roaster and recruitment process. Ad-hoc staff on pay roll is a reality in several colleges and departments because interviews for permanent posts have not taken place for many years. In this scenario, the wisdom of the policymakers in terms of increase in work hours and excluding tutorial classes from teaching hours surely does not augur well.


It is not the case that academicians are not committed to quality aspect in education, as it can be seen that how under prevailing conditions faculties have been dedicated to best output in terms of teaching and results for many years. The increase in working hours will not only lead to massive job loss for many talented contractual faculties but also kill initiative and incentive in the permanent teachers. 


Further, for already permanent faculty, it puts a big question mark on their promotion which has already been delayed for several years. Promotions earlier were on autonomous grounds in terms of number of years and publications. It is one thing that interviews for promotion have not taken place for several years which is adding to a colossal backlog, but what makes things complicated is that now promotions shall be defined as per notifying agencies for journals only as mandated by UGC.  Alongside denial of permanent jobs to huge cadre of ad-hoc, merit of existing faculty is not being recognised due to undue delay, apathetic attitude to demands for promotions and complications arising due to new policies that are remote to the concerns of academia.


Further, college teachers do not have opportunities for supervising doctorate students, research is marred by inept college libraries, lack of access to study material among other things. In this grim scenario, grading of teaching and research inputs of teachers cannot be fairly done looking at situational reality.


The new UGC criteria to ascertain academic performance will usher in a reign of learning anarchy amid deteriorating student-teacher ratio and further job cuts. In most countries it is approximately a ratio of 1:9, one teacher dealing with a small group which adds to rigour and precision both.


However, in India for a batch of 60 odd students in a section of honours class, we have one teacher to teach the paper. Add to that how 100 odd students are dealt in one go at postgraduate level. This picture definitely presents a lacuna in thinking methodology of policy making in our country where we are surely delinking ends and means. At one end of the spectrum there is plea for changing the idea of higher education, while at the other there is an attempt to shake the foundation. Education is being reduced to mere quantitative terms. 


The Ministry of Human Resource and Development has always been an epitome of autonomy in functioning of academic institution as it can be seen that regardless of criticisms the country has been able to furnish remarkable degree of autonomy and merit in the institution of higher learning. This image of Human Resource Ministry is being destroyed by the way how extreme narrow parameters and policy guidelines have been specified for workload calculation.


This sounds the death knell for academic talent and blurring the idea of knowledge society in India. When some part of faculty faces job loss, others are caught in crutches of point indicators. We talk idea of skill idea where an individual can make a job, but at other end we are killing the very same notion by depriving avenues of entry and development. 


Further, there is another troublesome sight for the entire academic fraternity, namely the question mark on the promotions and career advancement of the teaching community. Any profession shall lose its charm when the individuals therein do not get due recognition and enhancement. The amendments made by UGC are regressive in this respect because point indicators for academic promotion shall be refereed by them. 


Promotions and career advancement earlier did not deter free liberal ethos of research.  However, now there would be an attempt to rob this of, if one reads between the lines, since academic writings will have no weightage until UGC mandated agencies approve of them. It is not the plea that there is any shrinking of duty on part of higher education teachers to contribute to research, but such notifications reduce parameters of creativity and definitely lead to creeping biases. Under the shield of flexibility, it is a draconian measure wherein State replaces free thinking in knowledge terrain. 


Further, if we look at Government allocation of budget for education sector, it has seen steep reduction over the years. With budget cut, several protests against reduction in fellowship for higher studies and scholarship for students have been witnessed.  In today’s global times, with trade-off between State and market, this is seen as giving more leeway to private sector.


Such policy measures also put a big question mark, not only for teachers but also for citizenry as to what kind of India are we striving for. The seeds of today are the fruits of tomorrow. When State overpowers the intellectual space, which was seen during British Raj, the country puts a fight, regardless of political ideologies. Today we are in different time but the changed context merits the same answer -- can we let our thinking space be jeopardised? 


George Santayana opined that those who ignore mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. India witnessed Mahatma Gandhi along with Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who took a strong stand for the cause of liberal ethos in learning and education. Perhaps today this is the reason why several voices are opposing the very idea of a dormant nation where State power over knowledge production and dissemination can be seen in the name of UGC notified journal or publishers.


It is high time that all concerned segments of society raise their voice against political and bureaucratic interference in higher education. As a reform measure we need to disapprove of stereotypes in education and learning. Mere quantification of assessment via API scores shall do no good. 


We often hear about foreign players being asked to devise Indian university syllabus. It is one thing to give an edge of competence, or superiority to the West but another to actually understand how the western academic scenario operates.  Overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities, absence of adequate workstations or information technology infrastructure for teachers, confusion among students about changing courses - what kind of global comparisons are possible in this inequity?


No attention is paid on how to nurture a productive working and research atmosphere unlike the West. What makes mockery of entire higher education reform drill is we are only breaking what is already in a crumbling state.


The nation is in a momentum of reform. However, when looked at higher education, rampant changes in course, curriculum, accreditation and ranking criteria come as a rude shock as the teaching fraternity has to accommodate them unwillingly with no space in terms of consultation or time to adjust to accommodate changes.


This is evident in the manner a leap has been taken in short span - from semester to four year undergraduate programme and to choice based credit system. It does not mean that changes are unmerited, but modifications made without proper infrastructure and training definitely makes a mockery of things. What came forth is utter confusion among students and teachers alike.


A dismal picture presents where the nation is heading when our policies deny freedom to have autonomy in their choice of curricula for students and faculty. All these attempts to centralize would have deterrent effect on research programmes. Further this shall be a sure anti-thesis of Rabindranath Tagore’svision- "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high". 


-- Dr.Amna Mirza is Assistant Professor Political Studies, University of Delhi. Views expressed here are her personal