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Citizen-Students and the University

Sanjay Kumar (sanjaysudha98@yahoo.co.in) teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College , Delhi University.

The proposed 4-year undergraduate degree programme of the Delhi University is being pushed through in undue haste without adequate debate and public discussion. The special emphasis on Foundation and Integrating Mind, Body and Heart courses, controversial components of the 4-year scheme, is indicative of an extra-academic zeal. The pedagogical thinking behind these courses is authoritarian and  against the spirit of liberal citizenship.

Typically students under the 10+2+3 system of education in the country enter the university at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Time spent in the university helps students transition to adulthood. While there, they attain the legal age that confers citizenship rights and duties on them. The way they are treated in classes and in college and university offices; the rules of conduct they are expected to follow; and the extent and form of recognition they receive as adult citizens from the university– all have a lasting influence on how they imagine their citizenship. University life also involves informal and formal associations with other students and with teachers and staff. The form, purpose and operative principles of these associations shape the affective and cognitive behaviour of students, which partially determine the kind of public sphere they build later in life. This note discusses the recent developments in Delhi University and their implications for students from the perspective of citizenship.

Forcing Citizens to Become Better

Under the proposed 4-year degree course of Delhi University (DU), the students will spend up to one-third of their total class room time on eleven mandatory Foundation courses and two “Integrating Mind, Body and Heart” (IMBH) courses. Foundation courses include courses on governance and citizenship, geographic and socio-economic diversity of India, science and life, psychology, etc,. Little is known about the IMBH courses, except their category titles. It cannot be denied that knowledge about governance and citizenship, and the diversity of our country is useful and enlightening at any stage. This knowledge is integral to school education up to the tenth standard. Universities across the world require students to take non-core disciplinary courses, designed to inculcate "general awareness". But class time for such courses is generally miniscule compared to the time spent on other courses. Students may choose from a wide set of optional courses, and nowhere are these courses considered to be the foundation of an undergraduate education. The special emphasis on Foundation and IMBH courses in the 4-year scheme is indicative of an extra-academic zeal.

This kind of a mandatory and authoritarian pedagogic structure is against the spirit of liberal citizenship. For one of the rights that citizens enjoy, is the right to voluntarily enrich their social life through the free associations they may form. Citizens cannot be forced to become better citizens. The same holds true for IMBH courses because inducing the integration of mind and body through a mandatory university course is contrary to the idea of citizenship. For citizens have a fundamental right over their bodies and their sense of personhood. They cannot be forced to better integrate their bodies and minds. All citizens are expected to obey the law. They may be compelled to do so if needed, and punished if they do not observe them. But citizens cannot be compelled to become better citizens – they can only be persuaded or inspired. Proposals that seek to make citizens better under compulsion, as with demands to make voting compulsory, are signs of a fascist political programme. The pedagogical thinking behind mandatory Foundation and IMBH courses is authoritarian. That the largest publicly funded institution of higher learning in the country is planning to teach such courses is indicative of the deeply deficient understanding that institutions of higher learning have of their role in building citizenship in our country.

Territorial Control and Surveillance

There have been qualitative changes in surveillance and control of physical mobility of students. Far from being random, these changes have occurred in systematic stages, so that the evolving process of the imposition of territorial authority can be identified. Ten years ago, the university undertook a much needed construction programme to increase classroom and office space. The first casualties were the network of pathways, jump-in and jump-out points on the boundary walls and street-side chai, cigarette and low cost food outlets that had come up in the university without official approval. A very popular low cost book shop was demolished, and two of the three India Coffee Houses were closed. Taking direct control of “student welfare”, the university built a students’ activity center that housed a low cost canteen, a bookshop and rooms that could be booked for group discussions, lectures, or film screenings. Last year DU locked the activity center claiming that it was needed for its administrative staff. Now DU, whose website claims it to be the leading university of the country (on the basis of surveys done by a private media house), has the dubious distinction of being a university without a bookshop on its main campus. The university does not allow student groups to hold public meetings on its campus. It blocked the informal gathering of women’s groups on the International Women’s Day (March 8) last year. Student and other groups have responded to this step with a guerilla move. They have held their meetings on a strip of pavement outside the main entrance to the Arts Faculty, which technically belongs to the city government and hence beyond the territorial jurisdiction of university authorities.

Young women students have been undoubtedly the worst victims of the authorities’ enthusiasm for control and surveillance. All women’s hostels run by university and its colleges have strict curfew hours. Technically some restrictions are there for men’s hostels too, but they are rarely enforced. Thousands of young women, often staying in double rooms, are locked in every evening. They have only narrow corridors of their hostel buildings to move around. That they do not descend into depression, or go crazy with rage, is a testimony to the success of Indian family traditions in making women accept severe restrictions on their mobility as normal. Like the Khap patriarchs, the university locks up women under the guise of protecting them.

Wards Forever

The subjective autonomy of an adult citizen is as much a matter of self generated agency, as it is of external recognition. One way that educational systems recognise the autonomous subjectivity of their students is through elaborate procedures of reward and punishment. A clear sign of the assumed inadequacy of students’ autonomy in schools is the required presence of their parents on most occasions where rewards or punishments are announced. Transition to adulthood implies a widening of sphere in which students are expected to "stand up and face the world" on their own. Weaning young people away from exclusively family-oriented structures of support and accountability is an important role which the university should play. Recent trends in Indian higher education and the life patterns of urban middle classes are altering this process. The growing commercialisation of education has meant that parents are financially responsible for their children’s higher education. Research on the changing relationships between parents and their adult children due to the commercialisation of higher education is scarce. DU and its colleges are publicly funded, and hence areshielded from the full effects of commercialisation. And yet the university is going out of its way to acknowledge parents as stakeholders. The university and some of its colleges have started having a "Parents Day". There is also a proposal to have a permanent Parents Committee for closer interaction with parents.1 It seems the university is oblivious to the fact that its students are already full-fledged adults, and is needlessly prolonging their ward-ship by opening a direct channel with their parents. Again, this issue becomes most acute in the case of women students. They are required to present documentary proof of their parents’, or local guardians’ permission for any minor exemptions from hostel regulations.

Treating adult students as wards has consequences beyond the relationship between students and their parents. Besides the principle of private property, the legitimacy of hierarchy in liberal capitalist societies rests on the claim that it is based on individual merit. Universities in such societies are among the main institutions that confer distinction and merit, which help maintain a hierarchical inflow through the continuous intake of young men and women into bureaucratic, managerial or cultural hierarchies.2 It seems universities in India are also following these larger agendas; they also wish to fortify patriarchal norms and churn out docile adults.

Legal But Arbitrary Authority

All organisational policies are a result of the balance of power between different constituents of the organisation. In DU there is a clear evidence of a shift towards more concentrated forms of authority and power. Furthermore, this shift is taking place via arbitrary and ad-hoc measures rather than through reasoned deliberations among all affected constituents.

There was a public hue and cry after the victory of the Indian team in the under-19 cricket world cup when it became known that the captain of the team had lost a year due to the university’s attendance policy. Buckling under pressure, the university promoted the student under the discretionary powers of the vice chancellor.3 This reversal was justified by an event which occurred after the original decision barring the student from the examination was taken. In other words, the earlier decision would have been thought fair if the Indian team had lost! Rather than a public institution bound by impersonal rules, the university appears to be more like a feudal lord who hands out inams based on personal whims and fancies. Other sportspeople who had also been barred from taking examinations due to lack of attendance were not granted this favour initially. However in February this year, just two months before the examination, the university decided to reverse its earlier decision for these students too. For the past seven months these students were attending the the previous year's classes. In just two months they were expected to sit for and, somehow, clear examinations for courses in which they had never attended classes! Going back and forth on its decisions is not only a reflection of the prevailing confusion, but also shows the university's cavalier disregard for students; hardly an attitude a public institution should have towards rights-bearing citizens.

Conclusions

In modern societies, educational institutions are important apparatuses designed to socialise youth and mould their subjectivities according to social-ideological goals. Goals, visions and policies on education are always presented in the language of universality. However, “none of the functions of the educational systems can be defined independently of a given state of the structure of class relations”,4 and at no time is this clearer than in the era of neo-liberalism. The domination of capitalist class relations in higher education is manifested in two complementary ways. One is through the emergence of a market for education, or for education that yields marketable skills. The other is through the adoption of corporate managerial techniques for administering higher education. The concentration of decision making powers, demarcation of zones between different authorities, and the treatment of students as captive clients, are some of the manifestations of a managerial ethos. Education managers do not realise that universities in countries with liberal constitutions are given functional autonomy, and are allowed to self-regulate themselves because of the fundamental premise that they are socially-supported arenas for the free exchange of ideas and learning. When universities are reluctant to recognise that students too must be given similar powers of autonomy and self-regulation, they are violating this fundamental premise. They are in effect declaring that learning and the exchange of ideas need not be free, and that students must be kept under their administrative and pedagogic control. It is this inherently anti-democratic understanding of higher education which prevents the university from recognising the students as full citizens, thereby undermining rather than nurturing the values on which both good as well as ‘better’ citizenship are founded.

References

1. Tuli, Anchal (2012): “Now Parents-Teachers meets in College.” Times News Network, The Times of India, 17t September New Delhi edition.

2. Bourdieu, P. (1996): "The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power," Trans L.C. Clough, (Cambridge: Polity Press).

3. Staff Reporter (2012): " Delhi University Decides to Promote Unmukt Chand." The Hindu 2 September New Delhi edition.

4. Bourdieu, P. & Passeron J.C. (1977): "Reproduction in Education Society and Culture," Trans R. Nice, (London: Sage Books).184

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