Guest post by NATASHA NARWAL
Ambedkar University Delhi, a recently established State University in the NCR, has become the new buzz in the academic circles of the Capital. It is seen as space full of creative opportunities by an academic community exhausted by bureaucratic regimes and the sheer weight of established institutions stifling any real creativity and innovations in most central Universities. In a recent article in Economic and Political Weekly, Janaki Nair described AUD as a ‘viable, vibrant space of thinking and learning, striving to provide affordable and yet sustainable fee structures and encouraging creativity and non-hierarchical structures of learning.’ To be fair, such perceptions are not entirely baseless. As it is a recently established University, almost everything, from the various schools, courses, syllabus even physical infrastructure is in the making without very rigid contours. All this gives one a sense of an innovative and fluid space. Many of the faculty members indeed do strive hard to design courses in consultation with students and give them space to express themselves. But beneath this, on the grounds, all is not well at AUD.
The biggest contradiction in AUD is that while there seems to be a lot of space for expression there are no actual spaces for any dissent or protest. The University administration has become a kind of a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. They will invite you for a cup of tea, ‘listen’ to the problems and promise to look into it as they want to create ‘non-antagonistic’ forms of politics. Any attempt to organise spaces or build platforms outside the University administration for dissent or raising questions is looked upon as betrayal to the ‘Family.’ Things like Unions or any political associations are too old-fashioned and antagonistic for this innovative University.
Year before last, in response to various attempts by students to get together and articulate their issues and raise questions the University administration came up with a body called the Students’ Cell. Now, there is nothing wrong with the Students’ Cell apart from the fact that it does not involve any students’ participation worth the name. In this non-hierarchical University, the students were informed about the cell only through some notices stuck on the walls. Carrying forward the innovative spirit, to be a part of this cell, students have to apply to the University with their CVs and the lucky ones also get paid by the University. One doesn’t need be a very big fan of representative structures like elected Unions or associations to see that such a body can hardly be expected to be a space for articulation of issues or raising voices of dissent. All such a body can do is to make certain inquiries or take ‘feedbacks’ at the behest of the University and it is indeed all what it has done. Most students don’t even know about who are the Student Cell’s members.
As part of its mission of ‘moulding its students into informed and sensitive professionals who will engage with their social responsibilities’ last year the University established a Students’ Welfare Fund. Now that is an extremely noble and thoughtful gesture, the only problem being that students themselves are required to fund this fund by paying Rs 500 extra per semester to the University with the fee and mind you not voluntarily. It is a compulsory charity with again students having no say or part in the institution and administration of this fund.
In AUD’s Vision statement it is written that ‘the University strongly believes that no knowledge becomes socially productive unless it spreads across society, transcending barriers of caste, creed and class. Only then can teaching and learning become liberating undertakings, contributing to the promotion of equality, social justice and excellence.” So the first step towards actualising such vision should be making the University accessible to students of various backgrounds. But the fee structure of the University works exactly against providing such access. For most courses, AUD charges Rs 16,000 (plus 500 for the ‘welfare’ fund) per semester. So for a three year graduate course, one has to pay around Rs 1 lakh and for a Masters Degree one ends up paying around Rs 65 thousand. It is not difficult to imagine then which sections of society can afford to pay such amounts. But as it is a University committed to social justice and equity it has fee waivers for the ‘needy’. So, let’s put it straight. Basically the University will cater to rich but as charity it will include some from ‘weaker’ sections by giving them fee waivers. So much for social justice.
Furthermore, implicit in this kind of fee structure is the idea that students cannot be seen as adults who can or would want to support themselves on their own as the fee waivers are entirely decided on the basis of the family income. This becomes detrimental for so many students especially women students for whom it is a fight to continue their higher education (that too in the traditionally feminised Social Sciences and Humanities) without their family’s supports. Also students are conceptualised as just takers of a certain commodity called education for which they have to pay huge amounts of money and not as partners and workers engaged in the production of knowledge. So much for non- hierarchical institutions.
To top this all, there has been a proposed fee hike of 25% at AUD from the next academic session. Very tactfully, it has been proposed in the end of this academic session when most of the students and faculty members are not even around (and will not apply to students enrolled in AUD prior to the 2014-15 academic year). Nonetheless, some teachers and students who were around did organise a public meeting on the issue and invited people from the administration to make their case and have a discussion. Not only was there no participation from them there hasn’t been any official response on the issue (except apparently through the Student Cell!).
In the given context of the massive ongoing neo-liberal onslaught on and commodification of education, where in the name of ‘thinking out of the box’ things like FYUP are being imposed disregarding every voice of dissent, if this is what ‘real’ innovation, creativity, creating non-hierarchical structures and being ‘different’ means then I am afraid to imagine what kind of educational spaces are going to be created.
Natasha Narwal is a student of M. Phil, Development Practice, Ambedkar University, Delhi