India File

Does JNU combine success and access?

Poornima Joshi A Srinivas | Updated on December 03, 2019 Published on December 03, 2019

The writing on the wall Higher education cannot be seen a commodity Sushil Kumar Verma   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

It appears to fuse excellence with a non-elitist character in terms of its composition of students. This is unique, report Poornima Joshi & A Srinivas

After getting his undergraduate degree in engineering from the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Lucknow University, DK Lobiyal wanted to enrol in a post-graduate course. “I was from remote Garhwal, not very confident with English.. I’ve always been good with mathematics and physics but you see, people like me who don’t have the big city manner of the English-speaking elite get intimidated. It’s not about knowing but just lacking in confidence. IIT programme entailed doing well in the English paper. So I opted for JNU which seemed more approachable,” Lobiyal says.

Lobiyal went on to complete his M. Tech and PhD in Computer Science and is a proud teacher at his unique alma mater where 40 per cent students come from families with monthly income less than ₹12,000 and has consistently ranked, according to the National Institutional Ranking Framework, among the top three universities in the country.

Notwithstanding the prevailing discourse, JNU in 2019 was the second top-most university in the country next only to the IISc. Its alumni form the upper echelons of the country’s bureaucracy and policy-making; NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman hail from JNU. This year’s Nobel Laureate for economics Abhijit Banerjee did his MA from JNU.

Inclusion policies


The outrage and ongoing protest from the University’s students and teacher community stems from what they perceive as the present government’s policy to terminate the two structural pillars around which JNU’s exceptional academic sub-culture has been created – a unique admission policy that has encouraged impoverished students from backward regions since JNU’s inception and a fee structure that sustains their academic advancement. According to Sachidanand Sinha of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development in JNU, a major impediment in the academic advancement of students from backward districts, SC/ST/OBCs and girls was induced in 2017.

“The number of students from families of income below ₹6,000 per month declined in M.Phil and Ph.D courses from 25.8 per cent of the total number of admissions to these courses in 2016-17 to 9.8 per cent in 2017-18. The number of students from rural districts similarly declined in MPhil and PhD courses to literally half in just one year — from 48.4 per cent in 2016-17 to 28.2 per cent in 2017-18. In MA/MSc and MCA courses where deprivation points had not been withdrawn in 2017, the percentage of economically and socially weak students remained the same, even showing an increase from 17.7 per cent in 2016-17 to 20.3 per cent in 2017-18 in the case of students coming from families with monthly income of less than ₹6000,” Sinha says. The drop is because of a drastic change in JNU’s admission policy that included, in addition to ten points of effective deprivation point scale for students from backward districts, SC/ST/OBCs and girls in MPhil and PhD courses, a written examination weighted at 70 per cent and a viva voce exam weighted at 30 per cent. Only candidates who qualified the pass marks in written test were eligible to appear for viva voce.

This was in accordance with the First Schedule of the JNU Act, 1966 to ensure three stated objectives – (i) to ensure the admission of students with academic competence and potentialities of high quality; (ii) to ensure that an adequate number of students from the under-privileged and socially handicapped sections of our society are admitted to the University; and (iii) to maintain an all-India character of the University by having on its rolls a fair representation of students from different regions of the country especially the backward areas.

Narendar Pani, economics professor at NIAS and JNU alumnus, says: “The deprivation points system accommodates not just caste, but also disadvantage arising out of geography, gender and the urban rural divide. This has made JNU uniquely representative.”

But JNU decided to terminate this admission policy in 2017 to implement the UGC Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/PhD Degrees Regulations, 2016. “What is the rationale for the new admission policy? Why has the old admission policy been so summarily rejected without any discussion with teachers or students? The old admission policy, as prescribed in the JNU Act, gives 80 per cent weightage to the written exam and 20 per cent to viva voce.

Now we have an admission policy that treats the written entrance exam as just a qualifying test for which 50 per cent marks should be obtained and gives 100 per cent weightage to viva voce examination. There is no relaxation of marks in the qualifying exam for reserved categories and no award for deprivation points for candidates in research admissions. And there is no explanation. No discussion,” says Surajit Mazumdar of the Centre for Economic Studies in JNU.

While the student and teacher community was still grappling with the newly-induced admission policy, a fee hike was announced on October 28 which increased one-time mess security from ₹5,500 to ₹12,000, placed a new service charge of ₹1,700 on sanitation maintenance, cook and mess helper, increased the room rent from ₹20 a month to ₹600 a month for single seater and from ₹10 to ₹300 for double seater. Students have always been paying mess bills as per actuals. In a statement, the JNU Registrar said the University has been incurring charges of ₹10 crore a year on water, electricity and service charges which it has been paying out of general funds received from the University Grants Commission.

According to Atul Sood of the School of Social Sciences, this is an irrational burden on the students who are already forgoing a cumulative HRA of ₹18 crore owed to them through different scholarships they have obtained. “They’re staying in the hostels and forgoing their HRA that amounts to ₹18 crore. And they are paying for their mess charges. Now the university wants them to pay the cooks and the cleaners as well!” Sood exclaims.

According to him, the extra and “completely unnecessary and additional expenditure” of ₹9 crore on security, ₹6 crore on entrance exams that has been outsourced as opposed to earlier when it was conducted by the University faculty, alone accounts for ₹15 crore. The students have been shelling out ₹1 crore extra for exam fee and ₹3 crore more for question papers and prospectus. The JNU Teachers’ Association has argued that even the “facetious” rationale about the JNU administration having to spend ₹10 crore per annum on services is easily debunked if the non-academic expenditure of ₹15 crore on security, entrance exam etc. is accounted for.

A unanimous view among both the teachers and students in JNU is that the present agitation against the fee hike should be viewed in the larger context of whether higher education is a commodity.

“The direction in which it is going is that a Higher Education Funding Agency will disburse education loans through a Special Purpose Vehicle. I have never seen such a model anywhere. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I haven’t seen any such discussion even in any IMF or World Bank paper leave alone in any academic framework. Such loans are disbursed for infrastructure development, roads etc. So, the central question that needs to be asked is: Is higher education some kind of infrastructural facility that students should be allowed to avail of as consumers? Or do we have a social function for higher education which is the only framework an institution like JNU fits in,” asks Sood.

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Published on December 03, 2019
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