Academic Autonomy under threat?

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‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’
– Plutarch

The controversy over the revision of syllabi by the University of Delhi doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. Notably, the University decided to revise the syllabus of a few departments including English, History, Political Science and Sociology. Accordingly, the Academic Council approved the syllabi with arbitrary additions/deletions suggested by an ‘Oversight Committee’ on August 24. Well, the matter started back in 2019, when the University directed all its departments to upgrade their undergraduate syllabi as per the instruction of the University Grants Commission to adhere to the format of LOCF (Learning Outcome Curriculum Framework). Actually, this format mechanically aims to measure the learning outcome of a course among students. Taking in on this opportunity some departments decided to revise their syllabi. They thought that by doing so they would correct the anomalies in them arising out of irresponsible academic reforms like the semester system (2010-11), the aborted FYUP (2013), and the CBCS (2015).
In July 2019 during the meeting of the Academic Council, some people affiliated with the ABVP-RSS stormed into the vice-chancellor’s office and threatened the elected members as well as the professors about serious consequences if the UG syllabi were approved as per the recommendations of the respective departments. Unfortunately, the ABVP-RSS was hell-bent on scuttling the revised syllabi altogether through coercion, threats of violence and their proximity to the government and the University administration. It was then that the ‘Oversight Committee’ of senior academics was formed to scrutinise the syllabi. Despite not having the requisite expertise and any statutory sanction, it became a ‘supra’ committee to impose academic censorship on departments at will. Matters came to a head in July 2021 when the fifth-semester syllabi of the four departments were supposed to be approved before the reopening of classes. In a shocking turn of events, the oversight committee decided to remove the works of two Dalit women authors from the paper. Bama’s Sangati and two poems by Sukirtharani – both Tamil feminist authors were replaced by an upper-caste author, Pandita Ramabai without any academic rationale.
On the other hand, the New Education Policy has been introduced by the government through a Cabinet decision bypassing any discussion on the same in the Parliament. This same model has percolated into the university system where policy decisions are taken through the emergency powers of the vice-chancellor. Now, the English teachers have carved out an exclusive and elite space for themselves, basking in the glory of their cultural capital and their exposure to global ideas. When the English teachers were consciously social, they were left untouched; but when they tried to declass themselves by being sensitive to the issue of caste and representation, they were at the receiving end of a policy assault and academic censorship. Their intellectual labour of the last few years invested in the syllabus revision was dismissed by the University through the oversight committee. It seems that the teachers were unaware of the formidable challenge posed by the authoritarian state. It seems now that the only way ahead for academia is to join the struggle of other labouring groups against the police assault. They must come together and counter the autocratic mindsets of the government and the University administration. Such undemocratic attacks on academic institutions pose a serious threat to the nation.

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