Teacher-Veacher, Union-Shunion…Kya Bakwaas Hai Yaar?

(To translate for non-Hindi speakers, “teachers…unions…what nonsense is this, my friend?)

Terrible translation, but you get the gist. Those who have spent any time in Delhi University will immediately recognise the picture I paint now…imagine a long-haired, loose-jeaned youth of about twenty, casually lounging against a wall, sipping a banta (lemon soda) and occasionally scanning the horizon for that pretty girl from his business studies class…his friends will agree, “teacher-veacher union-shunion, kya bakwas hai yaar?” These are serious students lets assume, with dreams of MBAs post-graduation and eight-figure salaries. One of them might then say, “Mittal sir, he is the best, yaar; he never goes on strike, and his notes got us first divisions.”

I mean lets face it; as stereotypes of the teaching profession immortalised on screen we have the hot teacher (Main Hoon Na, and millions of others – usually involves a seemingly prim woman suddenly taking her glasses off, and shaking her bun open in slow motion), the radical teacher who inspires his students to question the system (Dead Poet’s Society), the truly inspiring teacher who turns students’ lives around (To Sir With Love) and the cool teacher, who is the students’ best friend (too many to recount). But the teacher who is an employee, joins a union and goes on strike??

I remember my first strike as a college lecturer about six years ago; it was my first year as a lecturer, and I joined hundreds of teachers from Delhi University on the road outside Jantar Mantar (official site of political protests in Delhi)…caught up in the unique thrill that comes with being able to publicly stand up for something you believe is right, I didn’t notice a large bunch of news reporters boredly but determinedly clicking away with their zoom lensed cameras. There I was with my colleagues, splashed all over the newspapers the next day, sweaty-faced, my expression declaring war and my fist raised in solidarity with other teachers. I should have felt proud; instead I felt caught. Red-handed. It reminded me of the time when I was in school and had ridden in the boot of a Maruti 800 with four friends, the door of the boot wide open above our heads, our legs swinging out over the back bumper, the breeze on our faces…exhilaration. The next day there was a photo of my friends and me in the front page of The Hindu supplement with the caption, “Alarming Lack of Safety on City Roads: Schoolchildren on a Joyride”.

My parents weren’t pleased then, when I was 13; I suspect they had the exact same reaction this time around. They may have even gone on a round of anguished self-questioning, of the ‘where did we go wrong?!’ variety. To be fair to them, as far as they were concerned, this was evolutionary regression. My grandfather had run away from home, fleeing his tiny village to reach the city, living on the streets and putting himself through college. He made it finally as a draughtsman in the British government; and married his only daughter off to an English-educated army officer. My parents in turn sacrificed the best years of their marriage to the cause of a decent education for their two daughters, living apart so we could attend public schools in bigger cities.

After all this, I was back on the streets, and they were in all likelihood mortified. I blame cinema. As I said earlier, no images or icons exist for the striking, protesting, angry-employee teacher. It isn’t a coincidence I think. Teaching is supposed to be a noble profession, which is the reason HRD Minister Kapil Sibal feels it is alright to chide striking IIT faculty for ‘unbecoming’ behaviour. In that sense, university teaching has a somewhat unique status in this country; it is one of very few ‘respectable’ middle-class professions to be publicly unionised (government doctors, and now airline pilots being two of the others). It is not a surprise however that teachers need unions – a survey of the history of government regulations regarding higher education since the 1970’s clearly reveals how low education is on national priority. Notwithstanding the hype about the brave new knowledge economy, higher education in India is ruled by an arbitrary and hierarchical decision-making structure, an ongoing apartheid between central and state universities; and at various other levels (A fact noted by Vrijendra in his post on Kafila), and continuous fund crunch especially for the humanities, arts and social sciences. With the latest HRD dispensation, there now seems to be a massive push towards universitiy departments raising funds for their courses directly from the market, a move that will mean a slow death for ‘unprofitable’ courses like say, Sanskrit. In the absence of a real commitment to improving the number, diversity and quality of universities, improving research facilities and investing in faculty development, the easiest tactic on the government’s part is to tap into popular perception about non-performing, lazy teachers, and justify absurdly low pay packages for them. Further, every single pay revision has been accompanied by compulsory new service conditions for teachers, unlike any other sector of government; an unjustified exceptionalism.The recent Pay Commission has greatly redressed the issue of pay, a fact that has been repeated ad nauseum in the media, but the little known fact is that the substantially higher pay applies only to senior faculty (those who in government parlance are called Pay Band 4), whereas younger faculty in Pay Band 3 have seen only a marginal increase in pay. More disturbingly, the arbitrary and punitive service conditions introduced by the UGC make promotions dependent on acquiring a certain number of points in your career, which in turn are dependent on conditions that are for the most part only very remotely concerned with college teaching and academics, and more importantly, nearly impossible for the average college teacher in India to fulfl. Explaining the full contours of this awful new monster the UGC has created, and what it will do to a profession I love more than anything in the world will require a full-length post in itself.

The main point here is, as far as the government is concerned, the combination of the sudden yawning gap between Pay Band 3 and 4, and the new service conditions together add up to a political and financial masterstroke. By giving a huge bonanza to Pay Band 4, the government has ensured their full support and acquiescence, and created a difference of interests between them and younger faculty. This was important from the government’s point of view, since it is the senior faculty who have been the most vociferous in the teachers movement, given their greater bargaining power and experience. Not surprisingly, they have dominated teachers’ unions in order to unanimously agree to the new pay package offered this time. As for service conditions regarding promotion especially, most Pay Band 4 teachers are past their final promotion, and many near retirement. So it is difficult to imagine that they would be unduly concerned; so effectively, those affected by the new service conditions are new and younger teachers in Pay band 3. The younger teachers have always been more vulnerable; most have taught as ad hoc or temporary faculty for many years, a humilating and debilitating experience…more so if one is in a state university, where contractual employment is very common. They will be rendered even more vulnerable and fragmented by these new conditions (one of whose principal effects will be to pitch individual teacher against individual teacher in order to acquire points for promotion). Hence, they will find it difficult if not impossible to mobilise themselves politically in unions to oppose any unjust moves by the government. The long term calculation of the government seems to be this – get rid of the political threat represented by the older faculty by giving them more than they expect, then bring in near-impossible conditions for promotion, so that very few of those currently in Pay Band 3 make it to Pay Band 4, ensuring that the loss of revenue incurred in the dramatically increased salary of Pay Band 4 will be more than offset in coming years with these older faculty retiring, and most of the younger faculty langushing at Pay Band 3 for the remainder of their careers.

However, none of these facts will ever make it to the front pages or the television scenes. Because, hidden beneath upper class and middle class notions about teaching as a noble profession and of ‘becoming behaviour’ and so on is scant understanding of the real reasons for the rot in education in this country and barely concealed contempt for college and university teachers. This contempt increases dramatically if you do something as unbecoming as going on strike – how uncouth! To get a grip on the politics of higher education in this country, we will need to let go of middle-class notions of propriety and start thinking of teachers as employees and as a class seriously. Now more than ever, since higher education is on the verge of a very wrong turn, for which the only option may be more strikes and unbecoming behaviour. So no thank you Mr. Sibal, if you are determined to slowly squeeze the life out of us, we will NOT behave ourselves.

(To be Continued)

13 thoughts on “Teacher-Veacher, Union-Shunion…Kya Bakwaas Hai Yaar?”

  1. * Students asking WHY is a taboo in Indian Education model.

    School teachers must solicit and record all WHY questions from our children and give them to us at the end of the day.

  2. isnt it surprising that almost immediately after the DUTA demonstration in front of UGC demanding relook at the draft notification on eligibility and promotion conditions (the points system), UGC did notify the same with a single exception (as far as i can see) i.e retaining 5 years of teaching as the minimum requirement for applying to an open post of associate professor. the corresponding requirement for CAS promotion to associate prof is 12 years and then there are those ridiculous points to be attained. there is a desperate need to discuss and protest against this points system at every level because what the points system most values is the ability to bring in money (check out the distinction between major and minor projects for which u get points) and the ability to use money in the most immediate way by organising seminars, conferences, workshops. of course the latter are important but in paper there is no difference between a bad hastily organised workshop and a good seriously conceptualised one. the former can be quantitatively more, and held endear themselves to the annual report minded heads of institutions. the system rewards use of technology unthinkingly and puts teachers at the mercy of people at positions of power (so if i put up my class lecture as a power point i get to earn points but if i ‘teach’ then my points depend on my equations with the powers at be in my institution).
    i am sorry for taking so much space, as a separate post on the system is what you are probably writing anyway, but the lack of discussion on this is extremely distressing. also let me add that many many members of the teaching community are rather pleased with the points formula precisely because academic excellence is the last thing on the mind of those who conceived the system. if a self authored book, which can take a rather long time, gets u only a maximum of 50 points (that too if by an international publisher mind you) would you rather not organise seminars , use ICT in class, or squeeze yourself into one of the innumerable committees that colleges and universities set up to buy chairs or recommend new courses?
    who would want to come to the profession in such a set up. and this becomes a stick to beat those in the profession- by saying that they are the most undeserving because they came to teaching after having failed everywhere else. i think the idea of teaching as a noble profession has long gone even from the popular perception. check out how parents of school children assess the school teachers and talk to them. and of course, the more women take up higher education, the more undeserving and ignoble the profession becomes.

  3. You are quite close. But i refuse to be disappointed by this kind of developments.Teaching as a profession should have an underworld kind of existence. They should not hope to be regarded as nation-builders or morality-builders. A tutor, a naxalite, a spy or all so-callled dirty roles, all identities are located in today’s teacher. The public idiom of a teacher is too idiotic to be accepted for moral conclusions.

  4. Thanks Janaki, you are making crucial points here. I am glad you brought out the absurdity of the point system, because that is precisely the thing the entire new system hinges on. Like you say, the quantification of teaching will mean that a hastily organised seminar or indifferent teaching done with a powerpoint will earn more than the million things we do in a day as teachers, putting thought and love, (yes love as any committed teacher knows) into our interaction with students. So we have an utter quantification of unquantifiables in the new knowledge economy. Its no coincidence that all this began with the liberalisation of the Indian economy – we need a vast pool of successful graduates for new jobs, but good teaching and critical thought is rendered even less relevant than earlier.
    Sunil, you make an interesting point about the subversiveness of a really good teacher, and I laud your refusal to succumb to disappointment. Hope is all-important at this stage. But even to perform our critical, potentially subversive activity, we require some hard-fought and hard-won protection within our professions. And at no point am I arguing that teachers should be morality or nation-builders.

  5. I agree: teachers need unions and sometimes that means they need to strike. In the long run, the profession will only be improved by self-advocacy. In the short run, there will always be complaints. What to do? The needful, I suppose.

    Interesting place you have here. I’ll try to stop by again.

  6. I don’t understand this. Now the crib of the teachers is that promotions wouldn’t be based on seniority but on their performance which will be quantifiable. And that is wrong because…

  7. From whatever little I understand of this issue, I can think of a couple of problems…

    Firstly, teachers are rightfully concerned about the indicators on the basis of which points are to be accumulated in this point-based system of promotion.

    As Sunalini wrote in her post,

    “the arbitrary and punitive service conditions introduced by the UGC make promotions dependent on acquiring a certain number of points in your career, which in turn are dependent on conditions that are for the most part only very remotely concerned with college teaching and academics, and more importantly, nearly impossible for the average college teacher in India to fulfill.”

    Maybe someone who knows better can tell you exactly what these arbitrary indicators are, but from what I understand, these include absurdities such as raising money for college, staying a certain number of hours on campus, being involved with extra-curricular activities, etc.

    The more academic, yet problematic ones include a higher number of points for being published in international journals over domestic ones, etc.

    The second problem with such a system is the manner in which it is to be implemented and its implications. Again, based on whatever little I’ve gathered, it seems that internal quality assurance committees will be set up in colleges. Especially since its a pyramidal structure of promotion, it will induce a great deal of unnecessary competitiveness between colleagues. Moreover, the constitution of these committees remains a contentious issue. Will it be the stooges of the Principal who will be sitting in this committee? If that is so, then will it really be transparent, etc.

    More importantly, a system wherein evaluation for promotion is made internal to colleges, the threat of ‘autonomy’ always looms large. ‘Autonomy’, as you would know, is a euphemism used by the HRD ministry to describe what it hopes to do to higher education. It essentially translates into a neo-liberal plan wherein education will ultimately be privatized..

  8. oh just scroll up n read janaki, sunalini’s comments – they say many important things about the point system –

    janaki writes:

    “there is a desperate need to discuss and protest against this points system at every level because what the points system most values is the ability to bring in money (check out the distinction between major and minor projects for which u get points) and the ability to use money in the most immediate way by organising seminars, conferences, workshops. of course the latter are important but in paper there is no difference between a bad hastily organised workshop and a good seriously conceptualised one. the former can be quantitatively more, and held endear themselves to the annual report minded heads of institutions. the system rewards use of technology unthinkingly and puts teachers at the mercy of people at positions of power (so if i put up my class lecture as a power point i get to earn points but if i ‘teach’ then my points depend on my equations with the powers at be in my institution).”

    and Sunalini writes –

    ” the quantification of teaching will mean that a hastily organised seminar or indifferent teaching done with a powerpoint will earn more than the million things we do in a day as teachers, putting thought and love, (yes love as any committed teacher knows) into our interaction with students. So we have an utter quantification of unquantifiables in the new knowledge economy. Its no coincidence that all this began with the liberalisation of the Indian economy – we need a vast pool of successful graduates for new jobs, but good teaching and critical thought is rendered even less relevant than earlier.”

  9. Thank you, concerned. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I will write the promised follow-up post soon, explaining the details of the new service conditions. In the meanwhile I have a question for ‘A concerned citizen’s’ comment – do you believe ‘performance’ is a self-evident criterion? The definition of what counts as ‘performance’ in any profession is a human creation, like everything else that makes up our world; not a divinely ordained natural trait. Of course there should be standards, but more importantly there should be democratic debate on those standards. Or else, the powers that be will decide, and that can go any way huh? From what I can see of these new service conditions, a bulk of performance will be measured by one’s talent in getting on committees within colleges. From experience, I know that has precious little to do with the kind of academic you are, and everything to do with sucking up to (pardon my french) the Principal and other such notables. Two great dignities about university teaching in India are all set to disappear – the dignity of not having to suck up to a boss, and the dignity of not competing with colleagues. I can imagine though, that for all those indoctrinated into the ideology of meritocratic societies, these will appear not as dignities but as crimes. You are free to hold on to those views.

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