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Thursday, December 7, 2023

What is JNU Protest all about? – An Analysis by a Quora User

This question is doing the rounds and dominating headlines for past several years. My earlier article on this subject explored the real cost of running JNU, subsidies involved, the current fee structure and the outcomes that Bharat gets from this investment in the university. The financials and research outcomes clearly don’t help the JNU case much as we observed.

However, many still pointed out the in-principle idea of free education to “preserve the merit” in a relatively early stage developing country like ours. Add to that the evergreen social justice element and people try to get away with anything without real cost benefit analysis.

Numerous other questions came up on social media. Do JNU students really need financial support to sustain? Are they really meritorious and top talent? Do they complete their study in time or is the perception of overstaying correct? Why do majority students think on socialistic lines at JNU when students at other places don’t? Finally, why do they keep protesting on every government decision? What decisions are hurting the university and what is the protest all about?

I have tried to explore all the above with the data points that can support. My idea is to be unbiased, data driven and non-political. The subject however, will invite thoughts on either side of spectrum. Here are a few points I wish to highlight. You can make your observations and conclusions.

Do JNU students really represent the merit? How many do complete degrees in time?

The idea of “merit” needed to be explored further, more so since the initial data about research papers published indicated that there is more to this than meets the eye. On the face of it, it appears that general magazine rankings and historical legacy support the perception that JNU should attract meritorious and the brightest to the campus. Plus, the negligible fee structure should always help reduce the cost of getting educated. Sounds about right.

Until we look at the data points. Official information for JNU continues to be very inconsistent and difficult to consolidate. So, pardon some approximation, but I’ll be 99% accurate unless JNU disputes their own annual reports and website.

Since PhD scholars represent 35% of the total campus strength (~2724 out of 8000, which is one of a kind in the world at this scale), let’s explore the merit argument for PhD students. I assume that meritorious students should be able to finish the course in stipulated 3 years or maximum 4 years. Here is a distribution of JNU PhD students, their joining dates and passing parentage within 4 years (updated till 2018 which is the latest info available).


Here are my high-level observations:

1) Scholars are definitely overstaying their welcome: 27% of the PhD batch i.e. 563 students are clearly overstaying their welcome. Also notice that about 563 for whom there is no data available for joining dates. So, this could be even worse than we think. Lack of joining date raises more questions. The over-vintaged students could be 40% in worst case.

2) Science scholars are doing fine: A careful examination reveals that Science students are doing good. So, after 4 years, we just have <10% students who haven’t completed their research. Computation and integrative sciences is an exception here due to the nature of extensive research involved and unpredictable outcomes. This is understandable. My conclusion: 90% of science students in PhD course at JNU appear to be doing fine on pace of course completion.

3) Humanities scholars tend to stay much longer: The picture is very different for students in faculties like Social sciences (Humanities), language and International studies (Humanities with a different name). If you are undergoing a PhD in one of the “Arts” courses at JNU, there is a 50 % chance that you will not finish in stipulated 3 years’ time and one of three students will go into 5th year of PhD. Is that brilliance? I would question that.

A PhD in Science is getting completed in 4 years, but many humanities scholars are taking 5 to 7 years for their doctorate courses? This is beyond comprehension. Unless social sciences are some kind of exact sciences that need such extensive research. This brought us to the other interesting question.

Why do Humanities student slow down during PhDs and why do most of them have similar views?

I was really intrigued by this question and unable to find real answers. Hypothesis ranges from University culture, faculty training, Nehruvian socialist legacy or simply some inertia to change in the new world. Answers were not easy but how was it possible that majority begins to think this way once they enter JNU. After-all, values take time to build and there is no way to “control what kind of students enter JNU” in a national level competitive exam.

Or so I thought !

Until I hit upon an observation from the admissions process. I quote from the admissions brochure below:

Viva-voce examination: Candidates seeking admission to M.Phil./Ph.D./, MTech, Ph.D., MPH. programmes are required to appear for a viva-voce examination which is assigned 100% marks and MA programmes in foreign languages (other than English/B.A. (Hons) 2nd year & Part – Time Programmes) are required to appear for a viva-voce examination which is assigned 20% marks. For M.Phil./Ph.D. and Ph.D., all candidates who have secured a minimum of 50% marks in the written examination are invited for viva voce.

Wait, did I read that right? 100% marks assigned to interview process?

Bingo !! All this hype around the “top university” status looks so pale when I read this. The way to enter the M.Phil. and PhD programmes at JNU is through the “VIVA VOCE” exam. Simply put, the candidates are admitted through an interview process once they secure a base minimum of 50% qualifying marks at written exam stage. Assuming this is not much of a competition, the selection is entirely dependent on the “interview” process. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the quality of interviews but think for a moment – what if the admission to the Indian Civil Services exam is 100% dependent on interviews ? Who do you think would get in ?

I would like to be corrected if I have misinterpreted the admissions process. But if the above is right, I have got my answers as to why “one school of thought” dominates the university. Also note that the University has 65% acceptance rate. So for every 100 students offered admission, only 65 actually join and rest move to other universities. This clearly is not indicative of the top university status.

Do you still think that admissions are on merit? So much for the “top ranked university status”. I would question such rankings.

Are the JNU students really poor?

Many of the readers questioned this assumption. I understand that on the face of it, we can observe that most of the students are not poor. But we need some data. And any data point which calls for income levels is extremely difficult to obtain in Bharat. In a country where we have only 6 crore tax returns filed & half of these are zero tax returns, we’ll have just 8% households that would earn more than Rs 2.5 lac taxable income per year. So the data looks similar for all universities. It is no different for JNU. Remember, the taxable income of Rs 2.5 lac may actually translate to an actual income of Rs 5 lac since ITRs capture the income minus the deductions like HRA, tax savings etc.

So how do we assess income levels through some surrogates. I don’t want to search data about their smartphones. There may be a better way. This is what I read on the JNU annual report for admissions in 2018.

Of the total 1556 candidates, 623 came from the lower and middle income groups whose parents’ income was less than Rs. 12000/- per month and 904 from the higher income group with an income over Rs. 12001/- per month and 29 not filled the details. As regards the rural-urban composition of the students, was 684 and 872 respectively. Further, only 570 candidates had their schooling in public schools and 986 came from other schools.

Public schools? So, 36% students have studied in public schools and they want to protest fee hike which is at absurd levels of Rs 250 per year!! Really? I rest my case.

What is the JNU protest all about?

Finally, the key question. What is the protest all about? It seems to be about everything. It is about fee hikes, getting more grants, more students intake, interference in the university affairs, student body reforms or simply issues of national interest. Earlier article explored how an absurdly low fee structure fails to create any incentive for the students to join the working pool. This leaves ample time for everything else, protests included.

Here is another simple issue that seems to be at the root of how the university has been used to operate and why it is resisting change or any sort of questions on its functioning. Let me take you through some of that:

We know that there are UGC guidelines around how many students a university can hire for research level courses. Below table indicates the faculty strength at JNU and how many research students it can admit at any point in time.

We clearly see that maximum permitted strength for M.Phil. is 1011 and PhDs is 3192 students. So JNU can’t have more than ~4200 students for research level courses. This too is dependent on the kind of courses they can teach. So, the number for Humanities could further be restricted. Just as a reference, JNU produces 600 PhDs every year in Humanities. This is 12% of all Humanities PhD degrees granted in entire USA.

What is the current strength of such research students at JNU? My sense is that they are already at ~4100 students combined for M.Phil. and PhDs. So just about bursting the cap. You know how serious this is and how is this impacting the university students? See this:

Notice the count of students admitted for M.Phil. and PhD courses for 2017. There are just 75 students. So, a university that hired 924 and 886 scholars for research courses in 2015 and 2016 offers just 75 seats for 2017? Just because the University failed to plan the capacity as per UGC norms and some old guards decide to overstay their scholarly welcome at the campus. So much for the socialist values. Does this do any justice to the new students who want to join the university for PhD?

I can understand why the current class in M.Phil. may be angry at the changing norms at campus. They lost their guaranteed seat at the PhD course just because UGC decided to implement the norms. You think they are protesting for “national interest”? Think again. This is the court case they filed in 2017 against UGC ruling limiting the admission strength. I quote from Hindustan Times article in March 2017:

The Delhi high court on Thursday dismissed as infructuous the plea by some students challenging JNU admission policy for MPhil and PhD courses. The court said the University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines for MPhil and PhD courses are binding on all varsities. The July 5, 2016 notification had said that a professor, at any given point of time, cannot guide more than three MPhil and eight PhD scholars.

JNU students had contended the notification would result in “excess seat cuts” leading to no admission in the MPhil, PhD programmes at several centers of the varsity. They were on a sit in protest at the administrative block, which they have named as ‘Freedom Square’. The petitioners who had moved the high court, had agreed to take an undertaking that they are not challenging the UGC notification and restricting their case to “procedural lapses” on JNU’s part in adopting the notification.

The JNU’s counsel had told the court the UGC regulations were “binding on the university”. It said the university will neither receive grant nor could award degrees if it stopped following the UGC’s regulation. The counsel further said 43 central universities were already following the UGC’s notification.

Why are the students protesting almost every year now and against all decisions of central government? That too when it receives heavy grant from the government?

To me, this appears a classic case of a set of people who just refuse to move ahead or change with times. Scholars for whom the government spends almost 7 lac per student annually and majority of them get selected for research courses by an opaque “interview” process. They want to question the government and promote a culture of reasoning but refuse to be questioned on their systems. Students, whose research outcomes are hardly anything to speak of, but the university wants more student intake and thereby more grants from government on their own terms. A student cohort that is trailing in the 1970s era and has absolutely no response to society when people get angry and ask – Why is the nation funding your education ?

Anti-national? I don’t know. But the above behavior at JNU is certainly not in national interest. For those sensible millennials who still ask – why did socialism fail? Well, this is exactly why.

– by Anurag Singh 

(This article was published by the author on Quora on December 1, 2019. He has also tweeted this at @anuragsingh_as)

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