On Monday, 15 January, thinkers, innovators, and the brilliant minds of JNU will be led by their Students Union on a strike against the harassing and regressive rule of compulsory attendance.
JNU, which has been the hub of patriotism, nationalist thinking, united and progressive India, and has churned out some of the greatest political minds after 2014 is being subjected to an attendance rule by the administration that not only constrains the Freedom of Expression of the students there, but also puts the democracy in real danger. Someone, please summon Democracy-Man Rahul Gandhi while his sidekicks Kanhaiya, Mewani, and Khalid act like the Justice League of JNU.
The issue of attendance is a sensitive one for most students. Much of it has to do with the idea of freedom that supplements the thought of going to a college. Kids, fresh out of school, believe that they have the right to bunk classes, right to date at the cost of their lectures, right to explore new hubs of entertainment at the cost of their assignments and so on. After being traumatized by the school curriculum that is shallow in perspective, students are eager to move on and not be hindered by compulsory attendance.
Before moving on, a personal disclaimer is in order. As an engineering student from 2010-2014, and someone who overstayed his graduation due to attendance issues, I was not a huge fan of compulsory attendance, and this was because of the factors I will take up ahead. However, in hindsight, I do not see it as the worst idea too, and given JNU’s greatest contributions to the Indian society since 2014 are the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, the rule of compulsory attendance in JNU is like the growth of a lotus flower in a murky pond plagued with Congressi weeds. Yep, that was pun-tentional.
When it comes to attendance, we must not be in exclusive in our selection for colleges. The State of Higher Education has never been better in India than it is today. Enrollment in 2016-17 stood close to 36-million, with 80% of them being in graduate courses. The gross enrollment ratio has increased by 33% since 2010 to reach 25.2%, a figure that does not make one proud but optimistic about the future. Close to 78% of the colleges in India are privately held, with only 13% of them being given any state-aid. Thus, around 2020-21 alone, we shall inject around 27-million new students into the workforce, and this brings us to the first factor why we must bat for mandatory attendance in colleges and universities, and not JNU alone.
Not just across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medical) but employability has been an issue for graduates across varying course spectrums. A simple Google search with the relevant keywords will enable you to understand that even though we churn out graduates in millions each year, most of them are not good enough to be employed with any company, and even if some are, they are the first to be thrown out in case of weak revenues or recession, a point I elaborated upon in my article last year on IT Layoffs. Clearly, the ones unemployed cannot be expected to pursue entrepreneurship. Not everyone can be Rocket Singh.
However, the buck does not stop at employability, for an abstract evaluation cannot ensure better graduates when it comes to skill and knowledge. A major cause of disagreement amongst students, professors, academic experts, and administrations has been the outdated curriculum. If the likes of Infosys is happy recruiting Mechanical Engineers, we are doing something horribly wrong. Thus, this brings out to point number two, the curriculum. For mandatory attendance to have some meaningful presence in the larger context, the existing curriculum must be made challenging enough, but how does one do that?
Three, to keep the students in the classes and not have them fool around begging and campaigning for the likes of Afzal Guru, a complete overhaul of the curriculums across graduate and post-graduate courses is necessary. Electives must be introduced, and since our students seem to like ‘Freedom of Expression’ so much, give them the freedom to choose from more subjects, more courses, and so on. One of the biggest reasons for me, as an Engineering student, to feel suffocated by the compulsory attendance was the stagnation that my curriculum came with. This must be done away with at the earliest.
Four, with the digitization of education, students no longer feel the need of attending classes. Out of my 45-subjects in Engineering, I could study over 35 of them on YouTube, which I did. For students of Arts and Commerce, options are available in the form of assignments online worked out by former students and seniors. However, the revamped curriculum must make room for periodic evaluation, fortnight, or monthly, to make classrooms relevant to the age of the internet. The evaluation must complement the overall annual result of the students, and not be reduced to a mere formality.
Lastly, and this is exclusive to the students outside the domain of Engineering; opportunities to work on more practical projects must be given they like being outside college so much. Align them with research projects, data collection pursuits, and so on. I do not mind the idea of students outside their classrooms during their college hours, but the cause should be progressive and contributory in nature. We are not running universities for students to endorse principles that are against democracy or the very idea of India. Umar Khalid can live in Pakistan for all I care if my viewpoint puts his idea of Democracy in Danger (cashing in on the buzzword, people).
To approach the issue of attendance in JNU, thinking based on policy instead of politics is necessary. UGC must up the ante when it comes to crafting policy for colleges and universities, irrespective of their stature. Be it JNU or some private engineering college in some village of Himachal, the rules must be streamlined for all. While I do not advocate the idea of absolute 75% classroom attendance, I believe we can break it down to 55+20, with 55% for the classroom and 20% for projects, co-curricular activities, and student participation in various external events. However, essential documentation and approvals, without too many layers of college bureaucracy must be enabled for that 20%. All work and no play, or all play and no work make Jack look like an idiot.
JNU has not been in the news for right reasons for long now. Yes, JNU is indeed a hub for leftist extremism, but that should not make us put all the students there on the same pedestal. A few apples are rotten, but the basket is not, and therefore, this issue must be seen as an opportunity of progressive policy-building and not petty politics as Mewani or Khalid would like you to believe. If JNU students believe that having them sign attendance sheets is harassment, maybe they should spend a weekend in Syria or Yemen where education is a luxury. These spoilt brats must feel grateful for the facilities they have, for it is not something they have inherited, it is not under RTE, and costs serious taxpayers money.
The problem with most millennial(s) is their attitude. From democracy to discourses, they like to take everything for granted. We must address this or we risk creating a generation that loves cleavage-coverage newspapers and cannot tell the difference between feminism and male bashing.
While most private colleges in India, irrespective of the courses being taught, advocate the idea of 60-75% attendance, UGC, directed by academic experts and relevant ministers, must issue a notification for the academic year of 2018-19 for streamlining attendance across every educational setup under its purview. The 55+20 rule offers students enough time to engage in politics, personal pursuits, and most importantly, studies, for that is what they had signed up for in the first place.
Singling out JNU today will not solve the problem. The idea is to address the problem at its roots and not the surface.
Let us make our colleges great again.