Whither the University System and the Teachers' Movement?

Need for a new agenda

We may begin by noting some of the developments of the past few months in the university. On 23rd January 1999 the Academic Council decided to introduce several self-financing market-oriented courses in the University with fees ranging from Rs. 10,000/- to 18,000/- to be run primarily with a guest faculty. The Executive Council has resolved to set up a parallel independent Indo-Russian Education Centre with foreign collaboration. Its main purpose is to teach the Russian language at exorbitant rates albeit this may mean undermining the existing faculty. The University Grants Commission is releasing grants with cuts and delays on a month-to-month basis. In several colleges salaries have not been paid or else they are being constantly delayed.

These are only some of the ominous developments of the past few months. Through these the agenda of the commodification of higher education is being pursued slowly but systematically and persistently. This is part of the implementation of the policies which have been pursued by successive governments including the United Front supported by the 'left' for over a decade. That those in power are trying to implement these policies is understandable, but what is disturbing is the fact that there has been virtually no opposition to all this from the teaching community. The irony of the situation is that these issues are neither on the agenda of the teachers' movement nor does the DUTA have the requisite strength to intervene.

With anti-people and anti-education policies being systematically implemented, the need of the hour is a strong, vibrant, struggle-oriented teachers' movement but the tragedy is that as far as these issues and the teachers are concerned, the DUTA is almost defunct. The DUTA is at its lowest ebb ever since its foundation and it is unable to mobilize the teaching community for its own immediate concerns, let alone for the social agenda of higher education.

The reasons for this state of the DUTA are not far to seek. After the AIFUCTO betrayal in 1987 the issue of Mandal wrecked the movement. The teaching community with its narrow social base discarded its liberal facade and it could be mobilized by the anti-reservation forces for gaining leadership in the DUTA. The struggle orientation was replaced by negotiations and compromises by the BJP-Congress leadership; cynicism and apathy amongst the mass of teachers followed in its wake. The DUTA was beginning to have some semblance of revival in 1995-97 when the BJP-AAD-INTEC combined to oppose implementation of the long overdue reservation policy according to the provisions of the constitution. By whipping up anti-reservation phobia the BJP-led NDTF with the support of AAD won with an unprecedented majority in 1997. Their position got further strengthened by the co-options in the DUTA, thanks to the CPM having scuttled democratic changes in the DUTA constitution. The NDTF-AAD combine has brought the DUTA to such a pass that it is unable to get any of its demands conceded. The government is backtracking on many an issue pertaining to pay-revision and promotions. During the struggle for pay-revision the DUTA leadership acted as the agents of the HRD Ministry. The DUTA President Sri Ram Oberoi substituted his own agenda for the DUTA's charter of demands. He violated with impunity the democratic norms and constitutional provisions of the DUTA. It is not surprising that we lost structural parity with several services which is fraught with serious repercussions for future pay revisions even though the majority of teachers have not suffered monetarily at the present moment with pay fixation at a higher point in the Reader's grade.

Given the aggressive onslaught of privatization in higher education, it is imperative to have a strong, struggle-oriented DUTA. The cuts and delays in grants by the UGC on a month-to-month basis is an integral part of this onslaught; it is meant to pressurize the university to raise funds privately. A manifold rise in fees and subservience to industry, trade and landlordism are the likely solutions for the university authorities.

The trend is already visible with the increasing market orientation of courses, institutions and fee structure in the university. The role of the university system as the producer and disseminator of knowledge is under serious threat. It is further narrowing its reach by fee hikes. Instead of changing and negating colonial language policies and caste and class biases to make higher education more meaningful for the oppressed castes, classes, minorities and other toiling masses, the fee-hike is making higher education out of bounds for them.

It is a sad commentary on the teachers' movement that it has not addressed itself to the agenda of higher education. It has not even taken up the existing crisis in the university. However, the issue having been forcefully posed by the Forum for Democratic Struggle all major groups have been forced to take note of it. But their acts of omission and commission reveal that their concern is only superficial. Token seminars whether under the DTF or NDTF have become a routine. In April 1999 the DUTA had organised a seminar which was meant to last for two days but it could not be sustained even for one full day. We are still awaiting the proceedings and deliberations of the seminar held two years ago under the DTF leadership.

The logic of the social and political limitations of the teachers' movement in the anti-reservation stir is largely applicable to the issue of privatization of higher education too. The wider social agenda of higher education is a matter of indifference and discomfort for the larger section of the teaching community coming from a very narrow social base. It is not accidental that substantial fee hikes are supported by almost all teachers, including a section of the DTF. Raising fees is often advanced as one of the solutions for the present problem of rampant absenteeism. Indeed it is invariably argued that everyone does not need access to higher education. A greater exclusion of the poor and toiling masses from higher education is in the offing. It is time for the teachers' movement to stand up and widen its horizon. There is an urgent need to have a new agenda.

In the present scenario we need to impinge upon the state's policy of privatizing of higher education. The DUTA should and must not allow the government to shift its responsibility elsewhere. We must, therefore, strive for an higher allocation to education at all levels and resist the increasing subservience of the university system to industry, trade and landlordism. Simultaneously we must oppose fee-hikes. Establishing linkages with other sections of the university for raising struggles on these issues is inherent in the situation.

The impact of liberalization is already revealing its ugly face. Thanks to the market forces, interest in the Pure Sciences and Social Sciences is continuously diminishing. With fewer students in the social sciences, Hindi-medium sections have been wound up in several women's colleges. This makes the lower-middle class girls the first casualty of liberalization. The next in the row are the modern Indian languages. In several colleges MIL courses have been discontinued. Substantial fee-hikes have already begun the process of the further exclusion from higher education of students from poorer backgrounds. Within the profession it has led to the emergence of a new trend of making large-scale part-time ad-hoc appointments with a heavy teaching load and a five-day week. this is almost equivalent to introducing the concept of daily-wages with maximum work, minimum wages and vulnerable service conditions. Each one of these issues demands the immediate attention of the DUTA. Each one of these issues is going to require sustained and protracted struggle.

Liberalization is exacerbating the already existing crisis of higher education stemming from a stagnant and diminishing infrastructure, a corrupt university administration and a large section of teachers for whom academic activity including teaching is secondary to making money through speculation, coaching and many other activities. It is not surprising that under these circumstances Pass Course teaching, the tutorial and preceptorial system, rigorous examination, and in fact, much meaningful academic activity involving learning processes have broken down. Different institutions of the University catering to different social strata are being affected in different ways by the multi-dimensional crisis. Absenteeism both of students and teachers is rampant. The academic breakdown encourages contempt and disdain for intellectual activity which in turn provides a breeding ground for fascism.

The teachers' movement has shown complete disregard towards this academic breakdown. At the initiative of the Forum for Democratic Struggle a report was prepared in 1988 on academic reform and accountability. Although adopted by the DUTA EC, the only follow up that successive leaderships have done is to kill it by circulating it now and then whenever the issue has been raised. And the report that has been circulated is a truncated version of the original. The portions dealing with the teachers' own accountability have been neatly expunged. Yes, we believe in and advocate an inter-locking system of accountability of all sections of the university, but when there is an insensitive administration it is our primary responsibility to ensure that academic activity in the university goes on and that the university discharges its functions in consonance with the social needs of higher education. We have to remember that we owe an obligation to society since it is with the social wealth generated by the toiling masses that the university is sustained. We are not above social accountability. While we seek the accountability of others, we must first subject ourselves to democratic accountability.

In the new agenda for the teachers' movement a prominent place must be given to gender related issues. The experience of the last few years had revealed that patriarchy is very deeply entrenched in the university. A spate of suicides in the science department of the university in the 1980s brought to surface the sexual harassment of female research students. Sushma Merh's case revealed the nexus between the Head of the Department, the university structures and corrupt officials and the vulnerability of temporary teachers. She had to struggle for eight years just to be heard and when it came to taking serious action the university authorities adopted ingenious methods which ensured the continuance of the Head in the department. In the ongoing Beena Rani case, a Safai Karamchari in Hindu College, a struggle has been going on for more than three years to get justice. All structures of authority in the university and the college have colluded to protect the culprits. A third party intervention (in this case the SC/ST commission) had to be sought for an enquiry committee according to the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the work place. Within this committee the norm defining the appointment of a third party, a key member meant to protect the interests of the victim, was blatantly violated. The committee finally expressed its inability to reach a definitive conclusion in the absence of any direct evidence. One has only to bear in mind that in a recent incident of a girl having been paraded naked in a street in Delhi in full public view, the police found no witness to register the case. In a very recent case of sexual harassment of a woman employee in the library of Ramjas College whereby sexual services were reportedly sought in return for promotion, enquiry is being delayed.

When Prof. V.R. Mehta joined the university four years ago, he promised to establish a standing committee on sexual harassment to a delegation of Swabhiman. Subsequently he took the position that there is no sexual harassment in the university with his having taken over the reins of the institution. He was dismissive of the report of the Gender study group which revealed the all-pervasiveness of sexual harassment. When Nandita Narain tried to raise the issue in the Executive Council, a senior professor and a close associate of the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Kashi Ram Sharma reportedly took the position that the report was 'motivated'. More than two years after the Supreme Court judgement on the issue of sexual harassment at the work place the university has yet to legislate on the issue. Committees have come and gone under the convenorship of Prof. Susheela Kaushik, Director, Centre for Women's Development. She has not only not discharged her responsibility on the issue she has a long history of creating impediments in the way of women struggling to get justice in cases of sexual harassment. Sushma Merh and Beena Rani are known instances in this regard. We are aware that to put the issue of sexual harassment on the agenda is going to involve struggle within the DUTA itself. Reflecting the larger social reality a large section of the DUTA leadership itself is deeply in the grip of the patriarchal value system.

Our Demands: The DUTA needs and must have a larger social agenda of education. This alone can hope to bring the DUTA out of its present dead end. It is more than apparent by now that the opposition of the teachers' movement to the issue of social justice in the premier central University with a long history of democratic struggles, has been self-defeating. Of course, our demands regarding pay-revision and promotions stay including proportional parity and arrears according to the new pay-scales for the part-time teachers. We have been all along advocating restoration of the demand of a running grade including professor's grade, which we hold, should be automatically given to all. However, for the designation of Professor we support a rigorous but manoeuvrability-free mechanism. It goes without saying that we desperately need better medical and housing facilities. Large residential campuses contribute to better professional performance. There is marked need for investment in hostels for women given their rising proportion in the University.

Immediate demands for struggle must include democratization of the system of governance, selection processes and total transparency in administration, inclusive of finances. This assumes full access to information for all. A soft and corrupt examination system calls for a radical restructuring including returning of scripts to the students.

However, the teachers' movement must set a new agenda for itself which should reflect the larger social concerns of education. We must begin by demanding a larger budgetary allocation to education. We must simultaneously resist privatization, vocationalization, introduction of self-financing courses and fee-hikes. The DUTA needs to address itself urgently to the issue of language. Continuation of colonial language policies puts a premium on the English language which deprives children from government schools of equal opportunities for admission, good academic performance and critical development. They push the urban poor and the dalits out of the university system. We must seek the restoration and expansion of Hindi-medium sections and resist discontinuation of the Modern Indian Language courses. We demand immediate policy legislation and a statutory complaint mechanism on the issue of sexual harassment. We also reiterate our demand for a statutory committee autonomous of the University power structure for punitive action against atrocities on dalits and a monitoring cell for a speedy implementation of the reservation policy. We also put forward an agenda for ourselves. We must address ourselves to the dismal state of academic functioning and update the Dilip Simeon committee report. We must not any further evade the question of our own accountability under the pretext of interlocking system of accountability. Of ourselves we must again demand the democratization of the DUTA itself.

Who should be supported for the Presidentship of the DUTA? The Congress and the BJP leadership has been pushing communal fascism, authoritarianism, chauvinism, privatization, fee-hike, corruption and criminalization on the campus. In the university both have been opposed to gender justice and reservation for the oppressed castes. Only the consistent democratic forces may be expected to take a principled stand on these issues, The CPM-dominated DTF expresses democratic aspirations from time to time. But experience shows that they dither, compromise and desert the democratic cause at crucial moments. They often raise the issues only partially. Yet it cannot be denied that there is a perceptible area of difference between the BJP and the Congress on the one hand and CPM on each of the issues mentioned above. Therefore, in the absence of a more democratic alternative, we consider that critical support must be extended to the DTF Presidential candidate. However, we entertain no illusions about the DTF initiating consistent militant democratic struggles within the university. While it must be appreciated that the Navjanvadi Shikshak Manch has put forward elements of a genuine democratic programme, it is unfortunate that their election manifesto has tended to equate the dominating political trends in the university. It is expected of a democratic organization to give its considered views on the issue of the Presidential candidate. We note with dismay that our friends from the Samajwadi Shikshak Manch have not shared their agenda in a written form with the academic community for several years. They too have abjured their responsibility of giving their opinion on the Presidential candidate.

Forum for Democratic Struggle
Delhi University Teachers for Academic Reform

20th August 1999.

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