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How Kashmir University was turned into a factory

By Nisar Dharma –

As it stands, the University of Kashmir, with its poor record of research and academic accomplishment, struggles to attract a pool of bright and talented students who could bring laurels to the centre of high learning and achievement. It is now set to descend even to lower levels of mediocrity and ineptitude with a decision that has evoked sharp condemnation from some of the members of its own faculty.

Some time back, the state education minister, Naeem Akhtar, went to the university and spoke of making the campus “vibrant and making optimum usage of infrastructure.” The university management, ever eager to curry favor with the political establishment, took that to mean to begin “evening classes.”

So, with a promptness that is so untypical of the university’s functioning, the officials went about drafting norms for enrolling in various departments of the university. The university set a target of 1500 new students to be admitted in evening classes for a price that was three times higher than the normal rate.

Although the university authorities deny money was a motive for starting the evening batches, it set off a whisper around the campus that in the name of providing high education, the university was willing to enroll students who had scored points as low as three in the entrance examinations, provided they paid handsomely to gain a seat in a department. A slot in the evening class would cost anything between thirty thousand and two lakh rupees, depending on the subject a student wanted to study.

It has been three months since the university began a new drive to enroll students for the evening classes and it seems to be a hit with aspirants who in no way could have gained admission into the university through a merit based competitive examination. It was in the same examination that students who scored as little as fifteen percent marks managed a gain a seat in the university.

Take the case of the department of chemistry. In the morning, its faculty members have to struggle to train sixty four students with meager resources at hand and if that were not enough, another batch of thirty seven students has gained admission in the evening class. What is worse the students coming in the evening had scored between three and fourteen marks in the entrance test and it is really hard for a professor to do justice with the students. What has irked many faculty members is that the university, strangely, has not closed admission. A student as late as last week was enrolled into a department, a good three months after the evening classes began in the university. Many students, some with recommendations directly from Vice Chancellor or Dean Academic Affairs’ office, were the beneficiaries of the windfall.

“Just today a minister called me asking to give admission to a student in chemistry department as there are still two seats vacant there, what will you do? Though the department resisted and said no, there are times one has to oblige,” said Dean Academic Affairs (DAA), Professor Mohammad Ashraf Wani, on why the admissions were not officially closed even after months of regular class work?

Juxtapose that with a quote from head of the mathematics department, Professor S Peerzada, one understands how achieving academic brilliance falls right at the bottom of the priority list in a campus which has gained immense skill in generating hundreds of unemployed, and mostly incompetent degree holders, every other year.

“One candidate with 4.50 points (out of 60) came after the admission was closed (few days ago) with a letter from someone at the helm of affairs but we didn’t allow him. I don’t care, VC at the most can ask me to leave the headship and I am not concerned about that,” said Peerzada.

The ill thought out decision to launch evening classes has not gone down well with many head of the departments of the university. The Head of the chemistry department, Professor Ghulam Mohammad Rather, bluntly says that the inclusion of evening batch was a direction that was thrust upon them.

“We were told we had to do it, come what may. This is how things work here,” said Rather.

Last year, in June, the state education minister, Naeem Akhtar, thought the campus was not so “vibrant”. He made his observation public in a gathering of students and faculty and suggested the university made “optimum use of infrastructure.” This was enough for the university to go into an overdrive and set about enrolling students for the evening classes. While the decision was hardly brainstormed, it looked great on paper. The university was essentially allowing admission to around 1500 more students in addition to roughly 3500 students that it took annually in different courses.

“Establishing a new university is not an easy job which can be done overnight. Minimum we could do was to increase the intake of students,” said Professor Wani of the Academic Affairs.

He justified the decision by saying that the university needed to save the “precious human resources that otherwise move out of the state when they are not able to get an admission in a post-graduate course in Kashmir.”

“After graduation, students continue their education either through distance mode or by going to other institutions; there are many who go outside valley to some dubious institutions and get their degrees,” Wani said. Like the education minister, Wani too utters the words “optimum usage of human resources and infrastructure” to justify the move. “We don’t want that there should be drain of wealth, lot of money goes outside when our students move out to study,” Wani said.

The Dean of Academic Affairs also claims that it was not a decision forced on the faculty as they were ‘consulted’ and were duly paid. The remuneration for the extra classes has been fixed at Rs 1500 per lecture for a senior retired professor engaged by any department, Rs 1000 for a professor, Rs 850 for an assistant professor while a lecturer it paid Rs 750 per lecture.

“There is no compulsion. Teachers have offered themselves to take up this program as there is money involved. Nobody has been forced to take extra classes; if there is anyone, let him (the teacher) come to me and I will tell him that don’t take classes from tomorrow. Because if the professors’ heart is not there why should he take the class,” Wani says.

Wani’s comment gives us a peek into how the university has operated in recent times, coming to decisions that at times have appeared unwise and hasty. For example, the introduction of the credit based curriculum system (CBCS) two years ago is still an unsettled proposition in the university. A department would have to take students, as part of elective open subject, from other departments. Two years down the implementation and the time-table keeps on altering.

“Had the CBCS system settled in, we would have then thought of the supplementary shifts, but that was not the case,” says the HOD Chemistry. While he concedes that the supplementary batch is academically weaker, at times the faculty has to teach the very basics of this science to students it is almost impossible to expect the ideal level of understanding they ought to have while pursuing a master’s degree.

While most of the departments have caved in to the pressure from the top, ironically, the biotechnology department, a department that the present vice chancellor headed before taking on the top job, has resisted the move to begin an evening class. Functioning in a huge building in one remote corner of the university, the department has admitted only 18 new students this year.

“We are a technology based department and before going for such a program (supplementary batch), we have to look at different parameters like infrastructure and laboratories which are not sufficient right now in our department,” said head of bio technology department, Professor Raies Ahmad.

In social sciences, the new concept of evening class has rankled some faculty members. One spoke to us. “Actually, the VC thinks that apart from bio-technology every other department especially those that fall in social sciences are not that important academically, it is like his department is the only one doing something meaningful and rest all are useless and as such the least they can do is add more students to earn more revenue,” he said.

The classes for the evening batch have sprouted up newer problems for many departments. “You can’t increase the faculty overnight, we needed at least two teaching assistants here but only one candidate came, the supplementary shift affected the quality of this complex subject, what is the fun of conducting the entrance exams when you allow anyone and everyone to study the course,” said Prof Peerzada of the mathematics department.

Against the sanctioned nine positions, the existing faculty at the department is only seven with two professors, two associate professors and three assistant professors. Every year, according to Peerzada, the mathematics department enrolls 180 students in the master’s course in the subject. 

“Seventy student in the main campus, seventy in the south campus, forty in Baramulla College’s Post Graduate department; that is 180 students. Besides we have 200 more in the distance learning program, and now 50 more students have been added thorough the supplementary shift” says Peerzada.

“But still you will hardly see people qualifying for a PhD in mathematics, nobody asks why?” he adds.

The fee for the programs is roughly Rs 25,000 annually.

“What is the difference between a school and the university now,” wonders Peerzada.

According to him, students’ spending money in other universities outside the state was the only thing that the KU administration wanted to stop. Besides, Peerzada is also concerned about the impact supplementary batches would have on the overall research programs of the university.

“The NAAC team would be here in September for grading the university. All they see is how much research the varsity has done, you tell me how would they rate it; the university was still doing well, but the supplementary batches may prove detrimental for it after a few years,” said Peerzada.

NAAC, the acronym for National Assessment and Accreditation Council is an organisation that assesses and accredits institutions of higher education in India. It is an autonomous body funded by the University Grants Commission (UGC). The university at present has been accredited Grade ‘A’.

Some faculty members, although not completely opposed to the idea of evening classes, feel the idea should have been tested out in social science departments for a few years before they were begun in the whole university. They feel it would have been easier for the departments in social science since students there do not work in the laboratories.

“Normally there should be simultaneous admission of both the batches and the admission process should end early, there should be a lower cutoff and not everyone should be enrolled if the seats are vacant,” said a teacher the department of physics.

According to the official admission policy document available on the university website, “the selection of a candidate shall be based on his/her performance in the entrance test which shall carry weight of 60 marks and a candidate shall be considered for selection if he/she has obtained positive score.”

Positive score, as per the physics teacher, can be a zero as well.

 In the electronics department, the entrance score has been below 10 points, out of 60, for a few in the supplementary batch. 

“As the grasping level of every student is not equal, we have to teach at a slower pace, which otherwise could be faster, if there would be students of required calibre,” said head of the electronics department, Professor Nisar Ahmad Shah. 

The department has around 30 students enrolled in the regular batch and an equal number in the supplementary shift.  

In the faculty of social sciences, the supplementary batches have added more crowds to the classroom. For example in the Media Education Research Centre, against a normal intake capacity of 40, there are around 80 students studying at present. 

“Journalism is a field which requires a specific skill-set, it is professional course and without due faculty and infrastructure, teachers are not able to do justice with the subject,” said one of the teachers in the MERC. 

“Besides, some of the students are academically weak and we have to repeat things in order to make sure they have understood. We start the lectures in English but soon realise that hardly anyone understands it and have to switch to Urdu or even Kashmiri,” the teacher said. 

In the education department, which has over 700 students enrolled in various courses (B.Ed, M.ed, MA) at present, the head of the department, professor M Y Ganai, is all praises for the supplementary batch initiative. He has a unique explanation for what he believes.

“There is very low access to education. There shouldn’t be only two but three shifts as it would help to provide access. It’s not about the students who will or not get jobs after the degrees, one is supposed to be given education for the sake of it,” he says.

A similar viewpoint was shared by the head of the political science department as well.

However student of that department claimed that supplementary batches would affect the overall quality of teaching as more students in a department meant lesser individual attention.

“When a teacher has to take more classes than he can afford, it is going to affect those outstanding students as well,” said a fresher in the political science department who was a students in the regular batch. The student revealed another issue, which anyone had hardly considered while framing the fee structure of the supplementary batch.

“One of my friends had scored 30 points in the entrance exams but because of him being financially weak, he couldn’t pay for a supplementary seat which was later occupied by a student with mere 4 points,” the student said.

According to the HOD education, barring accommodation issues, the supplementary batch program has no downside to it. The varsity at present is only able to accommodate 20 percent of the enrolled students.

The officials of the academic affairs admitted the university hostels can hold only 20 percent students, and insisted students should take rented accommodation in the university area.

“It would waste a student’s precious time to shuttle between his home and the University,” said Wani of the academic affairs department.

Little did he know that while the university added almost 50 percent more students to its intake capacity, students were struggling to rent space to live. The localities in Hazratbal, Naseem Bagh and Lal Bazar had substantially increased the rent amount.

“I had to pay Rs 3500 for a single room per month while as my friend who is senior to me is paying only Rs 2000 for a similar room, it is only because people know there are more students now that need accommodation and they have nowhere else to go,” says a first semester student of the regular batch in department of education while asking not to be quoted by named.