MINORITY REPORT: Of Admission Tests, Merit and Academic Dystopia

Humanities departments have been mistrusted by every political regime, for they shape students into thinking, questioning individuals. Those who so glibly accuse JU of being elitist must be reminded that the university was created as a parallel system to that of the colonial British higher education system – it has always stood up to injustice and oppression, and invited the ire of governments and middle class bhadraloks alike for its atmosphere of iconoclasm, dissent and free thinking. Despite attempts by a small section of ill-informed, sexist and politically motivated trolls on social media to fixate on images of girls in western clothes and students playing guitars in corridors as the “state of things in JU”, the University ranks only below the IITs and IIMs in higher education rankings, and its academic record in research and international collaborations speaks for itself. Several of the Arts departments including English are Centres for Advanced Studies (CAS) – the highest rank that a University department in India can be accorded by the University Grants Commission.

Sadly, the University that basks in the glory earned by English, Comparative Literature, Philosophy and other “CAS” humanities departments has betrayed them, stripping their teachers of the trust and respect they had earned through decades of academic labour. If teachers have chosen to subsequently exercise noncooperation with the admission process, it is because the mental and physical labour they have invested over decades for the conduct of transparent and meticulous admission tests for all students regardless of background is deemed worthless, their experience and wisdom in the matter of testing the aptitude of a student for a humanities subject has been treated as something to be toyed with, and swept aside.

For seventeen years I have worked alongside teachers, friends, colleagues, alumni and students to ensure that the BA admission test in English at Jadavpur University provided a fair chance to students from all school boards. Teachers and scholars from our sister departments of literature, and schools such as the School of Cultural Texts and Records and alumni from around the world have helped us over the years in invigilating the thousands of students who appeared for the test. We could have made it easy for ourselves all these years. We could have sat back and let outsourcing happen, let external personnel with their computers do the math for marks-based admissions. In my fifteen years as a teacher at JU, I have hardly ever enjoyed a summer break between semesters, because I was working hard alongside my colleagues to ensure a fair and rigorous admission test for the BA, MA, MPhil and PhD degrees. We do the hard work because we believe the test is the fairest means of judging aptitude for literature. Professors across India who teach at institutions where admissions are on the basis of marks have written to us in the wake of the EC decision to affirm that the JU model of admission tests is far better suited to humanities departments than mechanical selection by marks.

I remember learning as a rookie teacher from my illustrious seniors about the exhaustive (and exhausting), meticulous and precise ways in which BA admission answer scripts were corrected, reviewed, and re-reviewed by several teachers till consensus about the first list and the waiting list was reached. After the scripts were coded post-examination, we would never know the identity of the students whose scripts we were correcting. Only at the end would decoding by the Dean’s office reveal who the selected students were. We never thought about taking that summer break, because we felt that the admission test gives a chance to students who may have a genuine aptitude for literature, but who may not have scored high marks in their higher secondary examinations.

A new academic dystopia began to take shape this summer. We had finished the MA admission test marking for this year, and the MA marksheet had been prepared. Students, alumni and non-teaching staff rallied enthusiastically around us as the build up for the annual BA admission test began – cleaning 80-odd classrooms, recruiting and briefing over a 100 invigilators from other colleges and universities besides our own teachers and scholars, preparing for 4500 applicants and their guardians to descend on JU on the 4th of July. Then, suddenly, we were told that the department’s teachers would have no role to play in the admissions process, a 50-50 marks-and-test admission process steered by external teachers would be used. Soon thereafter a second announcement hit us: the EC had decided there would be no admission test at all this year.  Candidates and their guardians were confused, traumatised, many who had bought train or plane tickets to attend the test were in a quandary. Our students, staff and faculty were demoralized at this no-confidence motion against humanities teachers. Demoralised, but not broken. The teachers’ boycotts and students’ strikes that have been generously and fairly represented by the majority of the media are a last and desperate attempt at salvaging some justice for the humanities in JU.

The Executive Council had apparently debated the proposal of abolishing admission tests. It therefore follows that deans and heads of engineering, law and management faculties and even disciplines like Economics and International Relations voted along with administrative authorities to decide the fate of JU’s literature departments. But why suddenly debate this issue after making a public announcement of the date of the admission tests? Should not the debate have happened much earlier, rather than inconvenience thousands of hopeful candidates preparing for the test? Was a statement or two by representatives of the current dispensation enough to sway experienced and illustrious academics into vacillating not once but twice about the fate of 17000-odd applicants?

Are not literature teachers who have taught for decades and built departments into nationally and internationally acclaimed sites of teaching and research better equipped to judge the aptitude of a student for literature than Engineering teachers or administrative officials? Why was there a top-down imposition on departments that never got the chance to represent their opinion regarding admissions? Humanities departments have never tried to interfere with the way in which science, engineering or social science departments choose their students. What then was the need to humiliate Arts teachers in in this manner?

The current dispensation’s representative in the EC wrote on social media that he wanted to experiment with something new as the same pattern had been going on for 30 years – he wanted to break the imagined ‘elitism’ of the English department. Was that a decision to be made without thorough consultation and discussion with his colleagues in all the literature departments? Or is this forcible imposition part of what has been happening in the country, everywhere – the taking over of higher education by political regimes? There was no explanation given to teachers as to why the EC thought the marks based admission process was somehow a better test of aptitude for literature than a rigorous and broad-based admission test that gave every applicant a fighting chance. Instead of showing any valid cause for why the time-tested test process was suddenly ditched, personal slander against venerable senior teachers and (the usual) “fake news” about JU Arts being a den for “drugs, alcohol, Maoism and licentiousness” was unleashed on social and other media by regime loyalists to draw the bhadralok audience away from the main issue.

Rather than allow the debate to degenerate into silly personal slander, nitpicking about incorrect spellings and taunts about elitism, I want all of us to keep asking these questions, for the battle for deciding what measures “merit” will be a long one: How are +2 marks a fairer alternative to admission tests? Can the diverse and uneven marking standards of various boards ensure a fair chance to all? How would external examiners ensure any more transparency when we have a coding and decoding system already in place? What about students who took low-scoring subject combinations at the +2 level? What would guarantee that malpractices would not creep in if externals set and examined university entrance exams in the future, excluding the teachers who would teach the students over the next 3-5 years? How can MCQ tests judge the fitness of students for higher studies in literature?

As I see people closing down this tried and tested process of judging the “sahitya bodh” of candidates desiring admission to literature departments in JU, I can only say this: we must question, debate, act constructively – or helplessly watch as more regimes of control follow in the wake of marks based admissions (Centralised syllabus imposed from above? Biometrics? What follows next? Who knows?) robbing JU’s literature departments of the last vestiges of their uniqueness as spaces of academic and intellectual freedom. If we are not trusted as teachers to invigilate or examine admission tests, are we to be trusted to assess students’ internal assessments, term papers, semester exams?

Everything we do as part of our work in the university has been placed under the shadow of doubt. And yet, even as JU’s teachers and students undertake boycotts and protests to salvage the humanities, they continue the beautiful process of learning – students can choose from open air classes, classes without formal attendance in registers, online learning, even classes in the canteen or corridors when it rains. One of my undergraduate students who has joined the indefinite hunger strike wrote to me asking for time to finish a home assignment. Even in her weakened condition after starving since 6th July, she remembers her academic commitments as a student. Readers, that is how we work at JU – we constantly research, teach, study, and our global rankings show it – but we also know how to raise our voices against unjust and oppressive acts by the powerful everywhere.

The teachers of JU’s departments of literature teach, and will continue to teach, every student to the best of their ability. But under the sign of protest.

[The views expressed belong solely to the author, and may not reflect the opinions of the editorial team]

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.