JNU: From jhola to briefcase?

JNU: From jhola to briefcase?
(Source: JNUSU) Pritha Roy Choudhury | Nov 12, 2019 - 12:32 p.m. IST
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In 2018, Alok gave up a seat in Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU), to join the five-year dual-degree M.Tech programme launched by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that year.

He had rationalised his decision thus: “I took admission here based only on the name of the university. I thought since all the other courses are good, this will also be good.” With its established record of excellence in other disciplines, he figured JNU would do well with the fledgling programme.

A year later, his faith is shaken. “First, we didn’t have a laboratory for the first few months. Then the lab classes began but there were no books (in the library). Now, they have started with some books but they are not sufficient,” he said.

This year, the university launched a two-year management programme. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee School of Management and Entrepreneurship inducted its first batch of 42 in July. The engineering programme under School of Engineering has 226 students in its first two batches.

Engineering has no faculty of its own, making do with teachers from other departments or institutions. Consequently, the engineering students don’t have a timetable. “The teachers come as and when they are free,” said one, requesting not to be named. “Many times, classes are scheduled and confirmed over the phone.”

A puzzling decision

In December 2017, the proposal to introduce engineering and management showed up in the agenda for JNU’s Academic Council meeting and was passed. Earlier that year, the JNU Vice-Chancellor, M. Jagadesh Kumar, had told a major English daily he would introduce these two.

The decision was baffling.

By December 2017, technical education regulator, All India Council for Technical Education, had already raised the alarm about swathes of engineering seats going vacant due to a drastic decline in interest. In September, it told the media that around 800 colleges were facing the axe. Even premier institutions such as the IITs were instructed to reduce seats in courses for which demand had waned.

“Any school which is created in such haste and without planning will have problems,” said Avinash Kumar, former secretary, JNU Teachers’ Association. The JNUTA has opposed many of the current administration’s plans for the university and has allegedly been elbowed out of all decision-making.

“This is the second year of engineering and I don’t see any permanent faculty,” continued Kumar. “There was no analysis as to why JNU needs an engineering school when we have an IIT across the road. We have written letters to the VC and given figures on how seats go vacant even in IITs.”

High fees, poor facilities

Most students of the dual-degree M.Tech program had also cleared the JEE (Advanced), for admission into IITs. Like Alok, they were lured by JNU’s name and the promise of a good experience.

Now the batch wakes up before day-break, between 3.30 am and 4 am, to line up for the showers.

Even before the new schools were started, JNU was struggling to house its students. Now the 226 students share 80 rooms in two buildings. Many of these rooms were already occupied by others so each first-year student is sharing a room with five others, said students. Their belongings are “crammed into a small desk” and their bags and suitcases lie scattered about.

Then, 40 students share a single bathroom and two toilets. If they don’t wake up early to complete their ablutions, they risk missing the morning classes. “In the summers, we’d like to shower in the evenings as well but we can’t. Sometimes we miss even the morning shower. It’s disgusting,” said Vineet, another engineering student.

Alok, who doesn’t come from a Hindi-speaking state, took about a month to settle down. “But then I realised that we don’t have any facilities as they are yet to come up,” he said. In an interview to Careers360, dean, engineering, RK Agarwal said there was no shortage of teachers. He also added that he has always encouraged students to bring their problems to him and discuss them openly.

Some students feel they are being fleeced. Students of most schools pay nominal fees of a few hundred rupees. Although their fee is low compared to most technical institutions, engineering students are charged many times that amount. “Last year we were paying Rs. 12,000 per semester, this year it is Rs. 11,000,” said Vineet. The others were and are paying just Rs. 254 per semester. “We live in the same hostel and eat the same food. Then, there are six students in a room. They just keep saying, ‘Please adjust’. Why are we paying so much fees? For adjusting?”

JNU, Student campaign, JNUSU electionThe dafli, or drum, is part of every protest

Infrastructure loans and a public institution

The university administration is working on providing more facilities and most urgently, hostels. But those efforts have brought more problems.

In 2017, the Central government decided to replace government grants for infrastructure expansion with loans. The Ministry of Human Resource Development directed universities and the IITs to borrow from a non-banking finance company, the Higher Education Finance Agency (HEFA), to fund their infrastructure expansion. The sum borrowed must be repaid over a decade from the institutions’ “internal accruals”, said the Union Cabinet’s note. The government would bear the interest. Several senior officials from the IITs and universities had pointed out that public institutions aren’t profit-making enterprises and their “internal accruals” are spent on running them.

In 2018, the JNU administration applied for a loan of Rs. 515 crores from HEFA. Of that, Rs. 149.28 crore was for a hostel for engineering student and Rs 37.32 crore for housing management students.

“JNU applied for HEFA without even consulting the stakeholders,” said Kumar. “It did not give the Executive Council members even one day. In 24 hours, they were asked to give consent through email. At least three or four persons had disagreed asking why they wanted to rush it,” Kumar said.

The loan is yet to be approved. Many teachers feel that if it is, the burden of repayment will fall on students.

“It is not a good idea because it will come to the students as a fee hike,” said a teacher from one of the science schools, requesting anonymity. “With JNU being a public institution, many students from the weaker sections apply. Any increase in fees will definitely affect them.”

Even without the loan, costs are rising. In October, a protest broke out when a new policy for hostels proposed doubling the cost of food and stay to about Rs. 4,000 per month.

A new management school

Introduction of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee School of Management and Entrepreneurship, which will grant MBA degrees from 2021, has been similarly controversial.

The school’s dean is Heeraman Tiwari, whose doctoral research work is in Sanskrit (Delhi University) and Indian philosophy and language (University of Oxford). Management qualifications are conspicuous in their absence. But students are unbothered about his credentials. Plus, the school has four permanent teachers.

These students, too, were attracted by the JNU-tag and a few months into their programme, they are significantly happier than their counterparts in engineering.

“The focus is still on the basics of management but we also get a lot of exposure to culture, the problems of our nation,” says Rishabh Gambhir, an MBA student. His classmate, Ria Bharti, agreed: “For future leaders, we need people who have a holistic approach. We need corporate leaders who know about social issues too and JNU is the perfect place to be trained that way.”

That second-year students can study foreign languages at the School of Languages is another advantage.

Though the JNU course is much cheaper than most MBA programmes, even these students have concerns about the quality of facilities.

“They are taking time to allocate funds for our facilities. So right now, we have one conference room and a classroom,” said another student, Rakshit Lakra.

The introduction of professional courses also raises the prickly issue of job placements. The Left-leaning JNU students have traditionally shunned campus placements. The MBA students apparently knew this before signing up. “If I am good at my work, if I have the calibre, I will get a good job,” said Abhishek Singh.

Tiwari hopes the school will “train students for the market or for the world, to do business like every other aspiring MBA or future leaders in the industry”. He continued: “We are looking forward to moving on to research as well. We should be able to admit PhD students in the management school.”

Other teachers are both sceptical and critical. “Here, excellence is not the criterion,” said a teacher from a social science department, requesting not to be named. “You have to do it right now despite all opposition. Opposition can be wrong, misdirected, political.”

Requests to speak to the VC, M Jagadesh Kumar, were turned down. There was no response to a questionnaire, either.

Not the ‘right environment’

There were other reasons for the JNU community’s misgivings. The JNU has been primarily a postgraduate and research university with a few undergraduate programmes in languages. The majority of its students are either in master’s programmes or are researchers.

Due to new regulations framed by the higher education regulator, University Grants Commission, in 2017, a number of seats for research programmes, MPhil and PhD, were reduced. The humanities, arts and social science departments – also JNU’s best-known and placed high in college ranking systems – were the worst affected.

JNU-posters- graffiti-JNUSU- student groups, AISA
“The seat cut was basically on research,” said Kumar. “There was almost zero admission in MPhil and PhD in 2017. Now the administration has been threatening the lecturers saying MPhil degree will no longer be offered from 2030-’31.”

While research seats have reduced, new undergraduate ones have been added in the new schools. Masters’ and research students were admitted through a unique admission system that favoured the most disadvantaged. This led to a highly diverse student body and the campus’ politically-charged atmosphere. The new programmes, admitting through common entrance tests held by external agencies, have the potential to change that. More programmes, including a school for “traditional music and dance” and a five-year dual-degree programme in “Ayurveda Biology”, were announced recently. Online courses are in the pipeline.

“JNU had postgraduate studies and research,” said Aishe Ghosh, president, JNU Students’ Union. “Not improving those and scattering the focus on disciplines in a hurried way, changing the culture, aren’t acceptable.” Some of the alumni agree. “Professional courses involve unidirectional learning and authoritarian discipline. This should be catered to by technical colleges as is done across the country,” said Shubhra Dutta, an alumnus now working with an information and analytics company. “As a former JNUite and present corporate person, I feel this will not serve the purpose or do any good.”

In and out of the court

It hasn’t helped that the shift of focus to these new programmes has come with absurdly hostile treatment of students and teachers, including historian Romila Thapar and economist Prabhat Patnaik. In 2018, Patnaik’s room was sealed; this year, Thapar was asked to furnish a CV to have her “Professor Emerita” status renewed. Both moves invited opprobrium from academics worldwide. In July, the administrative block was stripped of posters and graffiti .

Student protests, always common in JNU, have now become a permanent feature. Apart from the protests against fee hike, there have been ones against the “seat-cut”, imposition of new attendance norms and the administration’s actions against student leaders, including an attempt to evict the students’ union from its office. Conflict over the latest student elections reached the Delhi High Court where many of JNU’s internal squabbles now end up. Since 2016 there have been numerous court cases involving students and teachers against the administration.

One involved seven department heads. In March 2018, the JNU administration suddenly replaced them and a coordinator – all well-known academics – for opposing a compulsory attendance policy. The professors were reinstated by the High Court the next month.

“From the top, they have disrupted the environment here, a well-established academic administrative system,” complained the teacher from the social science school. “JNU was not a corrupt university, it had a very friendly environment.”

Names of some students changed on request

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