And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal

This was the NotA Collective’s written submission to the webinar “The Epidemic of Scientific Misconduct in India” hosted by The Life of Science. We have updated the text slightly to comment on a report that was released after the webinar as well.

Introduction

The recent case of academic fraud at the National Center of Biological Sciences (NCBS) has made waves in Indian academia.1 By no means does this imply that fraud is unheard of or uncommon in Indian higher education — quite the contrary! And even though each member of the NotA Collective has spent less than a decade working at research institutions, it seems to us as though every few years fresh news of a more spectacular and brazen case of fraud barrels out of the campus gates and into the pages of newspapers.

The forms of fraud vary, of course, from the more common genera like plagiarism and undeclared conflicts-of-interest, to the uncommon and sinister, like data forgery, fabrication and manipulation. This problem is deemed significant enough that it has prompted the organisation of specialised conferences dedicated to the question of academic ethics.2 The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India (currently headed by Prof. K. VijayRaghavan) has even drafted a National Policy on Academic Ethics.3 It would appear, on the face of it, that this is a problem that deeply concerns senior academics.

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Minority Reports: A Tragedy in Three Parts

The mess workers at IIT Kanpur have been completely abandoned by the administration of the institute, and they have been living at below subsistence levels, as they recently laid out in a heartbreaking letter. NotA has been circulating a petition in their support, and it has less than a hundred signatures as of publishing. In this article, we ask — yet again — how academics can be so heartless towards those who sustain our lives.

Part I: Institutional Stratification

Our story begins in 1945.

Anticipating a phase of rapid industrialisation, and cognisant of the need for a highly skilled workforce that would carry out the same, a committee was constituted by the Government of India under the leadership of the businessman and industrialist Nalini Ranjan Sarkar. Under his stewardship, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status of technical education in India with a view to the needs of the fledgling republic.

The recommendations of the Sarkar Committee, which included such prominent individuals as Dr. S. S. Bhatnagar (then Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and Dr. Jnan Chandra Ghosh (then Director of the Indian Institute of Science), are perhaps known to the reader: new institutions that would “integrate mathematics, science, and humanities with the specialized professional subjects” ought to be set up post haste, and the graduates of these Higher Technical Institutions would meet “the probable demands of industries for High Grade Technical personnel (executives, research workers, maintenance engineers, and teachers)”. Following independence, the Sarkar Committee’s recommendations were implemented, and this is how the IITs were born.1

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Centralisation in the Name of Efficiency

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part two of the full critique.

CENTRALISATION IN THE NAME OF EFFICIENCY

The NEP 2020 has called for replacing the Executive and Academic Councils with regulatory bodies such as a centrally-appointed Board of Governors and Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The HEGC and National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC) and General Education Council (GEC) increase the centralisation of control over universities, by taking control over governance, curriculum, research and finance while alienating immediate stakeholders including the teachers and hampering democratic, autonomous functioning of universities.

The UGC’s idea of autonomy is a financial one, in which each university is left to its own devices to raise funds by dipping into student’s pockets, while HEFA-like bodies provide loans. Academic autonomy and integrity are relevant only insofar as they can be clamped down on. The draft syllabi UGC recently prepared for BA History course plays up mythological aspects of “Indic” civilisation at the expense of established topics and norms of history. The syllabi also prescribe reading lists full of questionable scholarship. In June, texts by pro-establishment figures such as Yoga magnate Baba Ramdev and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht “Adityanath” were introduced at Chaudhary Charan Singh University on the recommendation of the Uttar Pradesh committee for implementation of NEP. These are only a few from the long list of instances in which academia is being sought to be saffronised in the country. The autonomy of the university and its faculty to decide coursework and material is actively being encroached upon, as is the space to dissent against such intrusions and overreach.

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A Window to the Construction Workers in IITK Amidst the Pandemic

Hamara Manch Report, July 2021

On 14th July 2021, women workers at the Swadeshi Civil Infrastructure Private limited construction site (the one across the airstrip) were told that they were all fired with immediate effect. Around 60-70 women were working at the site at the time and several more were to join in the next few days. Many of them have been working for months and were earlier told that they would continue to do so for at least several weeks more. Most of these women workers are migrant (at least not from the neighbourhood) and have come along with families to work at the construction site. It is imperative for all the adult members of the family to work, for them to be able to sustain the arrangement, as they have no social moorings here. Hence women losing jobs meant even the men would have to discontinue as they would not be able to survive in the meagre wages earned by men alone. When they tried to ask the reason for such abrupt en masse dismissal the women were told that these were orders from above. Most of these women were yet to be paid for the months of June and July, and when they asked to be given their dues they were told that their payments would be made soon but no definite date was given. Without employment these women and their families would be forced to leave and since they may not be able to pursue for their wages they were likely to lose it too. Usually, we at Hamara Manch have no access to construction workers because given the peculiar arrangement of construction work, those workers have no interaction with the regular workforce of the campus. And therefore, Hamara Manch has not reported anything on this construction activity during our pandemic series even though work has been going on full swing. But in this instance, we had a unique window to this site and the workers because three women mess workers had joined there recently.

As we had mentioned in our last report on women mess workers, (https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2021/06/29/15-months-of-pandemic-and-women-mess-workers-of-iit-kanpur/), situation is extremely desperate for several of them and they have been on the lookout for any kind of paying job. And when they came to know that there were some work for cleaning and clearing debris in newly constructed building by Swadeshi Contractor, several of them went to seek employment and three of them were recruited.

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Flip-Flop Policies And Political Flippancy

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is the final part of the full critique.

FLIP-FLOP POLICIES AND POLITICAL FLIPPANCY

The efforts of the UGC to allay the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last year, which has thrown education into chaos, are even more disingenuous. Its refusal to systematically organise a plan of action for the semester and academic calendar, as well as to set up a process of evaluation, has systematically pushed students out of consideration of various flippant policy decisions, as they could not necessarily keep up with the conditions imposed by the contingencies and emergencies of the situation shaped by the pandemic.

  1. Delhi University is taking online exams starting from 7 July for final-year students. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) had asked the university to cancel these exams, but it only postponed them from May to June instead. ABEs (Assignment-Based Exams) could have been an option, as other universities such as Ambedkar University, have done.
  2. In July 2020, the Delhi High Court asked the University Grants Commission (UGC) to clarify if universities could conduct final-year examinations based on Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), open choices, assignments and presentations, instead of long-form exams. The question came up after Delhi University contended that it was holding online OBE exams only because the UGC guidelines make it mandatory to hold final-year examinations. Legally, UGC’s guidelines are advisory and not binding on State institutions, yet the MHRD’s sanction made timed online exams during the pandemic a de facto compulsion. Expecting people caught in different circumstances to attempt the same exam is extremely unfair, as the Delhi High court observed.
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Decolonising Indian ecology

– Akshay and Grass Demon

As the world came to a standstill in the wake of the pandemic, and travel was abruptly restricted, long-term or ongoing field research suffered 1. Projects which involved local communities/researchers at the field site were able to continue their work with little loss of data, but those without strong local support were suspended indefinitely. Veteran ecologist Vojtech Novotny called it “a test [of] the rhetoric of ‘capacity building’ within tropical countries”. This reignited conversations around the involvement of local communities in field ecology by Western institutions, and associated ‘parachute science2 3 4. A recent paper by Trisos et al. 2021 5 furthered this conversation by providing a sharp look at the different, often unchallenged, ways in which colonial thought and practices pervade ecology, and provide concrete ways for ecologists to work towards decoloniality, the main points of which are summed up in the table below.

Before we begin, let us clarify for the uninitiated what decolonisation means, according to Trisios et al. In the first instance, it is “[r]ecognizing that colonialism led to Euro-American centricity, dispossession, racism and ongoing power imbalances in how ecological research is produced and used”. Following this recognition, decolonisation demands that we “actively [undo] those systems and ways of thinking”. – NotA

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Individualises and Privatises Learning and Education

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Notes on the Academy will publish Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part one of the full critique.

In consonance with the New Education Policy 2020, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has released its concept note on a “blended” model of teaching and learning, allowing for 40% of each course to be taught and assessed online (out of which over 40% SWAYAM courses are already online). Shockingly, the 40% conveyed in the UGC press note fails to convey that the actual desirable standard is to take online teaching and learning to 70% of the programme, as explained in the concept note.

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The Gig Academy Part 2: Tenure’s Destiny of Failure

In part 1 of this piece we tried to understand tenure through the lens of the role it plays in the system of academia. To do this, we first listed out some essential aspects of academia, and how tenure functioned in relation to those aspects. Let us now take these observations and synthesise them to try to understand what our position should be on the new type of tenure proposed by NEP 2020.

A Destiny of Failure

When we evaluate a machine, we think about the stresses and strains various components exert on each other. In normal conditions, it is by way of these forces that the machine performs its intended function. And t is precisely these forces that cause degradation over time — the piece that gets bent out of shape first is the one on which the most force is acting. Similarly, when evaluating this social system, we should evaluate the stresses and strains the components of tenure exert forces on each other, deforming it so that it is no longer able to perform its function; we should look for the ways in which tenure negates itself.1

The most obvious negation is well-encapsulated in the following couplet

Kursi hai, tumhara ye janaza to nahin
Kuch kar nahin sakte to utar kyun nahin jate
[It’s a chair not your deathbed;
If you can’t deliver why don’t you leave.]

– Irtaza Nishat
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The Gig Academy Part 1: The Enduring Tenure of Academic Tenure

– The NotA Collective

“India debates a nationwide tenure system,” reads a headline in Nature.1 It seems academics across the country are debating whether to adopt a tenure-track system for faculty, or keep the current one. This should confuse anyone who has spent any time in an Indian institution. Senior professors in our institutes seem to have no worries about losing their jobs, with some of them not even turning up at their office. What is the cause of this nonchalant confidence, if they don’t have tenure? Why is our current system not a tenure-track system? The Nature article clarifies the difference,

“Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.

“Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.

Okay, we lied. It clarifies the difference between the current system and the proposed one, but doesn’t even attempt to resolve our original confusion. We usually think of academic tenure as a guarantee of continued employment, not a question about whether this guarantee comes after one year or five. The discussion summarised in the article takes for granted that professors should be given tenure; the discussion is not about whether professors should be given tenure but about which of two models the tenure system should follow, and whether tenure is called tenure. Why is this being discussed at all? Because the NEP 20202 has proposed such a change.

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Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit

– The NotA Collective

Ajantha Subramanian,
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,
Harvard University Press (2019).

I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.

Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the

“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1

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