UGC guidelines seek to create docility, discipline and fear rather than promote freedom of academic expression

delhi autonomyActivists and experts Uma Chakravarti, Mary John, Pratiksha Baxi, Kavita Krishnan, Ayesha Kidwai and Janaki Abraham have begun an online petition (click HERE) calling upon the Universities Grants Commission to drop its new guidelines the safety of students in the higher education institutes. The petition believes the guidelines are an infringement upon their right to privacy, freedom of academic expression, and violates the principle of academic autonomy. Excerpts:

We, students, and parents, would like to express our strongest objections to the UGC guidelines on the Safety of Students on and off Campuses of Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs), available at http://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/6877477_final-Guidelines.pdf. Although the UGC seems to think that the implementation of its recommendations universities and colleges throughout the country will create an ‘oasis of safety, security and study’ for students in HEIs, the truth is of exactly the reverse order. These guidelines violate the right to privacy, right to life and dignity, freedom of academic expression, as well as comprehensively violate the autonomy of Universities to evolve their own policies and standards of excellence in academic life. In the statement that follows, we concentrate on the overall thrust of these recommendations, although there is perhaps even more in specific clauses that is offensive to human rights and dignity.

The UGC’s April 2015 guidelines are premised on a carceral model of university governance modelled around a system of fortification and survelliance that segregates, barricades, monitors, watches, regulates, disciplines and normalizes behaviour and conduct. The UGC recommends that buildings must now be altered to identify and track the movement of each student and employee of a university. This includes raising the height of walls of hostels, fortifying these with ‘spiraling barbed wires’, mounting CCTV cameras, restricting entrance to these buildings, installing weapon detectors, and instituting an identity verification system. In order to overcome the problem of proxy attendance, the UGC recommends a ‘biometric way of marking student attendance, both in HEI as well as hostels’. This bio–governance individualises, regulates and punishes a student who is not in place as per the discipline of the timetable.

The objective of these guidelines we believe is to create docility, discipline and fear rather than productivity, creativity and freedom of academic expression. We object to these measures as the enforcement of such a panoptic system amounts to an infringement of students’ right to life with dignity and the right to privacy. It also endangers students by forcing them into revealing their identity to everyone who works in the university, thus putting them at risk of targeted harassment on the basis of their gender, or caste, regional or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

We also oppose in the strongest terms the UGC proposal that universities should set up a police station within their premises, and that it be the agency that provides “on-demand short-distance escort services to students as they walk down to hostel or nearest taxi or bus-stand etc”. Has the UGC forgotten that universities are autonomous academic spaces where state practices of policing have no place? This outrageous recommendation not only ignores ignores the fact that the installation of police stations on university campuses undermines the autonomy of universities, it also puts students at risk because the police force itself is unsafe especially for women and sexual minorities.

Will the UGC guarantee that each student will be safe with a police escort? Will the UGC guarantee that the police would not harass or molest students during protests or is such harassment legitimate since student protests are now illegitimate? If the UGC is in any way interested in creating real conditions for the safety of women students on campus, it would do better to implement its own earlier own excellent recommendations for ensuring the safety of women and programmes for gender sensitization on campuses (http://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/5873997_SAKSHAM-BOOK.pdf).

We are shocked that the guidelines instruct teachers to monitor and regulate their students. They are advised to spy on them by asking hostel wardens to supply them with ‘personal details of students’ and record ‘behavior patterns for prompt pre-emptive or corrective action’. Moreover, teachers are advised to contact the parents of adult students in order to provide them information about their adult children through quarterly parent teacher meetings. While academics must remain sensitive and empathetic to the needs of students, counseling is a specialized profession, and must remain separate from the task of academic assessment to prevent abuse of power.

All of these measures assume that adult students have no right to privacy and right to choice and that parents, wardens and teachers do not abuse their power. Furthermore, they suggest that teachers have a duty to spy on their students, causing them to violate the imperatives of good faith and fair and impartial conduct outlined in their conditions of service. These guidelines create a system that can push students who may face discrimination or violence in the family into danger.

This is extremely detrimental, for example, to women students who are forced to give up their studies because their parents want to push them into forced marriages. Or to students who exercise their right to choice, be this sexual orientation or the right not to marry. We reject that the UGC’s April 2015 guidelines in toto and demand their immediate withdrawal, as rather than ensuring safety they create conditions of lack of safety and autonomy.

***

Alongside the above petition, Ayesha Kidwai has begun yet another petition (click HERE) where, she alleges, private colleges are going in for “panoptic surveillance”. Excerpts:

Social media has been flooded also by the complaints of students of private colleges across the country, where the panoptic surveillance and carceral recommendations of the UGC have been in practice for years on end. Noteworthy cases are Sairam College of Engineering and Lovely Professional University. Discrimantory hostel rules for women students and faculty are the norm across India, student programmes to discuss social and political issues are banned, and in most places the right to free association to form unions and association are denied. Since the UGC is the body that awards government recognition to all these private universities, it is the UGC that must ensure that the right to life and liberty, the right to free association and free speech and the right not to be discriminated against is ensured to all students, staff and faculty in these institutions before it recognises them as HEIs and allocates funds to them.

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