All Is Not Well at AUD: Natasha Narwal

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

15 thoughts on “All Is Not Well at AUD: Natasha Narwal”

  1. Why should Universities or any establishment be happy about criticism? They are not banning protest or Unions or any Body that comes together to criticise the university. They’re simply not actively encouraging it. I fail to see why they should.

    Notices on notice board are, sadly, how things are communicated to students in most Indian universities. Perhaps it makes them technophobic, but not evil.

    If most students don’t know who is in the Student’s Cell – perhaps it’s because THEY are apathetic.

    Fee waivers are a well-established way of making sure that more people get acces to otherwise unaffordable education. Unaffordable because one needs money to pay teachers, administrators other running costs. Although the University must be subsidised, clearly it’s not enough to make the fees as low as JNU. Perhaps before criticising fee structures you should provide readers with more details about the funding structure of AUD. And if fees are raised, i’s probably because costs go up every year.

    The only interesting thing you’ve said is that “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.” and how this works against women. While i completely see your point I cannot conceptualise a system that both corrects this and prevents abuse of the fee waiver structure, since a large number of students’ education is payed for by parents.

    1. One option (that at least some American students follow) is for students to establish themselves as “independent adults”. This means that the student has to establish that her family is not going to financially support her education, and she would be paying for it by herself. Fee waiver or financial assistance issues for such students are then treated using different criteria than those used for students who have financial support from their students.

    2. I find this blog and your comment quite informative to me. Since I got educated in a low grade University in UP, I was awed when fist visited JNU. Most of my well to do acquaintances in Delhi send their children to JNU. I am surprised that JNU fees are less than in AUD. How come? There is another strange paradox which I hope Kafila’s freedom of expression loving intellectuals would allow me to express. JNU appears to be a home for elite leftists,students and Professors, irrespective of their field of study. This observation is based on my personal interaction with some, and also experience. Once a good degree from JNU, professional advancement is insured. On the other hand, it is not true for my third rate University, but I must not say more. What I must convey is that my University has produced a leftist intellectual, a founder member of NSI, who sounds more authentic, more scientific and more convincing in Kafila than the JNU brands. My University has also produced a key member of Modi’s cabinet, I am puzzled that quality leaders and thinkers on the left or right arise from an unknown University, and a premier JNU does not contribute towards leadership on both sides of spectrum. Whatever contribution it has made towards left seems to provide no competition in Indian political system. In summary, AUD students need not envy JNU regarding freedom to develop individually. The only question is if India should have JNUs, at a high cost to government, and for what good to India? Why not focus on AUDs? But far more pertinent question is if students should join University to get education or express their dissent. The only understandable dissent could be on the absence of competent teachers and role of administration to help student and teachers without administrative obstacle. The unions and their political affiliations are more of a hindrance in the educational process. They may produce a few future politicians, at the cost of a large number of students who are sidetracked from their educational objectives. In this context, it should be mentioned that the top leaders in the fields of industry, science, literature, medicine, economics and political philosophy etc come from the Capitalistic and Socialistic countries which do not encourage destructive student Union activities, where leftist or rightist, as Indian Universities do. Then why so mush emphasis on the right of a student to dissent in a University on anything other than the right to get an effective education?

      1. RDS, you are making a really important point and making it rather well. Why not make it a longer, independent piece? I for one would be really happy to read it considering the highly disproportionate amount of funds and resources pumped into subsidising everything at JNU while similar benefits are not even on paper extended to most desiring education in this country.

      2. RDS, I would like to respond to your claim about there being no political organizations/unions in American universities. I went to the University of Texas, which is amongst the largest public universities in the US.

        The university has active organizations representing both the Democrat party (http://udems.org/) and the Republican party (http://yctut.org/). Both these organizations have regular events on campus and distribute a large and varied quantity of literature to the students. The university has yearly elections to the student body and members of these organizations regularly contest them. In addition to these party based organizations, there are hundreds of other active organizations representing everything from Palestine to Israel to the radical left (http://isoaustin.blogspot.com/).

        Not once in my years there did I ever hear of any impact on the university’s teaching environment or safety/peace being hindered by these unions.

        India is a low trust society with deep divisions of class, caste, religion and region. This is the reality and it will manifest on campus. Shutting it out of campuses will just make them appear elsewhere. Instead of blanket bans, pressure has to be put on politicians to maintain the autonomy and academic/intellectual freedom of universities together with the rule of law.

    3. @Harry- You are absolutely right that no University and establishment encourages dissent or criticism and its decisions are communicated just through some notices. And that is precisely why these things had to be pointed out to show that AUD administration functions like any other bureaucratic administration and its claims of being ‘different’ and non- hierarchical and collegial are a farce.

      That most students do not know about the Students Cell is because they do not have any meaningful role either in its creation nor its working.

      And if you already take it as given that the fee will be ‘otherwise unaffordable’ and that educational institutions should also function on the basis of user-charge then there is nothing much to argue.

  2. banning students’ unions and any form of dissent has become a commonplace affair in almost all the prestigious Universities in India. On the other hand, the administration uses the ban to push through a set of neo-liberal policies which is increasingly commodifying education and taking it away from the realms of the poor.

    1. In contrast, take the example of BHU. It remains highly affordable, an engine of economic and social mobility in eastern UP, and a provider of very good quality education.

      A lost of this is due to, not in spite of the fact that BHU has banned DU style student union elections for years. Other comparable universities in the region, such as Allahabad University routinely face disciplinarian problems because they have chosen not to take such steps. “Student politics” in that region has merely become a training ground for strongmen planning “goonda politics” as a career rather than an avenue for students to participate in the administration. In such a situation, banning student unions (as the BHU did), becomes necessary and unavoidable if the university is to carry out its basic mission of providing an edifying environment to its students.

  3. I agree with the author that if students wish to create a union or other such systems of collective participation and representation, they should be encouraged by the university.

    That said, as a faculty at AUD, I’d like to add some information for readers who may not be aware–the Fund referred to by the author (SWF) has a matching grant by the university, and money from it goes to students in urgent or more chronic need for financial aid. This has included cost for transport, class material and photocopying, and even, medical support.

    As for the fee, I think its a question we should engage with as an actually existing problem, rather than reduce it to the ‘spectre of neoliberalism’. Fact is, many students today in several DU colleges, JNU, and sure enough AUD, are from middle-class/elite families who can certainly pay the fees, which though high for public universities, are still pittance when compared to private ones. Given that there is a real crunch that institutions like AUD work with, some cross-subsidisation is simply necessary. Indeed, a significant part of the fee collected–i think close to 50%–goes back into fee waivers, scholarships, and field-based learning. In my School we spend close to Rs. 20,000 per student–irrespective of need/merit–funding internships, dissertation fieldwork, and fieldtrips. Without the fees, this would simply not happen.

    And I don’t know about others, but to clarify a point made in the article, in our school we’ve given full fee waivers to students who are not supported from home.

    Also, fyi, I have no admin position at AUD and am simply a junior faculty member. There are several concerns one has: infrastructural, financial etc. and often you wish that the state funded AUD like it does the IISERs, IITs, and Nalandas of the country. But the fact is, it doesn’t, and so, we’re left with having to do whatever we can to still offer some semblance of quality in a deeply constrained space. Right now, this includes SWF and higher fee; and other creative (but obviously, ad hoc) solutions, such as in the author’s department, stipends for students through a grant from Ratan Tata (on the application of which I can personally vouch for the hours and hours their faculty mentor spent).

    1. Negi Sir, you surprised me by your affirmative opinion on Student Union in ADU. I hope you did not do that as a junior faculty fearing agitation against you. An union is relevant in an organization where the work done by employees is not commensurate with the salary and benefits paid, and a collective bargaining brings strength. Here it is the student who pays fees, and deserves good education provided by teachers and facilitated by administration in return. How he benefits by forming Union. If problem arises, and they are not getting what they are paying for, the entire class can represent to administration. As soon as a Student Union is allowed using some lofty arguments, most political parties will jump into action to exert their influence on the student body and the university. Disruption in classes would occur for trivial reasons. How does it enhance free and original thinking? That is done by devising appropriate course material and educational plan. If my request sounds too restrictive for student development, please look at any country, Socialist or Capitalist. I have my first hand experience. Neither in Soviet Union, China, UK or US I have seen Student Union leaders disrupting teaching and insulting teachers and Vice Chancellors/ Presidents as I have seen in Indian University I taught for many years. Student strike fairly common in India was unheard in Soviet Union or US. Does India do better in producing intellectuals in different fields of human learning that the advanced countries should be a key question before yielding for Student Union. I wish it is made undesirable in any place of learning. Also, the University offices, particularly that of Registrar, in my Indian university was too important and most faculty members had to flatter them for favors. In fact, this problem existed even in High School where Bada Babu was next to Principal. Very unfortunate. The students and teachers together are the central entity of an educational institution, and the rest must have only supporting role. Otherwise, our Universities will never rise to world level.

  4. The argument that since “most of the students at universities like DU, JNU and AUD belong to middle Class/Elite families-they can afford to pay much higher fees than they are currently being charged appears very reasonable but it hides several inequities with in its apparently well reasoned folds.

    For one middle class and elite are not interchangeable categories and there is an almost unfathomable chasm between the run of the mill middle class child and her counterpart from the elite. but the more insidious inequity that is given a short shrift in this argument is the fact that AUD JNU DU, IP and Jamia are universities run from the taxes paid by the people of this country and they have no business to keep their fees at a level where the children of the poor get no chance of getting in. In fact it is the practice of regular fee hikes that turns these universities into preserves of the elite.

    in fact if these universities have to become

    ‘viable, vibrant space of thinking and learning….that encourage creativity and non-hierarchical structures of learning.

    the two things they need to do is

    not stop students from creating their own representative bodies elected democratically and invested with powers to speak for them

    and to ensure a fee structure

    that encourages students from the discriminated and marginalised sections of this deeply riven society to approach them with the confidence that they would be welcomed to grow and reach their potential,, something that they have been denied for millennia.

    .

  5. The fundamental issue is how much should the state subsidize universities like AUD. AUD may be cheaper if compared to private universities but expensive if compared to JNU. Since AUD is established by state and funded by it, can it be expected that state should fund it 100%. Achieving access and excellence in higher education is a challenge for which there are no easy answers. IITs and IIMs are expensive and are still preferred as quality of education and employment options set them apart from other institutions. But universities like AUD cannot afford to charge like IITs and IIMs. So the demand should be that funding for these universities should be reassessed. Replicating JNU model is not possible now.

  6. As a former student of AUD, I’d like to expand on one point Natasha makes – AUD as an institution is filled with individuals from the urban upper middle class. Most individuals at AUD, students and faculty alike, respond to daily life from an urban upper middle class lens. Therefore, there is a cultural and psychological inability to accommodate the rural student, or the Dalit student, or the non-English speaking student, in most AUD minds.

    The argument that scholarships are provided for merit can be countered by asking, “Who does merit favor?” From my experience, the urban upper middle class English speaking student. The argument that fee waivers and stipends are provided can be countered by asking, “Who receives the fee waiver?” and “How much is the stipend?” Fee waivers do NOT cater to every student’s need, and the stipend is not sufficient to sustain any individual who lives by themselves in Delhi, without monetary support of another kind.

    Most importantly, AUD is NOT a space like DU or JNU, where the number of students ensures students from all walks of life, assuring that the Dalit student, or the rural student, or the student from a lower middle class family will be welcome. AUD does not welcome these students, in the socio-cultural atmosphere it creates. Classrooms are filled with the silence of such students, and the administrative functions of AUD have not yet made any space for their voices either.

    The problem of AUD goes beyond the question of fees – it simply manifests itself through the problem of fees. And the reaction the Administration/Faculty has towards to issue of fees, and towards Natasha’s post.

    (I do not include ALL faculty members and all administrative staff in this argument.)

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