ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Photocopying, kunjis and the public University

Rochelle Pinto (rochelle.pinto@gmail.com) teaches at the Delhi University. 

Be it in the ban on photocopying or in the manner learning the humanities has been reduced to reading “guidebooks” – the stakeholders in Delhi University face challenges in their effort to reclaim the university space as one for furnishing a critical citizen and a critical knowledge base funded by public money. 

As a teacher at the University of Delhi who is required to put together readings for a course to be offered to MPhil students next semester, I trawl through the search engines and online journals that the University of Delhi makes available to its teachers and students. This facility is of course, very legal and very expensive. It allows me access to innumerable articles in international and national journals. The policies and funding of the University Grants Commission (UGC) have made this facility available to universities in India. Aside from this, an organisation like the Information and Library Network,(Inflibnet), also associated with the UGC, has set up the infrastructure to enable searches for Phd theses across universities in India.[1]The Developing Library Network (Delnet) allows a search across a selection of libraries in the city. Inflibnet in fact has even set up an interlibrary loan facility on one of its sites, holding out hope that sometime in the future, we may have access to something approaching the exemplary public library system of the United States.

Government sites are not the only ones exploring the possibilities of making resources available. Private libraries and individual projects housed in Universities across the country try and make small digital collections in focus areas available to researchers. The School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University and their recently launched Bichitra project, an archive of Tagore’s works, is a case in point. A researcher based in India, whether student or teacher, finds herself in between a range of data banks, some open to public access, some privately owned; some legal, the others also legal, but these facilities are now under the strain of a new attack.

Ban on Photocopying

The case filed in August last year against a photocopying shop servicing Delhi University students and teachers accusing it of violating copyright codes is an attempt to weaken a section of the law that protects the circulation of material for educational purposes. Those who did not know section 52 (1) of the Copyright Act of 1957 now read it with astonishment. It provides an extraordinary range of protection to researchers, teachers and students who have no commercial use for the material they read. Some farseeing and enlightened legislator peppered the act with protective clauses that has protected students’ and teachers’ access to educational material across transformations in technologies for reproducing printed texts.

What is at stake for those targeting a photocopying shop on university premises when the law itself protects circulation of material for educational purposes? At stake is a large amount of money to be made off students. Publishers probably hope to push the university towards getting a license from the the Indian Reprographics Rights Organization (IRRO), which issues licenses for material that is sought to be copied, with royalties collected retrospectively from the institution. The organisation’s website claims that it has made Rs 245,760.00 off issuing licenses. Why so little, their financial analysts may well be asking. It is scarcely surprising if commercial enterprises such as academic publishing houses eye the activities of reading and research as a market. What is expected however, is a response from all those invested in the activity of reading to ensure that this doesn’t lead to a change in the law.

An imaginative government would recognise what a necessity the non-commercial reproduction of texts is for Indian students. It is impossible to produce a research thesis in the humanities in India, without reliance on photocopying, or on digital reproductions of books. There are definite criteria by which a thesis is assessed as being competitive in its field, and these expectations, in universities that can sustain them, are quite high: we expect that a thesis should demonstrate the writer’s familiarity with contemporary research in the area of study – so that her work accounts for recent developments in that field, does not duplicate anything and advances it through analysis and research; we expect it to demonstrate familiarity with past research – so that it has a depth of understanding that bolsters critical interventions. Without these criteria, why would individuals or public funds support research in the country, and how would we acquire the tools to further inquiry? If you were to ask teachers which towns or cities in India actually have libraries that make it possible for PhD research to fulfill these criteria, they would probably restrict themselves to some of the metropolitan cities, because not all have good libraries. They would probably mention some towns with a long tradition of good Universities and academic institutions such as Pune or Mysore. Students in these areas and others are reliant on personal networks as well as libraries, on online resources such as Google books, which allow partial reading of texts, as well as on the websites that make entire books available.

Institutions such as the UGC and the Delhi University library contain several imaginative and skilled people who innovate frequently with platforms through which research interests can be served, linking library catalogues, uploading PhD dissertation titles, and moving towards an inter-library loan system in selected areas. Though the other informal resource sharing of books within copyright, through photocopying and other means is currently under threat, it could actually be given a platform that provides regulated and systematic access through all University sites by giving it a separate status and using the current law to protect it. Instead of strengthening the law on the educational provision within copyright, we stand in danger of turning the clock back if the publishing houses such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and the Taylor and Francis Group succeed. If these commercial concerns are allowed to stake any further claim on this field, not only will it place academic material out of the reach of most students currently admitted to the university, it will erase the idea that we have a right to knowledge even if it happens to have a price attached to it. The ethic that publishing houses would like to enforce, is the ethic of the market: you only deserve access to knowledge if you can put down the money for it.

Research in the humanities in India can boast of moments when researchers responding to local conceptual and political questions have changed the field, while they may or may not have drawn on theoretical and empirical studies that have developed internationally. Even those addressing questions that we may think of as intrinsically Indian or fundamentally local need access to internationally produced material. Few will dispute the lop-sided access and advantage that those located in foreign universities used to have over those at home. This gap, only at the level of access to books, has been reduced of late thanks to book-sharing/”piracy” of all kinds.

Since science institutions still tend to be well funded, it is research in the humanities and the social sciences that is under tremendous pressure currently. While the university administration has sent out instructions for reading to be quantified and reduced in undergraduate classrooms and has furnished ad hoc and truncated syllabi for teaching next year, we find publishing houses circling through departments, hoping to cash in on this windfall. On the one hand, in the long term, the kind of changes being brought in at the undergraduate level are designed to diminish and stamp out research in non-science departments housed in public institutions, since these apparently do not directly aid in the enhancement of capital and technology. In fact, any possible critical social input they may have is feared, as is evident in the recent circular issued by the UGC to all universities, warning them to check and prevent the radicalisation of students.

Marketisation of learning

Delhi University may well be the first to try and reduce reading by official diktat in an age in which visual and aural literacy of varying value have in any case replaced reading in the daily lives of young people. Informal responses from publishers show that this decision of the university may be going down quite well. For publishers would be delighted to fix syllabi themselves, but as a next best option, having a fixed set of readings with specified numbers of pages and a fixed market each year is a windfall.  Teachers in the humanities are probably going to witness the creation of a market in the abridged text or the textbook – scarcely appropriate for learning at the level of an undergraduate degree. The opportunism of publishers hovering over this market, hoping to get a foot in early in textbook production, while cutting away at the access to cheaply photocopied educational material is interesting to watch. Students who recognise the potential danger to their rights in the legal attack on a single photocopying shop on campus fortunately have innovative ways to make their presence felt. At the recent Delhi book fair, they handed out leaflets to visitors at the stalls of the Oxford University Press and other publishers associated with the case, alerting customers and readers to the questionable business ethics of these institutions. These are the actions of students, who have a claim on campus culture and campus policies; who know that their own education and the space of the university is funded through public money. This is the ethos of public universities and when it is occasionally found in private ones, it is by extending the claims and expectations of public institutions. All universities by this understanding are public universities, and all money that is routed into them is eventually public money. This is the culture that the current university administration would like to stamp out. The students that they see in the future, the ones to whom they promise an education that is fully convertible into unguaranteed jobs, are unquestioning clients. They will enter the university in all probability paying higher fees for an education of which they will have already been deprived, and will ask no questions of how the university is run, and who has the right to shape campus culture, because their status on campus will have been transformed. A recent news report claims that the Academic Council of the University objected to the “left ideology” of the sociology syllabus and recommended the inclusion of “Indian” thinkers. The dispute here is not really over Marx and Indian or Chinese thinkers, but about tweaking how students think about themselves, the university space, and what they have been sent to university to do. The university hopes to reduce the idea of knowledge and knowledge production to piece-meal stand-alone modules for the teaching of “soft skills” and “applicable information”. And publishers hope to sell these as course packs to the students.

Those familiar with the geography of Delhi University’s North Campus may know the area around Batra cinema theatre where many students and faculty live. The most vivid visual feature of Batra is not the cinema house but the many multi-coloured multi-sized boards that paper the outer façade of surrounding buildings, all advertising coaching classes. Batra is the coaching class capital of the city; advertisements for coaching classes appear in the university metro stations, leaflets for coaching classes pepper the streets, and photocopying shops vie with small eating outlets for students. Perhaps someone in the administration realised that the money flow to these classes could be redirected towards the university itself if the syllabus and its teachers could be modified, transforming the classroom into a delivery belt for information-based reading. Perhaps the administration felt that the university was losing out on potential revenues to those who produce ‘kunjis’ or guidebooks with questions and answers to help students pass exams. If the syllabus itself is modeled on these quantifiable atomised pieces of information that can be learnt and delivered in exams, then the numbers of students enrolling in university could be enhanced, and the academic requirements diminished, allowing students to believe that they are somehow moving through the system with ease, and exiting with more in hand.

Right now a fast breeze blows through the brick-walled streets of the university, hoping to demolish in its entirety, a system that is not perfect, but that we recognise must be defended. Because compared to what the new order will bring, the ethos of the old is unmistakably that of some accountability to its founding premise; that of furnishing a critical citizen and a critical knowledge base funded by public money.

 


[1] See a self-description at http://www.inflibnet.ac.in, May 29, 2013.

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top