Since early 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) of New Delhi has been hogging the news headline in India at regular intervals. The latest controversy has been over the decision of the JNU authorities to make attendance mandatory for all university registered students in all programs from winter semester starting from January 2018.
A five-member committee has been formed to finalize the guidelines for the attendance system. Though, authorities claim that this decision regarding attendance has been taken in the academic council (AC), many students and teachers dispute this claim as this matter was not even part of the latest AC meeting agenda.Besides the controversy over the procedure of this decision-making, the decision to impose compulsory attendance system in a research university like JNU itself is highly contentious.
For research students, particularlyin social sciences and humanities, it is an absolutely absurd proposition formarking their attendances regularly in a register. They do their research not inside their classroom or laboratory, but in libraries or in areas for their field studies. Easy and faster internet access have made it even possible for most of the research and writings to be conducted from hostel rooms or homes.
The mandatory attendance for the JNU research students is further absurd as they, unlike their counterparts in universities in rich countries, do not have their own offices or work desks.Moreover, the learning goals in the university are largely result-oriented, achieved through a final examination, writing a thesis or course project. Thus, the new system enforcing compulsory attendance is nothing, but for the authorities to use it as a tool to harass a selected number of students for their political activism in the future.
Not only its implementation, but the idea of imposing mandatory attendance system in a modern and progressive university like JNU defies academic logic. The coercive attendance policies neither help students nor teachers. As Professor Bruce Macfarlanein his book Freedom to Learn: The Threat to Student Academic Freedom and Why It Needs to be Reclaimed, argues that attendance in the class is an academic ‘non-achievement’ as it does not prove learning.
Bodily attendance in the classroom does not mean student is actually engaging nor guarantee that the student can successfully operationalize a skill or apply knowledge.Rather, making attendance mandatory helps the ‘lazy’ professors to use this easy method to assess the academic performances of students.Students seeking high grades usually attend the classes regularly in a mandatory attendance system. By just being present physically in the classroom does not help if the student is not engaged in his education in and outside his classroom.However, an adult student in a university system if has interest to learn can very well excel in studies without attending classes.
In a mandatory attendance system, uninterested students being forced to attend classes might get engaged in activities inside the classroomscausing possible distractions for professors as well as other students. It is quite often you come across students in university classrooms who are there to do anything but not to listen to their professors. They used to sleep or chat in the past.
These days, with their laptops, it is possible for them at the time of lectures to do internet chatting, watching videos, playing online games. Thus, it will be good to give the students the appropriate control of their own schedules. To avoid the distractive behavior of uninterested students inside my classroom, I have refrained from making my lectures mandatory in my nearly three decades of teaching career. Smaller number of students does not bother me, but a dozing student in the classroom does.A smaller classroom with interested students is anytime better than a larger classroom with an aloof bunch.
Some professors are also unnecessarily very sensitive if students do not attend their classes, considering it as personal insult.They are the ones who always insist regular attendance is necessary to do well in the course. That should not be the case as students are also adults and intelligent enough to weigh their other options of available learning facilities and make a choice of their own.
Instead of forcing students to attend their classes, professors should spend their energy to make their classrooms inviting and interesting. If the professors fail to add something substantial in their lectures other than what is written in course literature, motivated students in their judgement might not find it useful to attend the lecture and prefer to look for other option like following online discussions, reading extra-literature or group seminars.
Compulsory attendance in universities in general and in a research university like JNU in particular is not an idea based on academic wellbeing of the students. And, for the professors, the system not only has the potential to create classroom distractions, but also can increase more administrative duties and cut down their lecture time.
It is important to realize that a university thrives not because of discipline or order, but when it provides an environment to its students and professors to think and plan their education and teaching freely. University needs to invest more on expanding libraries, study halls, and facilities for common student activities. It should prioritize more on creating learning atmosphere and greater student-faculty engagement and not on enforcing larger attendance in classrooms.
Unfortunately, the JNU Vice-Chancellor, who had recently suggested a tank to be installed inside the campus, for him discipline and order are paramount virtues in a university, not the academic freedom and possibilities for the students to choose how to best utilize their study time.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden).