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These suffocating private universities are helping no one

The ignorance of Galgotias University students is indicative of the larger rot that is setting in in higher education through the proliferation of private universities. Those mocking the students of Galgotias should instead be mocking the government policy that allowed such a university to come into being

Located in Greater Noida, Galgotias University has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – one of them being its apparently low educational standards. Social media was rife with negative publicity about the university in the first week of May. Under the banner of “Viksit Bharat”, a large number of students held a demonstration at the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi. Their placards said that the grand old party was planning to deprive people of their wealth through an inheritance tax.

When journalists interviewed the protestors, many of them introduced themselves on camera as students of Galgotias University. Since they were not able to reply to simple questions put to them by journalists and some of them appeared ignorant about the issues they were raising, their alma mater became tarnished.

The reason for the protest was the remarks of Sam Pitroda, a veteran Congress leader. Pitroda, who recently resigned as chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, had spoken in favour of “inheritance tax”. 

Galgotias University administration allegedly acted under political pressure to send their students to the Congress headquarters. Apart from opposition to the inheritance tax, placards carried by the student protestors mentioned “urban naxals”. 

When asked by journalists why they were protesting, the student-protestors appeared quite clueless. They had almost no knowledge of the Congress manifesto they were protesting against. Some of the protestors were not even able to correctly read the placards, while many of them had a superficial understanding of the issues they were supposedly protesting against. Clips of their replies went viral on social media and evoked both laughter and anger. Students pursuing higher education turned out to be shockingly ignorant of basic facts and current affairs.

While Congress and its allies attacked the university, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sought to underplay the development. Amid this brouhaha, no one seemed to care about the condition of Indian private universities – when ideally this should have been the time to reflect on their sorry state.  

Private universities were permitted by previous governments, for which they were praised by free-market ideologues. However, the ground reality is that private universities have failed to promote critical thinking. Instead, they have turned into a regime of excessive discipline and surveillance. They have become centres of exploitation and violation of the rights of their employees. 

Look at the irony here: the private universities extort a large sum from the students as fees, yet they do not give due salaries to their teaching and non-teaching staff. At some private universities, assistant professors are handle massive work pressures for a monthly salary of Rs 25,000 to 30,000, while assistant professors at the University of Delhi get around Rs 1 lakh a month. Private universities can often feel like prisons. From the entry point to the classrooms, there are CCTV cameras, keeping teachers and other staff under surveillance. Biometric attendance and marking attendance online are mandatory for all. In case a teacher is late, a large portion of his salary for the day is deducted. Even in the classrooms, the management keeps an eye on teachers. Everything that happens on campus is monitored. The big brother is watching you! 

Scenes from the protest held by students of Galgotias University outside the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi against the idea of an inheritance tax

While the universities are housed in big buildings, they are not teacher-friendly. There is hardly proper space for teachers to sit and do their work. On the campus, you will find shops selling cold drinks and fast food but you won’t find a bookshop. A culture of reading books and discussing ideas is not inculcated. The teachers are even forced to submit answers to questions papers to the administration. Such a practice can only promote rote learning and kill critical thinking among students. The management is least bothered about such matters.

Worse still, the university administration seems to prefer quantity to quality in teaching and research, not realizing that a 30-minute lecture by a teacher who has prepared well may be more fruitful for students than an hour-long lecture by an unprepared teacher. An overworked teacher deprives students of learning. 

This is not to say that teachers and other staff should not follow the university timetable. For a university to function properly everyone should come and go on time. But such a rule cannot become absolute and a tool to terrorize employees. If teachers are late, their wages are cut and they are punished in other ways – on a regular basis, teachers have to answer show-cause notices. Similarly, the administration is least concerned about making learning fun for students and is more concerned about enforcing rigid rules about attendance. Students are denied permission to take examinations on flimsy pretexts or are granted permission only after shelling out huge fines.

Private universities should stop treating humans like robots. The management expects mechanical precision from teachers and students. The repressive rules and norms have made teaching and learning a suffocating experience. Most private universities are not residential, hence interaction between teachers and students is limited to the classroom. Without a proper academic environment and exchange of ideas based on real-life experiences, no critical enquiry is possible. Pluralism and diversity on campus are a necessity when it comes to learning, but the private universities, by keeping their fees high, exclude the poor and the socially marginalized.  

At the private universities, there is little space for teachers, non-teaching staff and students to put forth their ideas. The students have to leave the university as soon as the lectures are over. From the entry point to the classrooms, they have to show their identity cards. At many private universities, there is no space for public gatherings. There are no seating arrangements outside the classrooms. No benches can be found on the campus where students and teachers can sit and talk after the classes. The atmosphere is thus not conducive to a culture of debate and discussion. 

The right to form an association, which is a fundamental right – Article 19 (1)(c) of the Constitution – is denied. Neither teachers nor students are allowed to form associations. Recently, I joined a private university in north Karnataka. At the time of joining, I was given a service code to sign. The service contract prohibits any teacher from “canvassing for union membership”. I didn’t have a choice, so I signed the document. It is the Muslims who manage this university. What could be more unfortunate than the unwillingness of the minority Muslims, whose democratic rights have been attacked on several occasions under the majoritarian government, to democratize their institute. 

Before joining this private university in north Karnataka, a Muslim friend of mine had advised me to nurture at least a few hundred students. This friend, a Bangalore-based journalist, is a champion of democratic values and social justice. He was happy that Babasaheb Ambedkar’s thinking would figure in my lectures. But his happiness was short-lived. 

The failure was not on the part of the teachers or students. In fact, it was the university administration which showed little concern for democratic values on the campus. There was no place to sit and chat outside the classroom. The social sciences section of the central library just didn’t have enough books. There was just one canteen on the campus. Every time I went there for a cup of tea, I was told that only cold drinks were available. Most of the time, the canteen wore a deserted look. The management was parochial in its approach, extracting profit being its priority. I lasted merely two weeks at the university in north Karnataka. I felt so suffocated that I had to catch the next train out at midnight.   

A business-minded administration looks at every act of critical engagement with suspicion. That is why the atmosphere at private universities is suffocating – which explains the high teacher turnover. 

It is sad that the public educational institutions have been systematically destroyed. The current regime has inflicted more blows on the public institutions than the previous regimes have done. The saffron party has not only cut funds for higher education but also recruited members of Hindutva outfits as teachers in public universities. Despite the uninspiring condition of private universities, the process of privatization continues to be hailed. It has been praised for promoting efficiency and maintaining transparency. But the larger experience so far has been quite the opposite. 

The ignorance of Galgotias University students is therefore indicative of the larger rot that is setting in in higher education through the proliferation of private universities. Those mocking the students of Galgotias should instead be mocking the government policy that allowed such a university to come into being.

(Editing: Anil/Amrish)

About The Author

Abhay Kumar

Abhay Kumar writes on contemporary issues and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines. He has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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