JNUTA REPORT ON THE UNIVERSITY 2016-2021 PART III – On Academic Programmes

This is the third part of a series of reports on Jawaharlal Nehru University (2016-2021) by the JNU Teachers’ Association.

Part I – Delhi High Court Orders .

Part II – Security on JNU Campus

On Academic Programmes

The directive issued by the Ministry of Education on the evening of 22 January announcing an extension for Prof. Jagadesh Kumar as Vice Chancellor till the time that the new incumbent is appointed, serves as yet another reminder of how consistently over the last five years, despite several representations backed by relevant Court Orders, the powers that be at the Centre have chosen to shut their eyes to the misdemeanours committed by the man heading JNU. The University Statutes and Act do not allow a second term for any Vice Chancellor and define the term of the Vice-Chancellor as five years only. The MHRD order does not award him a second term, and merely continues him in office until his successor is appointed. Yet, the Vice Chancellor on the 27th of January, called an emergency meeting of the Executive Council, at one hour’s notice and ‘reappointed’ all three Rectors, despite the fact that the tenure of the Rectors was not over. The JNUTA finds this disregard for the University Statutes shocking, as the VC cannot claim any knowledge that the new VC will not be appointed before the Rectors’ terms will be over. It strongly objects to the scant regard that the incumbent VC has for the Statutes of University he heads.

In today’s statement, part three and the concluding expose in this series, we would like to focus specifically on the fate of academic programmes – on three important aspects  related to changes in admission policies and the  effects of this on  the student profile of JNU, non-consultative process of decision-making on academic matters, reduction in academic expenditure dedicated to  teaching and research implemented under the Vice Chancellorship of  Prof. Jagadesh Kumar in the last five years.

JNU has over the last five years consistently been applauded for being ranked as number one university in India. Yet, while reading this statement today, please keep in mind all the points mentioned below and ask just one question, namely, how much more could JNU have possibly achieved and the lost opportunities, if it hadn’t been restrained by developments and changes brought upon by the Vice Chancellor.

Changes in the admission policy of JNU

The Admission Policy of any university determines the orientation, nature and quality of its research programmes, and more so in one that was set up as a research university by an Act of Parliament. JNU’s admission policy flows from the objectives of the university laid out in the First Schedule of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Act 1966, (53 of 1966). It is stated to be governed by the following principles: –

  1. to ensure the admission of students with academic competence and potentialities of high quality so that its alumni may be able to play their role in the process of national construction and social change in a meaningful manner;
  2. to ensure that an adequate number of students from the under-privileged and socially handicapped sections of our society are admitted to the University; and
  3. to maintain an all-India character of the University by having on its rolls a fair representation of students from different regions of the country especially the backward areas.

In order to achieve these objectives, an All India Entrance Examination would be conducted by the University each year for students in different programmes of study. The Entrance examinations or JNUEE as it came to be called, was a collective exercise involving both the teaching and  the non-teaching staff, conducted annually in the month of May. For both undergraduate and postgraduate  levels, applicants undertook a written examination while for research degrees the entrance process comprised of a written segment weighted at 70% and a viva voce examination, weighted at 30%.

From 2017-18, changes were introduced in the admissions policy by the Vice Chancellor on the pretext of implementing the UGC Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.Phil. /Ph.D. Degrees) Regulations, 2016. Without any discussions with the faculty through the channels available like the Board of Studies, or the Academic Council, the Vice-Chancellor  imposed an 83% cut in intake (seats for admission). The administration in addition also sought to do away with the unique system of deprivation points designed specifically for students from disadvantaged sections secure access to JNU.

Removal of the System of Deprivation Points 

With regards to social justice, the university had over the years developed a unique policy of deprivation points which was intended to address the imbalances produced by regional, gender, and educational backwardness. Up to 12 extra marks could be given to a candidate according to the policy as presented in the prospectus. This was in addition to the commitment to reservation policies announced by the Government. In 2017-18, the university administration in an almost secretive manner sought to do away with the deprivation points for MPhil – Ph.D applicants.

The effects of this were visible in the admission figures for 2017-18. Of the 290 seats advertised for MPhil-Ph.D offers were announced for only 159, with the final enrollment being 125. Of the 159 seats, only 31 seats were reserved – reservation was therefore just 20.75%, in complete violation of the Central Educational (Reservation in Admission) Act and Constitutional provisions. Shockingly, the bulk (76.33%) of the 131 seats that were not offered (100 seats) were reserved seats.

Under the JNU admission policy framework, an important distinction is made between ‘intake’ and ‘offer’. Whereas intake defines the seats that are available for admission, the concept of ‘offer’ allows Centres/Schools/Special Centres to announce a higher number of seats, so as to avoid delays in bringing out second lists etc. From the 2017-18 admissions, the practice of offers exceeding the number of seats in the intake was generally discontinued, and all decisions on how many seats should be offered were made by the JNU administration.

Besides this, there were other factors that were decided upon without any consultation with faculty that also affected admissions : first, a qualifying mark of 50% was introduced for the written examination, second, a weightage of 100% was allocated for the viva voce examination, third, there was no relaxation of marks in the written examinations for reserved categories, as mandated by both Supreme Court and High Court judgments, fourth there was no award of deprivation points for candidates in the research admissions, fifth the application of an overall pass mark (not notified as part of the admission policy, and applied by the JNU administration surreptitiously), and sixth, gap  between offers and intake, which in many programmes was formerly biased towards a larger number of offers vis-a-vis intake.

In the 144th Academic Council meeting held on 1 December 2017, the statistics for the 2017-18 admissions were included as an agenda item. Departing from convention of several decades, these statistics were not allowed to be discussed, and for the first time, the Director of Admissions made no presentation about the effectiveness of the Admission Policy in enabling the university’s adherence to the JNU Act.

Violation of Reservation Clauses

Clauses 5.2.3 and 5.3 of the 2016 UGC Regulations clearly require institutions of higher education to ‘adhere to the National/State-level reservation policy’. By slashing the intake to below the 2006 figure+54%, JNU violated the Central Educational (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006. Instead of reservation for SCs at 15%, STs at 7.5%, OBCs at 27.5% and the physically challenged at 3%, in 2017-18 , the percentage of offers were SC at 1.3 %, ST at 0.6%, OBC 8.2 % and PH category at 0.3 % as per figures pertaining to 2017-18.

In a reply to an RTI query, JNU provided the scheme by which reservations were attempted. The formula adopted was the following without any rationale -(i) No reserved seats for a programme of study if its intake was below 2 seats.  (ii) no SC/ST/PH reservation for a programme of study if its intake was below 4 seats, (iii) no ST/PH reserved seats for a programme of study if its intake was below 7 seats and (iv) no PH reserved seats for a programme of study if its intake was below 17 seats. It should be noted that even if had this formula been implemented correctly, it would still have only resulted in guaranteed an SC reservation of only 12.7%, ST reservation of 5.38%, OBC reservation of 26.2%, and a PH one of 0.34%, i.e. a total reservation of 44.8% in the place of the required 52.5%.

In reality however, what transpired was much worse – out of 39 programmes of study advertised in 2017-18, only 3 programmes had SC reservations, only 2 programmes had ST and SC each, and only 15 had OBC reservations. On top of it, JNU administration had converted about 19 reserved seats to unreserved ones. 

The same trend was more or less repeated again in 2018-19. The administration announced only 625 M.Phil./PhD and Direct PhD seats for admission that year, despite an announced intake of 723 seats. No explanation was given as to why 98 seats (amounting to 13% of the seats) were not offered for admission. As a result, JNU was once again in violation of national reservation policies at the level of offers and at the level of intakes. At the time when admissions were first announced in 2018-19, 352 were designated as reserved seats, but of these only 201 were offered. This left a deficit of 124 reserved seats, and yet JNU in its reports accounted for a shortfall of only 98. Once again in 2018-19, all the seats that were vacant were reserved seats. Contrary to its announced admission policy that did not allow offers to exceed intake, some programmes were mysteriously given extra seats to offer. This generosity was not extended to all Centres, and in all instances, the bulk of the seats added were unreserved (UR) seats, leading to a total of 113 extra seats on offer in the unreserved category.  Also for the first time, most (if not all) Centres were not shown the decoded sheets and asked to mark the cut-offs and only sent the lists of candidates admitted, without any specification of the quota.

In continuation of the pattern set in previous years, in 2019-20, the shortfall in terms of intakes was 231 seats, with the bulk of seats left vacant being those from reserved seats.  16.1% of M.Phil. and 25.2% of PhD seats remain unfilled. The statistics for admission 2020-21 are yet to be received. 

From Pen and Paper to Online Entrance Examinations 

From 2019 onwards, the responsibility for conducting entrance examinations was handed over to the National Testing Agency (NTA). In 2019-20, while NTA was responsible only for hosting the online examinations, in 2020-21 complete control of the process – from preparing question papers, to hosting, to declaring examination results was given over to the NTA. The changeover was executed without any major exercise of intensive consultation with the faculty of Centres and Schools.

The National Testing Agency created in November 2017 is an autonomous and self-sustained organization responsible for conducting entrance examinations for admission/fellowship in higher educational institutions. The Agency on its website aims to ‘improve equity and quality in education by administering research based valid, reliable, efficient, transparent, fair and international level assessments.’ The examinations conducted by the organization are entirely computer-based.  The NTA through its pool of experts not only prepares the questions but also provides the infrastructural support for executing the online process. The Agency has been holding the following examinations – UGC-NET, JEE (Main), GMAT etc.

In RTI applications seeking information on different aspects of the NTA led examination process, the replies received so far have been very disconcerting as they bring out the non-transparent nature of the entire dealing. In an RTI application seeking specific information on the Memorandum of Understanding signed between JNU and NTA for the years 2019-20 and 2020-21, the university administration has provided a one line answer that reads – ‘the Information Sought is not available with the Admission Branch.’  On the issue of funding too, the answers received reveal that JNU has no details of the accounts and expenditure that had been incurred on the NTA conducted online exams for the period 2019-20 and 20-21.

This apart, the other point of concern relates to the changeover to a multiple choice based system of questions for all students irrespective of whether this particular pattern of examinations is actually  useful for gauging  interests and potential of students applying for research degrees. So whether its a student applying for an undergraduate degree or a Ph.D programme, everyone is assessed on a set of multiple choice questions that are supposedly more transparent and objective than the essay type format that was followed before. It’s another matter that applicants under the earlier mode had the option of writing the entrance examinations in their own regional languages, which gave those who were not proficient in English an added opportunity to gain access to JNU. With deprivation points, this system helped ensure that the student population retained a certain degree of diversity, that has become a big concern now.

The shift from the earlier system to an MCQ-based online system was also done in violation of procedures laid out in the statutes of the University. Even before any University body had considered the matter, the VC had already committed himself to the shift by including it in the Tri-partite MoU signed with the UGC and the MHRD. From then on, the VC consciously and deliberately manipulated the decision-making process, and violated due process to achieve that result. He created its own committee to ‘recommend’ the same; ignored even the caution advised by that committee; willfully kept the University’s faculty and the Centres out of any process of deliberation and discussion on the matter and then simply bulldozed it through the Academic Council.

While no financial accounts have been provided by JNU for the entrance examinations held in 2019-20 and 2020-21, replies to RTI filed with NTA reveal disconcerting increases in expenditures. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, when the university conducted its own exam, the gross expenditure on admissions was Rs 5,37,89,780 and 1,20,64,584 respectively. By combining these figures with the information available in annual accounts on total revenue from application fees for entrance exams, it is apparent that in 2017-18, the university got a surplus revenue of over Rs. 3 crores. In 2018-19, there was a massive seat cut with fewer examinations as many centres had zero M.Phil and Ph.D seats, resulting in smaller revenue from application fees. As a result, the university incurred a loss of about Rs. 1 crore in the process of admissions in 2018-19. In 2019-20, according to information provided by NTA in response to the RTI, the shortfall in revenue was over 2.57 crores.  This makes it clear that the shift to an online mode of examination conducted by NTA has resulted in a significantly higher net expenditure on admissions.

Cuts in Expenditure on Academic Programmes

Jawaharlal Nehru University, as a public university has been a unique place of learning in higher education where a large section of economically, socially and spatially marginalized population has been educated and mentored. A flexible and democratic teaching-learning and research environment has fundamentally contributed to this excellence, and this has been facilitated over the years by careful allocation of financial resources towards academic resources, keeping down fees that students pay for their education and subsidising their living on campus. Since 2016 onwards, however, there have been significant changes in the financial allocation, fundamentally damaging the academic functioning of the university.

The sharp decline in Plan grants from both UGC and Government of India, coupled with reduction in expenditures on academic programmes supporting teaching and research within the university, along with wasteful diversion of funds for non-academic activities, posed a significant challenge that compromised greatly the functioning of the University.

The financial reports of the last three years show that annual academic expenses decreased by 26.38% from Rs 38.36 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 28.24 crore in 2018-19, and by another 30% to Rs 19.74 crore in 2019-20. Academic expenses include important components such as spending on seminars, workshops, journals, publications, teaching aids and research activities. In the same period, legal expenses increased from Rs 2.72 lakh in 2017-18 to Rs 17.7 lakh in 2018-19. An additional fund of Rs 30 lakh was approved for legal expenses was approved in 2020 to the already sanctioned budget of Rs 9 lakh.

During the five year tenure, several new schools and Centres have been established by the Vice Chancellor without necessarily following the procedural norms that govern important decisions on matters such as this. Recently, the university was shocked when in the 155th Academic Council meeting in November 2020, decided to pass the syallabi of a five year programme on Ayurveda Biology in the School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, after students had already taken the Entrance Exam for this course. Two of the big schools created during this period – School of Engineering and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee School of Management and Entrepreneurship, started off without any building, laboratories or permanent faculty and only recently a loan of Rs. 445 crores sanctioned by the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) to JNU has been advanced to help create the needed infrastructure for both these schools. The fee structure for both these schools is at variance from that charged for other courses and programmes in JNU.

The analysis presented above, indicates that every policy framed by the current administration is directed towards undermining the inclusive character of the university. The newly installed steel barrier that now mars the entrance to the administration complex, provides a visual metaphor for what the Vice Chancellor has now become- a prisoner of his own ideological beliefs, cut off from the enriching experiences of life lived as a community.

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