Exclusion Arithmetics in Higher Education -JNU as the NEP 2020 Pilot: Ayesha Kidwai

This guest post is by AYESHA KIDWAI

When on January 26, 2016, Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering from IIT Delhi, assumed office as the new Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, no one really  knew who he was. Although subsequent news coverage have unearthed a short-lived and rather unsavoury notoriety in the early 2000s, his administrative experience appeared to be scant, never even having served as a head of a department in any of the institutions he has served in), so news coverage of his appointment could make mention of only his prowess in the martial arts and his aspirations to nation-building in the university (which, as was eventually revealed, boiled down largely to a somewhat macabre fascination with large military hardware).

The five years of Kumar as Vice-Chancellor of JNU have done much to lift him from the obscurity he once enjoyed, but most of his new-found fame has been singularly unflattering. Met with a sustained opposition from the JNU Students Union and the JNU Teachers Association, Kumar has far from established himself as a capable, transparent, and non-partisan administrator committed to the highest standards of academic excellence. However, the poor press that has consistently dogged him throughout his tenure appears to have done nothing to weaken the extraordinary governmental support that he enjoys. So resolute is this backing, that it not only has it been able to claim the scalp of a senior bureaucrat in the MHRD back in 2019, it has now secured Jagadesh Kumar an unusual continuation in office until “his successor is appointed”, following the indefinite postponement of a meeting for the selection of his successor on January 7, 2020.

As neither affability nor personal charm appears to be the source of Kumar’s longevity (as this profile from 2019 indicates), and there being no shortage of equally anti-intellectual, pro-Hindutva, but far more sophisticated replacements for Kumar available, the reason why his replacement seems far from certain is not immediately obvious. Unless, as I shall argue, one takes into account the reckless and unconstitutional decisions he has taken in piloting in JNU his rendition of the Modi government’s New Education Policy (NEP 2020). I show in this article how Kumar’s destruction of the affirmative action in research degree admissions and the recruitment to faculty positions  presents a vision of what our public universities will look like once the NEP 2020is fully implemented.

In what follows, I shall not recap the wide-ranging critiques that have been made of the NEP 2020 in higher education (see this, this, and this); rather, I shall concentrate on the specifics of how Kumar’s maladministration with regards to the fulfilment of reservation quotas and other forms of affirmative action proffers us a glimpse of what lies ahead for all universities under the NEP 2020.

The Research Admissions Pilot 

The NEP 2020 has been widely criticised for its purposeful erasure of higher education’s role in both acknowledging and implementing caste and gender inclusion, because its provisions amount to a near-total withdrawal from a social justice agenda, including reservation. As successive reports on the JNU admissions to its research programmes (M.Phil., PhD, M.Tech, etc.) have demonstrated, from the first year that Kumar could begin to tamper with them, using the pretext of the 2016 UGC Regulations on the award of M.Phil./PhD degrees, a large number of seats announced in prospectus were never offered for admission (labelled ‘intake’ in JNU parlance). As see Table 11 shows, such a differential between intake and offer has since then become definitional of the JNU research admissions in Kumar’s tenure, a fact that Hon. High Court of Delhi has characterised as a ‘national waste’.

Through the scores of court cases on research admissions that have been filed in the Delhi High Court since 2017, it has been revealed that the bulk of the seats left vacant in these admissions have been the ones falling under the various reservation quotas. In 2017, of the 131-seat intake not offered for admissions, 98 were the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) and other Backward Classes (OBCs). In the 2018 research degree admissions, 123 such seats were either de-reserved or left vacant, and in 2019, more than half (145) of the 231 vacancies had been announced as reserved ones.

It is a fact that the JNU research admissions have never seen a complete fulfilment of the Constitutionally mandated reservation policy, for the lack of either applicants or candidates meeting the minimum eligibility criteria. Mindful of this, the university’s admission policy was engineered to keep the shortfall as low as possible, but ever since Kumar was handed the reigns, exactly the reverse policy has been pursued. As a consequence, as Fig. 1 shows, where once the moving average (marked by the blue line) of the shortfall in reserved seats offered for admission hovered around 10%, it is now located over 50%. 

What is particularly striking about this levelling of Constitutionally-mandated reservation in JNU’s research admissions is that it has been accomplished without a word of amendment in the Constitutional provisions, and without the Modi government’s direct intervention beyond the very first step of a change in the UGC Regulations governing the award of M.Phil. and PhD degrees in 2016. These new conditions set extremely high qualification thresholds—50% in the written qualifying entrance examination with a mandatory viva voce being accorded a 100% weightage, with no relaxation for reserved categories (subsequently amended to a 5% relaxation after a landmark judgment)–and an intentional reduction of seats through the introduction of supervision caps.

Although the government eventually had to retreat following a nationwide uproar and amend some of these provisions in 2018, these changes have had a negligible impact in improving the fulfilment of reservation in JNU research admissions, as the JNUTA has consistently pointed out. That continuing failure of reservation policy is  because of the other seemingly minor changes in apparently unrelated areas of JNU’s admission policy and processes that Kumar has also simultaneously effected.

First, since 2017, a system of segregation of research admissions was instituted, by which admission seats were offered in two streams— the JNU entrance examination (JNUEE) scheme and the UGC’s Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) stream. JRF stream candidates were exempted from appearing in the JNUEE. Given that success in the JRF examination is extremely difficult to come by (only 0.5% of candidates appearing for this national examination nation-wide are awarded the fellowship), and the resources need to achieve success in the JRF examination are rarely available to disadvantaged groups, most of the reserved seats in JNU’s new JRF stream, as Table 2 shows, found no candidates.

This separation of streams has also significantly reduced the quantum of reservation in the intake, as the reservation roster is applied to each stream separately. By the policy that universities follow, the lower the offer in each stream, the fewer the number of seats that will end up in the reservation quotas overall, and the greater the reduction of seats for the smaller quotas (i.e. ST and PWD in particular). In 2018, this reduction in the university’s quantum of reservation was exacerbated by the delinking of the university’s integrated M.Phil./PhD programme into two. As a result, a smaller amount of seats was offered in each programme, bringing down in the quantum of reservation further.

Second, since 2017, research degree admissions were autocratically moved out of the ambit of JNU’s deprivation points system, by which up to 12 grace marks could be given to ameliorate candidate’s regional, economic, educational and gender disadvantage. These marks were earlier crucial in pushing up eligibility of disadvantaged groups for selection, after they qualified the threshold for selection set by UGC Regulations. Despite clarifications from the UGC that these marks were not in contravention of its regulations, Kumar ignored all reasoned arguments about how reservation cannot either measure or address all types of social inequality. The end result: not only have research admissions suffered in terms of enrolment of disadvantaged groups, the percentage of women students (deprivation points being awarded for gender as well) has dipped significantly. Whereas between 2014-2017, the enrolment of women averaged around 52%, in 2019, it has fallen to just 42.1%.

Moreover, although it may seem that the removal of deprivation points has had no impact on the enrolment of economically disadvantaged sections save in 2017, this is an artefact of the implementation of the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) reservation of 10% since 2018 (see Table 3). Where once deprivation points enabled JNU to prioritise the admission of the most disadvantaged students amongst the reserved candidates in particular, EWS reservation by rule only applies to non-reserved quotas. It is therefore possible that the 2017 scenario still obtains—with fewer of the most disadvantaged Dalits, Adivasis, and OBCs gaining admission to JNU as compared to before (pre-2017).

Third, in 2019, in what has proved to be a death-knell for JNU’s research character, the conduct of the JNU entrance examination was handed over to the National Testing Agency (NTA). The format of the JNU exam was changed to an online Multiple Choice Question one, despite arguments by teachers and students that there was no academic rationale to this move, as such an examination format does not test a student’s aptitude and only further reproduces social and economic disadvantage. The 2019 admissions exercise has been heavily criticised for a number of reasons, but the fact that it also signaled a complete breakdown of the fulfilment of reservation has not been sufficiently remarked upon. While thirteen cut-off lists were announced to fill up the 50 seats in the newly started MBA programme, only two lists were announced for the research programmes, despite the fact that a large number of reserved seats still remained unfilled.

In important rulings, the Delhi High Court pulled up JNU for its failures in this regard, but instead of undertaking the required review of its admission policy, Kumar’s administration handed over to the NTA sole charge of all its admissions from the 2020 admissions onwards. This move decisively eliminates any significant role from the JNU faculty altogether, as they can now evaluate only the oral performance of shortlisted candidates for a maximum of 30 marks out of a maximum of 100. What this foretells for the quality of students admitted and the research that will be produced in JNU requires no vivid imagination, but lest Kumar’s destruction of JNU be seen as a special and exceptional vendetta, it is important to understand that what Kumar has piloted in JNU is now being put into play across the country.

Not just JNU, not just research admissions

As of 2020, Kumar’s model of ‘exclusion arithmetics’ had become extremely widespread. The same strategies as those deployed in have been put into play across Indian universities: in Gujarat, Hyderabad, Puducherry, Delhi, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, at the very least. The results have been identical to JNU— media reports have highlighted the extensive vacancies and non-fulfilment of reservation in research programmes in universities in Hyderabad, Punjab, Delhi, Kerala, Vijaywada, to name just a few.

Various dystopian scenarios can be imagined in the way that this exclusion arithmetics will be upscaled to reduce/eliminate reservation and reduce admissions in other degree programmes, as the Kumar model reveals the chief ingredients of this de-reservation exercise: a subtraction from existing seats initiated by the regulator, followed by division of its programmes into smaller silos to reduce the numbers of which reservation would apply to, and the generalised use of admission methodologies and processes that accentuate various types of disadvantage and remove faculty oversight and institutional accountability.

The NEP 2020 offers ample scope for such manipulation, given the multiple entry/exit formats of undergraduate programmes—1-year certificate, 2-year diploma, 3-year BA, 4-year BA programme with or without research — and Masters programmes (NEP 2020 p. 38), which can be completed in either 1 or 2 years or integrated with a 5-year programme that culminates in a PhD. Nudged in the required direction by regulatory changes in the name of ‘transparency’ and ‘flexibility’, it is exceedingly likely that we shall soon see a reduction of the actual quantum of reservation of seats across the board. Taken together with the exclusions engendered by the fee hikes envisaged in the NEP 2020, and the push-out of disadvantaged groups that the ‘exit’ approach to higher education will necessarily entail, universities appear destined to become spaces of exclusion.

A direct consequence of this constriction of access to research programmes is the disastrous cascading effect on teaching as well. It will be recalled that in regulations published in 2018, the UGC made a PhD mandatory for direct recruitment of Assistant Professors from July 2021 onwards, a date which is now just six months away. With PhD seats being so hard to come by, being particularly scarce for disadvantaged groups, departments will be forced to leave positions vacant for lack of suitably qualified candidates, and in particular reserved seats. The student-teacher ratio (something which the NEP 2020 is entirely unconcerned about) will become far worse than it is already. Furthermore, given that a PhD has long been mandatory for promotions to the higher ranks of Associate Professor and Professor, inability to access PhD positions in universities will deny literally lakhs of teachers already in service a chance for promotion, promising them a career marked only by stagnation, both in professional and intellectual terms.

Social justice in faculty recruitment

Concern about the NEP 2020’s silence about the caste-based reservation policy has, in recent months, forced the Education Minister to make a statement reiterating the government’s continued commitment to the mandate for reservation enshrined in Article 15 and Article 16 of the Indian Constitution. The RSS too has ‘clarified’ its stand on reservations, but as with the NEP 2020 which does not record any such enduring commitment, no one is convinced. Once again, considering Kumar’s efforts in JNU to undo reservation in recruitment and the rewards that he reaps for it, is instructive, as his abysmal record in recruitment to reserved positions point to a scenario in which  well may lip-service be paid to the Constitutional requirement, the government shall not enforce them. 

JNU’s record of filling reserved vacancies has always been poor, as a Parliamentary panel found in 2016. By the time Kumar began recruitment in early 2017, not only had these numbers swelled, but the number of total vacancies had as well– as this reply to a Parliament question shows, a third of the sanctioned positions needed to be filled. In the three years that have followed, virtually all of Kumar’s recruitments have been mired in controversy. While there has been attention paid to the questions raised about the serious irregularities in the processes of recruitment, the manner of selection, and its indifferent quality, the fact that Kumar has also used every trick in the book to avoid recruitment against reserved positions, a fact that JNU teachers have pointed out to the Ministry just last year.

The recent High Court order restraining recruitments to the university until posts de-reserved by its advertisements are restored is in fact only one of the strategies that Kumar has employed. The predominantly used play has been the “None Found Suitable’ decision, by which no selection is made after interview. As Table 4 shows, as of November 2020 (i.e., two months before his term as VC ended), in the 213 selection interviews that Kumar conducted, on 36.6% of the  occasions, no selection was made.

Of the 135 recruitments, only 24 have been of women, i.e., a mere 18.5%. Of these, only 8 were recruited against reserved positions to (4 SC, 4 OBC). Again, this is once again expected under the NEP 2020, which as I have discussed elsewhere, as the NEP 2020 no longer considers the university as a site of ‘women’s empowerment’, as the NEP 2020 1986–92 did.

It should no longer be a surprise for readers to learn that the bulk of the positions that Kumar has left vacant are reserved positions. The true picture of Kumar’s appointment record is that at the Assistant Professor level, he has failed his constitutional responsibility 38% of the time—out of 71 selection committees for reserved positions, only 44 times was a candidate selected. At the higher levels of recruitment, the scenario is even worse— of the total 30 interviews for selection committees for reserved posts of Associate Professor, Kumar did not fill the vacancy 53.3% of the time; and for the post of Professor, out the 20 total interviews, 75% of the time, in breathtaking violation of the JNU Act, constitutional law, and institutional precedent.

Whether Kumar’s continuance in office despite such egregious defiance of the law and Parliamentary directives on reservation is a signal of the Modi government’s policy intent under the NEP 2020 or a personal commitment born of the RSS’s specific animus to the university cannot be ascertained definitively, as the kind of nationwide information needed to confirm a covert policy directive is simply not available. However, the fact that Jagadesh Kumar has confessed to having implemented the NEP 2020 in JNU ‘even before the policy was announced’, will do nothing to clear the air, or soothe apprehensions about an ‘exclusion arithmetics’ model transforming universities other than JNU into the agraharas of the republic.

Notes

1 A brief note on the sources of data used in this study is in order. For decades, JNU has produced an annual statistical factsheet on admissions that is presented to its Academic Council. Till 2017, this data was a reliable record of the facts, but since the time the JNU administration has been made answerable to multiple legal challenges in the Delhi High Court, this data has fast become degraded. For the 2018 admissions, no factsheet was published, and so the only information available is the one submitted to the Delhi High Court. For the 2019, the data presented to the Academic Council in 2020, does not match the information declared to candidates seeking admission to JNU in that year. The data used for the calculation of intake and offer relied on in this article is the latter, as submitted to the court by the petitioners in Afzal Hussain vs. Jawaharlal Nehru University. Note that this is data which JNU did not dispute in the case, and on the strength of which students were granted admission in January 2020 by court order.

Ayesha Kidwai is a Professor of Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and served as the President of the JNUTA in 2017.

One thought on “Exclusion Arithmetics in Higher Education -JNU as the NEP 2020 Pilot: Ayesha Kidwai”

  1. Brilliant. Thanks Ayesha for this very lucid and timely mapping of how JNU’s social justice project has been gutted by the Modi appointed mediocre VC. This documentation saves us for the future when JNU is returned to its original vision.

    Liked by 1 person

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