There in the Garden the Flowers Grow Undisturbed: A Defence of University Autonomy

JU Hunger Strike

The walls of Paris-Sorbonne in 68 were written over with the slogan “Soyez realistes, demandez l’impossible” meaning “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” It is just such an echo that can be heard today in Jadavpur University, an echo that slowly gathers momentum across the state and country to swell into a giant bellow that begins to shake the corridors of power, while touching countless other lives with the mellifluous music of hope in the darkest of times. The recent movement that started up as a response to the arbitrary and unprofessional scrapping of admission tests for six departments of the Arts Faculty at Jadavpur University, represents a critical moment in the history of the consciousness of student communities in West Bengal. The decision to scrap admission tests in favour of “merit” based admission (viz. marks obtained in the board examinations of the 12th standard), while overtly an internal decision of the Executive Council (E.C.), the highest decision-making body of the university, had all the ingredients of state intervention in the internal functioning of the university. The rapid changing of decisions as to the modalities of the admission process, together with their absolute sync with statements given out by functionaries of the Higher Education department of the state government, leave no room for doubt as to the actual source of these machinations.

Two things are important in this equation. First, the numerous reports of corruption in the admissions process in colleges across the state, including the much-publicised cash-for-seats allegations that have rocked the public education sector in West Bengal this year, stand out in stark contrast to the lack of such complaints about the admissions process at Jadavpur University. The fact that different departments follow different procedures to admit students should not be a roadblock towards academic continuity. In fact, the freedom of academic departments to decide their criteria of admission, their syllabi and modes of assessment are the greatest contributors to academic excellence. To a postcolonial state obsessed with the West and its modes of functioning, this should be an easily acceptable reality, seeing as universities across the USA, Europe, Canada and Australia grant a great degree of freedom to their departments to decide how to admit their students and what syllabi to teach, where standardised tests form only a component of the overall application process, and are sometimes entirely absent. Closer home, institutions of excellence acknowledged by all, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (J.N.U.), The English and Foreign Languages University (E.F.L.U.), the Indian Institutes of Technology (I.I.T.s) and many others also use admission tests to determine which students are the best fit for its courses. The need to refer to a legality, the advice of the Attorney General of the state apparently sought by the Vice Chancellor, to throw the entire process into question exposes the application of external pressure to subvert the autonomy of an academic institution. Secondly, this attempt to interfere in the internal functioning of the university is not the first of its kind nor is an isolated occurrence. Successive governments have attempted to interfere in the functioning of the university and subvert its autonomy, especially in the matter of teacher recruitments and governance of the university. However, the attack has been intensified in the last few years. The removal of student representation in the EC, the stalling of elections to the Teachers’ Association, attacks on the various research Schools and Centres that function in the university independently of the major departments, together with repeated messages in the mass media by functionaries of the Higher Education department, including the minister for that department, claiming that the government paid the salaries of the professors and staff and therefore they would have to ‘toe the line’ when it came to government policies related to the university, have all been calculated to erode its autonomy. Jadavpur University is an autonomous public academic institution which does not require the interference of the government. Jadavpur University is ranked 6th among all the Universities in the country by the 2018 National Institutional Ranking Framework (N.I.R.F.) of the H.R.D. ministry of India and is ranked 74th in the BRICS economies, 125th in Asia and in the range of 601-650 in the world according to the QS World University Rankings of 2018. US News and World Reports also ranked it at 772 in the world. It regularly receives grants and international honours and is among best-known Indian universities around the world. Since it is not lacking in merit even according to empirical standards, though rankings are hardly a complete or nuanced measure of true excellence, what is the urgent need to radically alter its functional methodologies? The answer, perhaps, lies in a domain other than that of academic or research competence.

The attempt by sections of the government and some intellectuals and professors to tar the students’ protests against such intervention as an elite, protectionist one does not hold water. In fact, with students coming from schools affiliated to the ICSE and CBSE boards scoring better marks across spectrum, a ‘marks-based’ merit system would actually adversely affect the chances of those who might aspire to study in the six departments where admission tests are held but who did not get sufficient marks in their Board Examinations. The process can always be improved and made even more inclusive, but this cannot be by the arbitrary diktats of governments. As for the question of uniformity of policy, as I have previously addressed, individual departments need not determine their academic environment in accordance with some external desire for uniformity or conformity. Academic excellence can only be achieved in an atmosphere of freedom, trust and confidence. If at any point any of the departments of the Arts Faculty feel that their system is flawed or outdated, they should have the courage to revisit and restructure not only their admissions process but their very modes of functioning. This process cannot be unilateral, and while the students cannot in effect demand a say in how the department’s admissions process is conducted, their cooperation and participation in any refashioning or transition will only allow better mutual understanding and a better academic environment to flourish in the university.

The walls of Jadavpur University are covered with graffiti from two successive, even contiguous, movements. While the mainstream media and guardians of the ‘moral conscience’ of society constantly point to the so-called excesses and irreverent ridicule towards figures of authority, very few focus on the creative desire of the students for positive growth and change. Reverence has never been the strong suit of students, and long may they remain critical of everything that is ossified in our society. The fact that they are prepared to put their bodies on the line so that those appearing for the entrance examinations may not be deprived the chance they themselves received, so that their academic departments do not suffer from the negative impact of an erosion of autonomy, shows the unlimited reserves of courage, self-sacrifice and moral fibre that marks the unique body that are the student-youth of a country. At a time when public education is under imminent threat of privatisation, and academic autonomy and progressive values are being stifled by both the state and social forces aligned to various fundamentalist forces, it is even more important that spaces for dissent be strengthened, and the public University has always been the nucleus of such thought and action. In order to overturn the siege of education by market and fundamentalist forces that threaten the very fabric of the country, solidarity must be extended to the just struggles of students fighting to preserve academic autonomy and its contribution to social progress.

The writing on the walls speak of change. Change that begins not at some other place, or some other point in time, but here and now. Students are the sentinels of history, and they shoulder the responsibility for its progress. The audacity of students always sparks either admiration or anger. It rarely leaves any space for apathy. As the clouds of the habitual Kolkata monsoon break apart and the sun shines on the buoyant, determined faces of the students, one realises how important it is that young flowers be allowed to grow and not stifled before they are able to raise their heads towards the sun. The flowers that grow in the garden of the University fill the world with their perfume and splendour. And these are not fragile flowers, easily wilting under pressure. They are unyielding, unwavering, proud and thorny to the touch if handled incorrectly or not accorded due respect. They go out into the world and cover it with their petals. When you ask them to be practical, be reasonable, be ‘realistic’, they listen in ways you cannot imagine.

They are realistic. They demand the impossible. And the impossible transforms into reality at their touch.

 – Syamantakshobhan Basu


[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Platos Caves and Platos Caves does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.]