Guest post by AYESHA KIDWAI
The recommendations of the UGC panels are circulating on WhatsApp (See Appendix at the end of this article). If these are indeed what is going to be presented at the full UGC meeting, then there is no doubt in my mind that the pandemic is a pretext to get rid of the university altogether, to move it notionally online, to make education the tool for surveillance, and to change the way that all educational institutions function. If the recommendations are accepted, then 25% of the syllabus in any course henceforth will have to be completed online, all universities will have to form virtual classrooms, through an MHRD dedicated portal, develop e-learning syllabi, and change their degrees. What this will mean for academic jobs henceforth is obvious, but what it will entail for the content of education is far worse.
In the Committee’s imagination, teachers are expected to participate in all this by colluding with the UGC. In the circulated committee report, there is a great deal of heavy petting of the efforts that teachers have made. The UGC panel is fulsome in its praise for university teachers already having done their duty by providing instruction online, that 70% of the syllabus can be deemed as covered. The Committee “feels that the faculty members have contributed a lot in benefiting students during this lockdown period” and that they have maintained a “substantive contact” with them by “devoting a substantial amount of time… to answer questions during lectures, group work, discussions, etc… by using one or more of the tools such as WhatsApp groups, emails and social media platforms.” In fact, “providing feedback on work submitted electronically by students also counts as a form of substantive interaction.” So given all this meherbani teachers have done, the committee declares that teachers’ work during the lockdown counts for “active attendance” .
The source of this conclusion by the MHRD is coming from the information that is being asked for, from teachers by circular every week. No student is being asked anything and the committee doesn’t report having taken any student feedback at all. At least in JNU, this information has been sought along very simple parameters as to “how many are participating in online education, how many faculty are involved in online education, any issues on daily basis, and how many ‘boys’ and how many ‘girls’ (the SC judgment on transgender people is clearly not important enough for the MHRD).
No evidence that such classes are actually taking place and are accessible to all, is either asked for or recorded.
Will teachers cooperate as the neoliberal ‘consensual class’ that will put the seal of approval on the MHRD’s plans? Thus far, they have not, despite the best efforts to mask the real facts by pusillanimous administrations.
MHRD Survey on online teaching, state-wise
These images from an MHRD survey on online teaching in universities in India, shows that barring one or two, no University reports that online education reaches all the students. Rather, it profoundly exacerbates existing inequalities, giving them new sites of occurrence.
Online v Offline classrooms
Improving internet connectivity is not the panacea, nor is training of faculty members to produce online lessons. The UGC must understand that an online class cannot have the character of an offline one, may involve quite different cognitive strategies of memory, and does not foster many other skills necessary for the creative use of knowledge. Classrooms are the only sites where democracy can (potentially) be yoked to learning and knowledge, to Constitutional values and its anti-discrimination guarantees. In an online space, there are mostly only “users”.
That a pandemic demands extraordinary measures is a given, but that these must be wilfully ignorant of the true circumstances is not. Even closing universities for a year is preferable to the creation of mechanisms that will institutionalise discrimination. This move must be resisted by both teachers and students (but by teachers most of all).
A beginning was made in the responses that teachers across the country have sent in the data as embodied in the MHRD survey of 24th April (see above) but we need to do much more to unitedly thwart all attempts to kill the university off altogether.