Guest Post by Sujata Chandra
The University Grants Commission has issued a set of ‘Guidelines on Safety of Students On and Off Campuses in Higher Educational Institutions‘ in April 2015, which is beginning to be discussed recently by students and faculty in many universities and higher educational institutions (HEI). They begin by discussing the height of walls and kind of barbed wire that are needed to ‘fence’ in higher educational institutions. But the most disturbing thing is the kind of walls and barbed wire they seek to install in the minds of students.
The ‘Guidelines’ feature a number of problematic provisions in the name of assuring a ‘safe and secure learning environment’ for students. These provisions, if implemented, will simply assert the state’s notion of morality and end up transforming students into submissive entities. The vision of ‘students’ in these guidelines is that of infantile beings who require ‘permission’ from authority figures (university administration, law enforcement officials and ‘parents’) at every stage of their life on and off campus.
One of the key provisions relates to the necessity of setting up police stations within university campuses. The presence of police forces within university campuses can only have a ‘chilling effect’ on student life, especially with regard to the quality of political activism and discussion. Universities are meant to be spaces of liberty and autonomy, and the presence of policemen on campus does not bode well for either. One can clearly envisage university authorities asking students to obtain ‘police permission’ to hold meetings, protests, screenings and simple gatherings. Ostensibly, the presence of a police station on campus is supposed to act as a deterrent to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
I have heard of a number of cases of sexual violence and assault taking place within the four walls of a police station. The presence of a police station on campus may in many instances do nothing to address the reality of sexual harassment or violence, at worst, it may act as a powerful incentive to sexual harassment of students by uniformed personnel, or by people protected by police personnel. The suggestion of setting up police stations within campuses to address sexual harassment, it at best, highly debatable.
The guidelines go on to suggest that policemen act as ‘escorts’, guiding students from one corner of the campus to another. Do students need police personnel to ‘escort’ them at all, and will such a provision make students feel any more secure? Given the extent to which policemen are being deployed to do ‘moral policing’ in Gujarat, Maharashtra and other parts of the country, it is natural to expect that the presence of police ‘escorts’ on campus will escalate fears of moral policing and invasive action by police personnel to enforce their ideas of what kind of dress and behavior is appropriate for students. This will make students, especially women students, feel much less safe and secure than they are at present.
Another set of ‘guidelines’ – pertains to the installation of CCTV cameras and biometric identification facilities all over university campuses. These are supposed to keep a watch on student behavior and also ensure ‘attendance’ (through ‘clocking in’ by biometric readers). The document states – “the digital mechanism can enable HEIs to keep an eye on a student’s movement and whereabouts in failsafe manner”. Is attendance at classes something that ought to be ensured by invasive measures such as CCTV cameras and biometric readers, or should it be guaranteed by the quality of instruction, teaching and classroom engagement that is attractive enough for students to ‘want’ to attend classes, rather than ‘have to’ show up for the sake of attendance alone. And how is ‘tracking the movement of students’ a legitimate concern of the authorities? This legitimization of surveillance and violation of students (and indeed teachers’) autonomy and privacy calls for severe criticism.
The document also suggests the mandatory setting up of a “Students Counseling System” with the involvement of teachers and parents. The whole idea of involving teachers and parents to sort out academic worries, whatever they may be, is preposterous. The broad purpose of education should to make students intellectually independent. Students in Higher Educational Institutions are not children, and should be viewed as responsible adults who are capable of handling academic burdens. In fact those who are responsible in academia should make sure that curricula are designed to ensure that they do not feel like burdens at all, so that the question of unreasonable ‘academic pressure’ simply does not arise. The question of ‘burdens’ and ‘pressure’ is due to the marks-oriented nature of our current education system which hardly ever encourages students to know more, write more, or read more in order to explore and deepen their knowledge and curiosity. Instead, the current educational system features a race to end the syllabus and a pressure to secure the highest possible marks in exams simply in order to fit into a competitive system that has no relation to the acquisition of knowledge and the sharpening of intellectual curiosities.
UGC also puts forth the idea that HEIs should organize quarterly parents-teachers meet (PTM). The very notion of replicating the school system of making the parent accountable for children’s behavior at college and university level is outrageously draconian. Let the child breathe, learn by his own mistakes rather than force rote learning and rules down the throat of a young adult who has just started giving meaning to life. And are the parents really keen on meeting teachers once the students start attending college? I would sincerely doubt it.
It reminds me of my own college days in Presidency College, Calcutta in 2003 (Now Presidency University) where we once had a ‘parents teacher meet’ in the sociology department. My peers and I were straight out of school at that time and hence we failed to comprehend the problem with it at all. But now, as a Phd student in Jamia Millia Islamia University, I cannot think of a worse thing than having to attend the embarrassment of ‘parent teacher meets’. Students in higher educational institutions do not need ‘parental’ supervision and interference in their academic careers. Such measures completely takes away his/her free will and freedom to shape his/her own course and choices of study.
The ‘Guidelines’ also refer to notions such as – ‘healthy relationships’ and ‘healthy sexuality’. What on earth is ‘unhealthy sexuality’ ? And who decides which kind of sexuality is unhealthy ? We have to ask whether this effort to distinguish between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ relationships and sexuality is not an attempt to make student life in universities and higher education institutions conform to the homophobic biases of Section 377 and to the puritanical, heteronormative, and casteist pressures present in society.
Is this not simply a mean to assert that the ‘best’, ‘healthiest’ relationships are those that can be given a ‘legal’ form through the institution of heterosexual marriage of the right kind, the kind that will automatically meet ‘parental approval’ in its most conservative form in the vast majority of cases ? Is this emphasis on ‘healthy’ relationships and sexuality not just another governmental mechanism to define right and wrong in keeping with conservative norms within the domain of relationships and sexuality. In a society where ‘Valentine’s Day’ is an occasion for intensive policing and moral policing by state as well as non-state actors, can we trust that the framework of ‘healthy relationships and sexuality’ will not be simply yet another excuse for repression?
The micromanagement of student life mandated by the ‘Guidelines’ even extends to the planning of ‘trips’ and ‘excursions’, with suggestions for intimating parents (again) with the details of travel itineraries and arrangements and specifications about the gender and number of accompanying teachers. Is the sole aim to bring out a student who is still reliant on his guardians for successful decision making or do we want strong independent individuals at the end of their degrees?
The ‘Guidelines’ do include some commendable features – such as the inclusion for mandatory courses on Disaster Management for all students and suggestions for self-defense training. But these are few and far between. The majority of the ‘Guidelines’ simply involve an assertion of establishment morality in the garb of concern about the security and safety of students (especially of women students). There is no shortage of self-assigned moral guardians on campuses everywhere who find it difficult to accept students (especially women students again) asserting their autonomy, and roaming around as they see fit, of their own free will. The ‘Guidelines on Safety and Security of Students On and Off Campuses in HEIs’ issued by the UGC will only strengthen their hands and weaken students autonomy. The spectre of CCTV cameras all over campuses providing ‘live feeds’ of what students are doing and how they are behaving to moral scrutiny is a Foucauldian nightmare – or a bad dream straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
Students, teachers and anywhere concerned about sustaining universities and higher educational institutions all over India as spaces of liberty, autonomy and learning must come together to resist the implementation of these ‘guidelines’ before it gets too late.
Sujata Chandra is a Phd Scholar in the Department Of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delh