“(At JNU), students wear what they want to wear…we have never considered this at all”: UGC’s new president

In an interview with The Sunday ExpressKumar declined to comment specifically on the escalating controversy over the hijab ban in pre-university colleges in Karnataka, but said there were never any restrictions on students’ clothing while he headed JNU .

The UGC president also said he welcomes student criticism and that any protest should be peaceful to ensure it remains “meaningful”. His priority, he said, was to implement the national education policy” and that he would see the higher education regulator speaking more frequently to stakeholders and rectors, listening to their concerns and challenges. and provide them with solutions. Excerpts:

Tell us about your top priority as President of UGC.

My first priority will be the rapid implementation of the new NEP (National Education Policy). I will sit down with UGC officers and also Ministry of Education (MoE) officials and come up with a plan that can be implemented. This must be done by gathering feedback from stakeholders by sitting across the table and understanding the challenges our educational institutions face and trying to find solutions collectively.

What do you think of the government budget announcement regarding the creation of a new digital university?

The current university system has a fixed semester system and a fixed curriculum; students must take physical classes and graduate. But now students want more flexibility, both in terms of schedule and when they want to study or work. I believe a digital university can provide this flexibility and bring education to students’ doorsteps.

Under the digital university initiative, we can leverage the excellence offered by India’s top institutes such as IIT, NIT and JNU. Some of these universities can be the spokesperson, and the digital university will be the hub. We can even collaborate with universities around the world.

But can a digital university work for science programs?

Some disciplines cannot be offered in online mode because you need hands-on and lab experience. But there are many fields such as financial management and data science, which are in high demand. IIT Madras already delivers degrees in data science related fields which are fully online.

… Once VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technologies come into play, we can have a situation where I (a student) just wear an instrument on my head and I can walk into a virtual lab, take beakers, mix acids and see what happens – just like in real life.

As vice-chancellor of a central university, what is the problem you have identified in the UGC that you would now like to solve as president?

The UGC as an organization must work to respond to the interests and concerns of stakeholders. We must provide effective services to all stakeholders — universities, teachers and students.

For this, two things must happen. First, within UGC itself, we need to have more e-office oriented processes. Second, I would like to see UGC speak to stakeholders more frequently, listen to their concerns, and provide solutions.

This is the second year of implementation of the NEP, but there has been no significant increase in the education budget. How will an organization like UGC achieve the goals of the NEP?

We certainly need good funding in the education sector. One good thing to come out of the budget is an 11.8% increase in the allocation for higher education. We will soon have in place the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), which will work closely with industry and various ministries to fund research. The proposed National Research Foundation will also handle research funding. In the future, there will be a more integrated approach (to funding) instead of different agencies funding separate projects. We will also prioritize our needs and use the funds more efficiently.

But what about investing much more in education as advocated by the NEP?

In the past two years, due to the Covid-19 situation, although funds have been given to universities, not everything has been used adequately for various reasons. For example, universities were closed and staff were working from home. But now that we are coming out of it, there will be increased funding for higher education.

What should UGC do to help achieve the Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) target (50% by 2030) mentioned in the NEP?

When we talk about TBS, we have to make sure that the dropout rate in existing higher education institutions is stopped. To make this possible, students must feel motivated to attend classes and teachers must play an important role in this. Universities will need to invest in more training workshops to empower our teachers… Technology can also increase the TBS by bringing education to the doorstep of students.

The government is working on setting up a Federal Authority for Higher Education (HECI). How does this affect your planning for UGC, which may soon be merged into a larger body?

All bodies like AICTE, UGC will be part of Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) but we cannot wait for HECI to happen. We need to start our substantive work now and implement reforms within our organization so that each time UGC merges with HECI, it helps to improve the functioning of this body.

Your tenure at JNU has witnessed unprecedented student protests. You now lead an even larger body that will oversee university education across the country. Is there anything you would like to change in your handling of protests and conflict resolution with the student community?

I believe in encouraging students to stand up and ask questions. I motivate students not just to be happy with the status quo, but to challenge it and make a change. I am glad that JNU students are active in ensuring that changes are made. That is why, over the past five years, we have been able to introduce many changes at the university.

I welcome criticism and all I ask is that all demonstrations and protests happen in a meaningful way and do not turn violent or illegal. For example, at JNU, we had reserved a huge piece of land – the Sabarmati field – just for demonstrations.

But at the height of the 2020 student protests against rising accommodation fees, you were criticized for excluding students.

In 2020, I was physically attacked by students, but thanks to the presence of mind of my driver, I was able to escape. The situation at that time was like that, and unfortunately, not all of us were familiar with technologies such as Zoom. Once people became familiar with these tools, we held several face-to-face meetings in online mode… these brought together almost 4,000 participants and meaningful conversations took place. For a dialogue to take place, both parties have to come forward and create this kind of ecosystem.

The EdTech sector has boomed during the pandemic, even though there have been malpractice claims. Do you think this sector should be regulated?

The ministry has already issued a note to all EdTech companies and they have voluntarily adopted a code of conduct. EdTech companies also have great potential for growth and provide the backbone technology to universities and institutes… If low-cost educational resources can be provided, it will be a boon for the education sector.

What do you think of the Karnataka hijab ban controversy? Should students be denied access to education because of the way they dress?

I don’t know the context of the incident that took place. However, if we look at my university (JNU), we don’t have such restrictions on what clothes they wear. I can only speak about my institution (JNU) and practices here.

What was the idea behind JNU not to impose a dress code on its students?

Well, today I’m wearing a coat because it’s cold, but tomorrow I might choose to wear a kurta if it’s hot. So I think clothing has more to do with weather conditions and comfort level. We have tailored the clothes to what best suits Delhi’s weather. We haven’t done anything new for clothing; it is a societal practice that continues and we have nothing to say about the clothing practices of our students.

Religious practices can also influence clothing. What was JNU’s position on this?

I think at our university we have never considered this question at all. Students wear what they want to wear, which is civilian in nature… For me, I was very flexible with the clothes my students had in my classes at IIT.

As president of the UGC, will you look into this controversy? In the past, when some colleges have imposed dress codes on women citing safety as the reason, the UGC has spoken out against it.

I am not aware of such rules issued by UGC. I will first look at the rules and then see.

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