Agitation at IGNOU: Hunger Strike against Scrapping of Courses

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By Anubhuti Agnes Bara, JNU (AISA activist)

In the recent unfolding of events at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) campus, Maidangarhi, students in the campus have been protesting since 9 April 2012 at the University gate against the insane decision of the acting Vice-Chancellor Prof. Aslam to discontinue face-to-face programmes. These include 26 master level courses relating to social sciences such as labour and development, gender studies, social anthropology, journalism and mass communication. Students allege that the notifications for the on-campus courses, which are usually issued around the third week of April, have been delayed on purpose this year as the administration is planning to close down these courses. The High-Powered Committee was set up to review the ongoing programmes on Campus. The Academic Council in a meeting held on 24 April 2012 had asked the interim VC not to take any policy decisions or disturb the existing programmes. The acting VC, Prof. Aslam does not hold any power to defy the decree of the statutory bodies like the Academic Council and the Board of Management.
Agitating against this imminent move of the acting VC, two students Rahul Mishra and Pankaj Anand sat on indefinite hunger strike for the two days from 25 April 2012 to 26 April 2012. The enraged students have been submitting memorandums to the IGNOU administration and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and asking that if they want to scrap the face-to-face programmes now, then why did they introduce the concept three years back? They also underline that the University cannot leave them in the lurch and that the University authorities are vacillating the matter so that the examinations (which are scheduled in May) and the issue goes astray! Some of the faculty members have stood up with the students. Prof. P.R. Ramanujam, a distance education faculty of the University has asserted that the students’ agitation is very much valid.
After a round of negotiations with the administration and the faculty, the students were given a verbal assurance to give into the demands and the indefinite huger-strike was lifted on 26th evening. However, there was no written assurance from the administration. The students have put forth a strong resentment on administration’s backtracking and decided to proceed with the relay hunger strike. As happens with any progressive movement that questions the authority of the administration and stands against unjust order, the ongoing movement is also facing several challenges. There has been an unsuccessful attempt to malign the movement by sending an email to the administration and the faculty, which stated that a semi-nude march would take place in case the demands of the students are not agreed upon. Braving such hurdles, the agitating students are boldly standing against the authoritarian attitude of the VC and the shunning of regular courses.
Such a proposal to scrap these courses represent a significant and dangerous paradigm shift in our education policy, since they pave way for massive privatisation and commercialisation of higher education and also for a regime of unregulated lawlessness and profit-making. In this regard, the students of IGNOU very well recognise the fact that a mutual agreement has been accomplished between Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and the acting VC – prof. Aslam. This should be seen in sync with the Sibal’s 100-day agenda. Announcing the 100-day agenda for MHRD, Sibal promised ‘radical’ reforms in the country’s education system. These ‘reforms’ are being touted as an important step in deciding the destiny of the students and youth of the country.
The truth is that education is never a neutral terrain. Governments and power lobbies often try to look innocent, but they always have an ulterior motive when it comes to educational reform. The UPA Government promises us educational ‘reform’ as neoliberal economists proclaim that Manmohan Singh should “set our campuses free”. Clearly, the regime needs not only participants but also defenders. The UPA needs to hand over education in the hands of private capital, so that young and energetic minds are pressed to the service of market forces. Education is being turned into a commodity, so that a large section of society is kept out of the ambit of the educational system.
In the name of “regulating” educational institutions, the proposed legislations These proposed legislations will mean unregulated, exorbitant fee hikes, commercialisation of campus spaces and facilities like health care, halls, canteens and auditoriums, extraction of “user charges” even for basic facilities like water and electricity and a fundamental shift in focus of educational curriculum towards market-oriented courses. Basic sciences, social sciences and humanities courses will slowly be replaced by market-driven self-financed ‘applied’ courses, which will have serious socio-political implications. This is exactly the case of IGNOU, wherein two trajectories – closing down of social science courses and fee hikes (especially in Mass communication course amounting to approximately Rs. 20,000/-) – are clearly visible.
In the face of such impending threat to shut down the regular courses and the VC’s authoritarian attitude, the representatives of Jawaharlal Nehru University student’s union (JNUSU) – general secretary, Ravi Prakash and Joint Secretary Firoz Alam – and AISA activists Martand Pragalbha, Niraj Singh and Anubhuti Agnes Bara, went there in solidarity with the ongoing movement. The IGNOU University gate, where the students are fasting reverberated with protest songs and ardent slogans against the VC and the administration. The movement is fast gaining momentum as the mobilisation of the ongoing movement has even gone beyond the campus into the nearby vicinity, which has involved number of residents of Maidangarhi area, coming in solidarity with the movement against the draconian VC.
This agitation of IGNOU students against the acting VC – Prof. Alam’s is one of the rare endeavours in the history of the University to resist the undemocratic moves towards fulfilling neo-liberal agenda of promoting education that solely caters to the market requirements. This movement calls for intensification against the dubious politics of the MHRD. It has set an example to create a potential progressive students’ movement and declared that students are the major stakeholders of any university and their voices must be heard.