Dr. N. Sukumar
This is in response to the OP-ED article ('Drop the Rhetoric, Start the Debate', The Hindu, June 1st 2013) penned by the honorable Minister of State for Human Resource Development, GOI, Mr. Shashi Tharoor. It is interesting that the state minister for HRD found time to join the debate on the FYUP. The article is full of references to fellow Stephanians and their college memories, whether it is the university vice- chancellor, his team members or personal friends, who happen to be academicians. In the process, a certain kind of social and cultural capital is privileged and evidently, Mr. Tharoor is not answerable to the citizens of the country but to his cronies. "I have found myself caught up in the controversy......" Obviously, he has more pressing chores to attend to than pay attention to education for the cattle class. The language used in the article reflects the arrogance of power and status.
Hailing from a cattle class background, without the intellectual and social capital to enter the portals of St. Stephens, whatever rudimentary education I happen to gather was in public funded institutes. Somehow, the debate on the FYUP is 'media managed' by a small coterie of likeminded individuals and as 'outsiders' our words and experiences have no value. Surely, Delhi University contains similar people who are left perplexed by the turn of affairs.
"The HRD ministry on Friday told the Rajya Sabha that the Delhi University (DU) is fully prepared to launch the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP). In a written reply minister of state for HRD, Shashi Tharoor said the FYUP has been approved by an overwhelming majority at the Academic Council (AC). However, sources said the minister's reply does not mean HRD ministry cannot request the university to put the new programme on hold for a year. "We have received a detailed note from a group of teachers. It is being examined. Apart from various issues, the note also raises some legal questions. It is being examined. The ministry has not made up its mind yet," a source said .
Rule by Decree: The Task Force
In a poverty ridden country, only public institutions cater to the requirements of the downtrodden and the marginalized groups. Once the doors were opened to the neo-liberal market forces, the elites could access the resources across the globe leaving the crumbs for their unfortunate brethren. One wonders, how many students in India have access to higher education and how many possess the wherewithal to fly to America. The FYUP is aimed at the American audience whereas 70 percent of DU's students comprise of the SC/ST/OBC, Hindi medium students. A hurriedly set together task force, in the form of a caste and ideological army is stifling all dissent against the FYUP. The beleaguered DU administration has resorted to surveillance of all forms of media. Many of the Deans and Heads of Departments have signed in favour of the new program, whereas their colleagues have argued about the undemocratic and autocratic means resorted to justify the program. In response to write-ups appearing in the social and print media regarding the dubious claims made by the University authorities, the Registrar hastily cobbled together a Press Release on 3rd May 2013 signed by a few self-proclaimed Dalit teachers. A closer investigation reveals that majority of the SC/ST teachers, who are the signatories of the above mentioned press release, belong to a particular college and a large number constitute ad hoc teachers. The hierarchical power relations are evident in the entire exercise.
The headlong rush to introduce the FYUP has triggered misgivings precisely because of the refusal to address many a doubt and issues concerning the students and the teaching community, the primary stakeholders. It stands to reason that the institution would consult its in-house expertise (Delhi University boasts of one of the finest institutes of education) while designing an "innovative curriculum". Its failure to do so speaks volumes of the feudal arrogance and the unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with the campus community. The official nomenclature is that a high level taskforce of 61 members has been instituted to oversee the process of FYUP. However, the task force is politically motivated and comprises of a selective group of teachers, who fit into the neo-liberal scheme of education. Specifically, the task force was created to bypass the statutory bodies of the elected representatives of the teachers and students and non-teaching community. Instead, the university organized a grand Academic Congress, "Enabling the Young: Redefining Education" wherein the entry was strictly by invitation.
'The Last Frontier'
In Mr. Tharoor's own words, 'education as a sector remains the last frontier largely untouched by reforms'. The use of military language by the constitutional functionary is highly disconcerting. More than six decades after independence, we have failed in fulfilling the dreams of the founding fathers of the Republic. This necessitated the Right to Education Bill, precisely because education was cornered by the elite and only the scraps left for the hoi polloi. It seems that Mr. Tharoor is willfully blind to certain facts. What kind of "satisfactory returns' do you expect from education? Is it some call-centre jobs, speaking in an Americanized accent? If this is the case, close all the educational institutions and outsource it to American companies, which is the larger reformist agenda.
Initially, the coterie of self appointed guardians of education thought that they can bulldoze any kind of opposition since they were suave enough to manage the media and the powers that be. Unfortunately, they failed to realize that even the cattle class possesses some iota of brains, even though they might be bird brains; the latter became conscious of the executive class's conspiracy to undo the gains of social justice and emancipatory politics. The scope of the debate was widened by the intervention of various organizations coming together and presenting a united front. This prompted Mr. Tharoor to express his sympathy for his batch mate-the beleaguered Vice-chancellor and term the entire opposition as 'unfortunate'. In similar vein, he argues that 'the team entrusted with the academic and administrative well- being of this university.... '. Does this imply that the teachers who are protesting the hasty decision of FYUP are not concerned with the well-being of the institution? Dear Sir, the teachers nurture the future generations thereby shaping the nation.
A public funded institution is beyond individuals and categorizing the opposition to any measure on personal terms smacks of a feudal mind. As the minister of state for HRD, any drastic changes in the pedagogy is within the prerogative of the ministry concerned. If you cannot stand the heat, the only possible solution is to get out of the kitchen. Every time the teachers sound a note of caution, whether it is FYUP or the semester system in Delhi University, the argument is that they better justify their fat salaries. (Incidentally the DU VC also used the same argument in his TOI interview; Well! Great minds think alike) Mr. Minister, as a member of the executive class, to whom are you accountable- to your cronies or to the nation?
Evidently, DU is the repository of 'intellectual capital'. What is astonishing is that the same intellectual capital was disregarded while framing the FYUP. The entire debate is dismissed as mere rhetoric. Now, Mr. Tharoor 'urges' the VC and his critics to engage with each other. All very laudable statements but for the fact that both the minister of state and the university VC have demonized the critics as "We the undersigned members of the community of well-wishers that are associated with the University of Delhi have been compelled to release this statement in the interests of the University of Delhi. This intervention has been necessitated by the recent utterances and opinions of a handful of academics, self appointed intellectuals and armchair columnists whose track record in the realm of academia and institution building speaks volumes for their true credentials. Unfortunately they seem intent upon pouring scorn on the academic standing and worth of the larger community of academics and scholars of the University of Delhi......"Who are the above mentioned academicians? Let me list a few targets. Prof. Yashpal, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Krishna Kumar, Prof. Nayanjot Lahiri, Prof. Satish Deshpande; bureaucrat activists like Mr. P. S. Krishnan and others of their ilk who are socially committed individuals. Their writings have inspired generations, including yours truly and hopefully Mr. Tharoor also.
The "Ideal Student"
Mr. Tharoor, for the university, is the ideal student someone who is fluent in English and possesses the economic means to survive the FYUP? The program is a microcosm of the hierarchy prevalent in the society. The initial hurdle is the enhanced fees, whether it is for admissions, examination, revaluation or re-appearance to improve their grades. Then they have to counter the pedagogical issues. Certain subjects are sacrosanct for the elite students. The dalits and OBCs are only good for social sciences. The last couple of years, there were instances wherein Hindi medium students were deliberately failed. One wonders as to how many Hindi medium students could access the sacred portals of the sciences? The university lacks adequate hostel facilities and majority of the students have to suffer PG accommodation, (the scenario is worse for girl students), lacunae in study materials in languages other than English and the VC promises laptops for students, the panacea for all the ills plaguing the institute.
Entry and Exit into the New Caste System Pedagogical Interventions
In the existing scheme of BA/B Com/BSc Honours and Pass course, the students had a clear choice depending on their abilities to cope with a particular course. However, the proposed FYUP will usher in a new caste system. Since, the demarcation between Honours and Pass course is removed, every student is denied a choice. The only choice they possess is stigmatized. On the face of it, FYUP promises to create an enabling environment and build the entrepreneurial skills of the student but in reality, the program will create unequal citizens. On the official university website wherein the details of the FYUP are presented, it is stated that a student may leave after 2 or even 3 years and then come back to complete the four year degree. In India, where education is concerned, students suffer from multiple deprivations and putting them all into one basket will not alleviate their problems. Hence, multiple exit points will only undermine their academic credentials. The Foundation Course, (each designed by a special empowered committee), consists of 14 weeks every semester. Apart from classroom lectures and presentations, it also comprises field work/project work/trip related activity. Who is going to finance and monitor the field work? How are the teachers and students expected to methodologically engage in this exercise, given the huge classroom size comprising different linguistic and gender concerns? The course involves 75 marks out of which 40 marks are for end semester exams and 35 marks for continuous assessment of project work. What is the rationale behind continuous evaluation and how is it different from the existing tutorial system? This method provides ample opportunities for prejudices based on caste, region, ethnicity, linguistic abilities etc to flourish and result in more drop outs.
As a publicly elected constitutional functionary, Mr. Tharoor, please exercise some humanitarian considerations. Please remember that there exists a world beyond St. Stephens College and the majority of your countrymen cannot aspire to an Americanized education. It is only pertinent at this juncture to remember Dr. Ambedkar's counsel, "I come from the lowest strata of the Hindu society; therefore, I fully realize the importance of education. It is a misconception that the emancipation of the lower class is an economic problem. That is a big mistake. The emancipation of the downtrodden does not mean that they should be given enough food, clothes and shelter and be left to serve the higher castes. The real issue is to make them aware of the importance of their existence for the progress of the nation; to make them aware about the reasons of their backwardness which has made them subservient to the higher castes; to make them aware about the reasons of their inferiority complex. These problems cannot be solved without proper higher education. In my opinion, higher education is the only remedy for all our social ills."
[Images courtesy: Joint Action Front for Democratic Education]