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

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From Democratic Autonomy to Authoritarian Sovereignty

Delhi University’s academic reforms reveal the dangers of a new style of administration emerging in Indian universities that replaces multi-level autonomous academic deliberation with centralised sovereign decision making.

The current attempt by the vice chancellor and the administration of Delhi University to push through the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) has been remarkable for two reasons. The first is its daring: FYUP proposes the most massive restructuring of teaching programmes in several decades. It is also remarkable for another reason. The vice chancellor has claimed that all relevant statutory bodies have passed the programme with overwhelming majority and that all stakeholders have been consulted extensively. And yet, at no time has such an important reform been passed with so little involvement from teachers in colleges and post-graduate departments, and with so little information given to them. How do we understand this paradox? Has there been a shift in the underlying institutional culture of the University which has made statutory bodies unrepresentative of the institution itself?

Tactics of Silence and Speed

A closer look reveals an array of minutely worked out tactics‒of bypassing selected procedures and long-standing practices, subtle uses of silences and announcements‒ which add up to make a new authoritative command system. There was some mention of a FYUP in 2008 by the then vice chancellor in a meeting of the Academic Council, but the matter seems to have been set aside. No moves were made to announce a decision or initiate any public discussion for several years, until September 2012 when an Academic Congress was convened by the present vice chancellor in which a select number of “stakeholders” appear to have been informed about the FYUP (interestingly, the four-year programme does not find a mention in the session-wise agenda of the Congress). Most teachers read about this in newspapers; later, teachers also read in the newspapers that a 61 member task force had been constituted to plan the FYUP. The members of the committee, and the criteria for choosing them, remained a mystery. Members of the Academic Council seem to have been informed about the task force only after two months of silence, when the recommendations of the task force were circulated to them in December. A special meeting of the Academic Council was summoned in the middle of the University’s winter break on Christmas eve. Many members say that they received crucial agenda papers very close to the date of the meeting, leaving them with only two days–that too a weekend–for making up their minds on proposals of the biggest academic reform in the university in decades. The Academic Council approved it, and the Executive Council (the highest decision making body of the university), convened on the next working day, also granted its approval to FYUP. Again two months of silence, until 5 March when written notices were first sent out to departments asking them to formulate courses within fifteen days, followed by an extension of this time frame by a month!

This sequence reveals two principles at work: a careful exclusion of teachers from processes of deliberation; and an extraordinary haste in implementation. The first is severe and potentially disabling: inputs from teachers are vital for any pedagogic restructuring, especially in a mass educational institution like DU, with a huge diversity in its student population and their backgrounds, needs, preferences and abilities. However, selective consultation outside the public domain (including non-statutory bodies) and carefully timed meetings of higher statutory bodies ensured that teachers– unless they were handpicked and invited–were firmly kept away from discussions and decision-making. Decisions were communicated through the press. Syllabi are usually formed in most departments in DU through inclusive deliberations by teachers of the discipline through general meetings as well as meetings of smaller groups in which representatives of colleges bring the views of their colleagues. The draft syllabus formulated in these committees and approved in general meetings is then placed before the Committee of Courses (which comprises teachers of undergraduate and postgraduate courses) for discussions and revision, before approval. This time, the process was very different: the mysteriously appointed task force sent its recommendations directly to the Academic Council. Two months later, departments were presented with a set of directives and a blank table of semester-wise allocation of courses; their task was to fill the blank spaces in the table with courses, and that too within an impossibly short time frame. Not surprisingly, many departments did not even hold general meetings, or meetings of teacher representatives from colleges, and took recourse to formulating courses in secret with help from arbitrarily chosen groups of teachers. In most cases, existing courses were redistributed in the four year format, and some departments ended up cutting down heavily on the number of subjects taught. Foundation Courses (which occupy about 60% to 20% of the syllabus, depending on when the student wishes to “exit”) were formulated by bodies directly appointed by the vice chancellor; statutory bodies in departments or faculties were not given any opportunity to comment on them or even see them while formulating Discipline courses.

Disenfranchisement of Teachers

The message is unambiguous: teachers–unless privileged to be handpicked by authorities for special tasks–are not entitled to make any contribution to academic planning in the University; their task is to execute the orders of an administration which sees itself as an “expert” with a monopoly over thinking and decision-making. The blinding speed at which decisions have been made reinforces this message. The official account of the slow germination of the idea of FYUP in the rarefied echelons of the administration since 2008, is belied by the “shock and awe” speed of its implementation. The hasty summoning of the Academic Council in the middle of holidays is the clearest example: Heads of departments, deans and principals who make up the bulk of the Academic Council were given no opportunity to consult their colleagues, whose interests they are meant to represent, on the structure of FYUP and the administrative challenges it would entail.

A comparable logic informs the “extensive” consultations held by the vice chancellor with “all stakeholders” in a three day Academic Congress in September last year. Admission to the Congress, curiously, was by invitation. Who were these “selected” stakeholders, and how were they chosen? No answers have been given. From available accounts, the vice chancellor himself seems to have been the central figure in the Congress. There is no evidence of any institutional mechanism of consultation that included teachers selected in accordance with a general principle (e.g. all deans). Not surprisingly, accounts of the Congress do not report any debate between different points of view: we get a frightening picture of total consensus alien to the spirit of the university which thrives on the exchange, even confrontation of diverse ideas and opinions.

An authoritarian, command-style structure equipped with a one-way consultation process has effectively replaced deliberative institutional thinking. An intense intolerance rides roughshod over all dissenting voices: notes of dissent or concern are not discussed in meetings. Instead, dissenting voices are branded as motivated by ideologies or vested interests. The pity of this is that periods of syllabus-making are important moments in a university’s life when teachers are given an opportunity to reflect on their practices and draw on this in redesigning academic programmes. It is the work of thinking over their class room experience that makes each teacher a better teacher, equipped more fully to address questions of education policy and appreciate the constraints of the administration. These institutional processes of deliberation, when they work well, track the tangible needs of a varied and changing student population while encouraging the teacher to grow. This possibility can help both teacher and administration. It is irrevocably lost.

Teaching, Research and Administration

Universities can be said to have three components. The first two are interrelated: universities are meant to impart knowledge through teaching as well as produce new knowledge through research. The dissemination of knowledge and skills leads to a new distribution of social power while the production of new knowledges not only services the needs of a particular society or country but has the potential to alter the condition of the human species itself. Seen in this light, educational institutions need a mix of training and creativity in order to fulfil their extended social functions. In order to be generative, universities need to maintain routine as well as spaces of improvisation. It is essential to follow democratic procedures which allow for new perceptions and initiatives while ensuring a routine of accountable procedures. This is why universities need to be autonomous spaces protected as such by law.

And this is where the university administration, the third component, steps into the picture. The position of the administration in an educational institution cannot be the same as that of a governmental institution. In the latter an independent, professional bureaucracy has to work as part of the state machinery. In an educational institution, on the other hand, the administration does not have to serve something outside and above it, but simply service the needs generated by the dissemination and production of knowledge. It is in recognition of this that university administration is divided into two components. The first, superior and controlling authority starting from the vice chancellor, is staffed by academics themselves. Academic matters ranging from syllabi formation and selection of academic staff to identifying infrastructural requirements come under its jurisdiction. Academic administrators need to work in close tandem with the teaching community in identifying the academic needs of students and faculty and planning the pedagogic and infrastructural means to meet them. This requires to be practised at all levels and cannot be a matter of top-down consultations. Heads of Departments need to work closely with their colleagues in faculties and colleges to formulate proposals, which can then be subjected to further rounds of discussions before final decisions are made. A university’s autonomy means the preservation of the relative autonomy of its different academic parts so that there can be easy and free interaction between the academic administration and teachers. A second part of the university administration looks after governance proper, that is, the routine aspects of administration including the translation of academic objectives into hard financial statements and procedures, the maintenance of service conditions and of course, the daily business of official correspondence among other things. This part of the administration is generally headed by the registrar and senior functionaries such as the finance officer, who are often imported from professional administrative cadres outside the university.

Autonomy or Sovereignty?

For some time now, however, university administration in India has begun to acquire an air of sovereign power. The government has encouraged this trend by appointing vice chancellors who do not come with a background of teaching and research. This has gone together with a disciplinarian approach towards teachers and students. Delhi University in recent times, even though its vice chancellor comes with an academic background, reveals the working out of this new orientation. Deans and heads of departments are increasingly being used for transmitting the orders–often given orally rather than in writing–of the administration to teachers. This top-down style of management has, unsurprisingly, produced a re-division of the university structure into subordinates and super-ordinates. Further, the registrar has begun to play a much more visible role with the authority of its office stepping into the domain of the academic itself. And at the very top, the vice chancellor has begun to occupy a position of sovereign authority which is located above the university as a whole. The university’s autonomy is then invoked to justify the sovereign authority of the vice chancellor. Just as democratic procedures are formally used to hollow out the democratic substance in them, so the principle of university autonomy is claimed by the vice chancellor to reduce it to the powers of this office alone.

While this shift to a command structure is something that has happened in other universities, Delhi University demonstrates a new turn in this trend. For the command structure is not used to simply discipline students and teachers, but to usher in pedagogic reforms. The results of this are already apparent. The speed of decision making, which in itself is an expression of the powers of this new sovereign authority, has led to a serious disregard of one of the primary functions of the university, the generation of research and knowledge. The public has been told that post-graduate courses will be altered after four years and that the details of this will be worked out eventually. The idea of an integrated road map that involves teaching and research seems to have been abandoned and made into a matter of eventual improvisation. The connection between the dissemination and the production of knowledges has been severed.

On the other hand, the enormity and reckless speed of the reforms and their concentration in a few “expert” heads working under the vice chancellor, have produced tremendous inefficiencies in the system. About 4000 teaching posts –sanctioned to cater to the OBC expansion–have been lying vacant. The infrastructure for the OBC expansion has yet to be put in place by the university administration. The university librarian’s position has been lying vacant for a long time. The new demands of the FYUP, that is, an expansion of at least 33% capacities in college infrastructures, are yet to be thought of. Colleges are thinking of novel ways to cope with the problems. For instance, we hear that Shri Ram College of Commerce is seriously considering the use of a lottery to determine the admission of students since it cannot cope with the projected numbers who would have met the cut-off percentage, especially since the university’s new admission procedures mean that all applicants ought to be considered for admission to all colleges! It is an apposite move for it literalises the arbitrary and non-academic authority of the new regime of academic sovereignty.

Academic Autonomy at All Levels

How is it that the statutorily protected space of university autonomy can be subverted so easily and transformed into its opposite? Central to this is the trumping and bypassing of subordinate statutory bodies such as Committees of Courses by the higher Academic Council. Delhi University’s statutes, made in pre-independent India, do not clearly specify the need for deliberation at all levels of academic functioning and do not mention the institutional processes of interaction to be undertaken by these bodies. But spelling this out alone may not be enough. There is a huge disparity in numbers between teachers in post-graduate departments and in colleges in Delhi University. Statutory means need to be found to recognise and ensure deliberation at the college level and the representation of views of teachers from all colleges in bodies that make decisions on undergraduate teaching. Department councils–that do all the day-to-day work for post-graduate departments−too need to be given a statutory status. At present, they work in a shadow area: their certification is required by the authorities to accept recommendations from departments; however, any difference in opinion voiced by department councils is rejected on the ground that they do not possess statutory authority. If its current status changes, heads of departments will be forced, as a statutory requirement, to heed the collective deliberations of their colleagues. Which, in turn, ought to impose an obligation on “superior” authorities to respond to questions raised by this body and the needs of the academic discipline that it represents.

To conclude, any initiation of pedagogic reform needs to be accompanied by an uncompromising insistence on autonomous academic deliberation and decision-making at all levels. The erosion of autonomy at different levels in the university’s structure and their centralisation in the highest offices and councils call for a reversal; statutory accountability cannot be solely from the bottom to the top, but from the top to the bottom as well. If nothing else, Delhi University has called attention to the dangers of asymmetry between pedagogic reform and existing institutional processes. The result–the impoverishment of academic autonomy and its reduction to the sovereign will of the highest officialscan only injure the cause of knowledge. There is an urgent need for the academic community–and for the democratic society at large–to formulate and put in place statutes and procedures which ensure autonomy at all levels of university functioning. This can be the only safeguard against the conversion of the university structure into a centre of arbitrary power.

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