‘Surveillance’ of academics condemned globally

Academics from around the world contacted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association in New Delhi have criticised attendance-monitoring rules for the university’s faculty, which would also affect foreign and visiting professors to the institution.

According to teachers at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a prestigious publicly-funded postgraduate institution, faculty attendance monitoring would restrict academic freedom. Attempts to “establish a regime of surveillance” would eventually “lead to the total destruction of research”, they said.

The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) said the university administration’s aim to control, monitor and contain teachers and limit them to the university campus, would affect academic work that includes field visits and surveys. International exposure would suffer.

In what is being seen by JNU staff as “draconian and arbitrary” measures, the university administration at an academic council meeting on July 2018 made a decision to make it mandatory for teachers to mark their attendance every day. A circular was issued on 13 November by JNU Registrar Pramod Kumar to enforce the decision.

The moves follow the introduction of compulsory attendance rules for students in early 2018, which led to major student protests, supported by JNU teachers.

The issue could deter foreign teachers from joining Indian universities at a time when the government is keen to attract more faculty from overseas to improve teaching quality and promote internationalisation.

Academics note the university administration cannot grant exemptions to foreign faculty employed full time or on a regular basis, as rules at a particular institution must be uniform. Exemptions could prompt an outcry among local faculty, with Indian teachers claiming they are facing discrimination in their own country, academics said.

Punitive measures

Despite the backlash from JNU teachers, the administration has remained firm, saying attendance rules would improve academic accountability. Last month it brought in punitive measures to back the policy, such as refusing faculty leave to teachers who are either not marking their own attendance or not submitting attendance records of their students.

The JNU administration also linked the attendance of teachers to their salary disbursal, announcing the punitive measures on leave and salary cuts just days after a day-long hunger strike of university teachers on 2 December.

Leave has been denied to several teachers even for attending conferences and seminars abroad, according to JNUTA.

The administration has also suggested it could introduce a biometric system for registering daily attendance. All this has come on top of central government efforts last year to restrict the right to protest on campus or for teachers to go on strike, which were dropped after a pushback by JNU staff.

Survey of international academics

In September last year JNUTA also wrote to Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar calling for the removal of JNU Vice-Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar because of administrative decisions restricting staff, including the attendance issue.

But with the administration showing no signs of relenting, JNUTA conducted a survey of 75 universities and institutes of higher learning across 21 countries, seeking the opinion of foreign university colleagues on compulsory attendance.

The survey responses were from 32 institutions in Europe, 27 in the United States and Canada and 16 in other parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Sharing the findings of its survey report, released on 4 January, JNUTA Secretary Avinash Kumar said only one university out of 75 premier and highly ranked universities internationally, the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, had their faculty members sign a daily attendance register.

“Foreign academics have largely been critical of the move, with many suggesting the attendance rule is uncalled for and very likely to harm academic performance instead of improving it,” Kumar said.

According to JNUTA, foreign academics “expressed shock and outrage at the new attendance policy instituted by the JNU administration”, and noted it was “antithetical to the idea of a university”.

Jens Lerche, lecturer at SOAS, University of London, suggested that such a move could have an adverse impact on the quality of teaching and research and described the attendance policy as “a grave attack on academic freedom and an appalling and counterproductive move”.

Criticism by international academics

John Harriss, an international studies professor specialising in South Asia at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, suggested such monitoring could impede academic growth.

“Most academicians monitor themselves in relation to high professional standards. Absolutely no need to record attendance except for purpose of surveillance,” he said.

South Korean Ha-Joon Chang, an economist from the University of Cambridge, said that even under military dictatorship South Korean universities did not have such laws. “India’s certainly leapfrogging ahead of the technologically more advanced countries in building a surveillance society,” he was quoted in the report as saying.

Javed Majeed, professor of comparative literature at King’s College London, said marking attendance was unnecessary as teaching and research are done to a large extent in libraries and elsewhere, while Mukulika Banerjee, associate professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was quoted as saying it may mark the physical presence of faculty members but “doesn’t ensure high-quality teaching and esteem of the university”.

On the introduction of a biometric system to monitor attendance, the JNUTA report points to the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, where a biometric system is used because of rising campus violence and “not to limit academic freedom”.

Michelle Williams, an associate professor of sociology from the South African university, said in the report: “The justification for the [biometric] security upgrade was a rise in crime on campus despite our access control system. Many people criticised the installation of biometrics and argued that it could be used to monitor and control academics, but it has not been used for this purpose and we’ve been assured it will not be.”

JNU officials, however, said the JNUTA survey was conducted just to oppose the university administration.

A group of JNU teachers who are not opposed to the attendance rule accused JNUTA of spreading false information. "The JNU administration is only formalising the process of attendance as prescribed by the University Grants Commission as well as the JNU ordinance," said Atul Johri, a professor at the School of Life Sciences at JNU.