“I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature.”
These lines were from 26-year-old Hyderabad Central University research scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide note. It seemed to reflect a young man’s frustration with a system apparently closed to debates and discussions. He died on January 17, 2016.
Vemula’s protest against the death penalty awarded to 1993 Bombay blast accused Yakub Memon, his condemnation of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for opposing a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots in Delhi University, led to a few run-ins with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing. A Union minister allegedly intervened in the matter at the behest of the ABVP and Vemula was suspended and barred from entering the hostel. The young research student soon chose to end his life.
Other dissenting voices too were heard loud and clear in 2016. Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) made news, drowning out chatter over the much-delayed education policy, India’s very own National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) and the possible return of the Class 10 Boards.
In February 2016, Kumar, a PhD scholar of African Studies at JNU was arrested for alleged anti-India slogans at a students’ rally to protest the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru. He was charged with sedition, but it snowballed into a major political controversy. Large-scale protests against the arrest were organised by teachers, opposition (political) parties and students. Kumar was later released on bail.
Student unrest notwithstanding, April 4 saw a move to improve things for institutes of higher education with the release of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) list of top academic institutes of the country. Initiated by the human resource development ministry to counter international rankings such as QS, Times Higher Education and Shanghai, in which Indian universities usually ranked very low, NIRF divided institutes into categories of universities and colleges; engineering institutions; management institutions; pharmacy institutions and architecture institutions. Parameters for the rankings were teaching, learning and resources; research, professional practice and collaborative performance; graduation outcome; outreach and inclusivity, and perception.
The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, topped the universities category. IIT Madras bagged the first position for engineering. IIM Bangalore was ranked number one in management. However, critics panned the rankings, saying that as institutes had submitted all data themselves no scope was left for cross-checking. They also had problems with IITs coming under the engineering instead of universities category. Multidisciplinary universities like JNU and Banaras Hindu University were ranked with institutes for specific disciplines. Critics also wondered how private business schools without impressive records in placements/research made it to the top rankings with IIMs. Then it was time for schools. As the year closed, it became clear that the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Class 10 Board exams would be back again from 2018. The reason was said to be a drop in academic standards. Parents and teachers felt the students were not taking studies seriously till the Class 12 Boards. Appearing for just one exam during the entire schooling period also put the youngsters under stress.
Doing away with the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) which replaced the Boards was reportedly also being considered by the ministry as again parents, teachers and students felt it was a waste of time and energy. CCE is for all-round development of students. Scrapping it won’t make sense.