Saturday, January 1, 2011

European Studies Programme: History and Responses

Malay Firoz

(Note: This article was published in the november issue of CRITIQUE - the monthly of NSI Delhi University chapter)

A recent controversy raging on campus has been the European Studies Programme (ESP) introduced at the Department of Sociology (DoS), Delhi School of Economics (DSE). Protests broke out at its inaugural meeting on 29 January this year when the Programme was officially announced to Delhi University (DU). With no information on the Programme till then, students were asked to give in research proposals for fieldwork trips in June. Any questions students had were being clarified as personal queries addressed to individual teachers. The Programme was shrouded in mystery. 
Meanwhile, simmering differences about the Programme surfaced within and outside of the DoS through emails and press statements (see The Telegraph, 21.09.09). Those critical of the Programme claimed it had been drafted in violation of all democratic protocols and that the interference of foreign capital in Indian education was part of a larger neo-liberal enterprise. With just a few days to go for the inauguration, a group of seven professors at DoS brought out a pamphlet articulating their concerns about ESP. A protest was organised against the Programme on the day of the inauguration. A day before, however, the ceremony was slyly shifted to the Vice-Regal Lodge, to avoid possible disruption by the protestors. On the following day, protestors were allowed to make a short statement during the meeting. A decision was taken to call a public meeting on ESP. 

The meeting, seen as a platform for public awareness and discussion, took place on 2 February 2010 and was attended by students and teachers from various departments as well as numerous members of the Academic Council. Everyone spoke, expressing outrage against the Programme on different counts or else defending it with clarifications and assurances. The 3 hours discussion ended with no concrete resolution, which was perhaps never on the agenda. 
ESP is basically a programme for research and pedagogic collaboration between the DoS and numerous partner universities in Europe, funded jointly by DU and the European Union (EU). Some of the proposed aims of the Programme according to the ESP brochure include: a) tempering of the Anglo-American emphasis by studying areas within Europe that have their own distinctive and valuable linguistic and academic traditions, b) greater familiarity with contemporary sociology in Europe that will enrich the academic programme of associated institutions, c) a more equitable research field for the production and dissemination of knowledge in the social sciences and d) Indian scholars will bring distinctive perspectives to European Social Sciences. 

The Programme officially began in January 2010 and will supposedly wind up by December 2011. The activities proposed for this period include short fieldwork trips to Europe by faculty and students for micro-research projects and classroom interaction, visits by European faculties for pedagogic programmes at DoS and the Social Sciences Faculty to pursue interdisciplinary studies 

The objections to this Programme can be broadly classified into two categories: the first pertains to anxieties about what the Programme entails in the future, and the second, to problems that have already occurred in the process of its introduction in the past. The first category has been largely dismissed by the proponents of the Programme as speculative in nature. 

For example, there is an anxiety that collaboration under ESP for what the EU calls “technical assistance for capacity building” is a self-demeaning gesture that seems to imply an admission of intellectual incompetence by DoS. One response to this argument has been that ‘dignity’ is a matter of opinion, and given that the Programme will be primarily run by DoS according to its own interests, there is no reason to suspect any kind of humiliation. There is another anxiety that the Programme will involve changes in syllabi modules that will give undue emphasis on European thought and concerns. Here it has been argued that the current syllabus at DoS is already predominantly Eurocentric in its focus, and a research programme that gives Indian sociologists the forum to re-constitute Europe might in fact address this problem rather than perpetuate it. However, there are concerns about the limited range of research questions being addressed by the Programme. According to the guidelines for grant applicants, “the scope of the Study Centres (in India) is delimited to focus exclusively on recent times (from the 20th century and onward), current state of affairs and expected developments in the EU”. There is little scope in this for exploring the imperial history of European nations, and small ground for autonomous and critical appraisal of European intellectual traditions. Further, this might come at the expense of alternative programmes on South America and Africa, but then again, there aren’t any proposals for sponsorship of collaborative work with those areas. 

These anxieties are certainly based on solid ground, given the relationship between the EU’s “technical assistance” sponsorship investments and its Foreign Policy strategies, as well as the typical asymmetry of power relationships between donors and receivers in academic projects. However, because they take the form of speculative rather than factual objections, they have been disguised as matters of opinion and paranoia and dismissed as such. It is for this reason that many found it easy to reduce the whole controversy to a clash between immovable egos that refused to dialogue properly with one another. 

However, the incongruity between the stated aspirations of the Programme and the terms specified in the contract with the EU, as well as the protocol violations involved in the introduction of the ESP pertain to questions of factual inconsistencies, and cannot be laughed away as the product of personal idiosyncrasies or ideological presuppositions. It is testimony to the powerful relevance of these questions that they were carefully and consistently avoided in total refutation of accountability. 

The violation of democratic protocols begins, first of all, at the level of the department. The application was prepared by a very small number of faculty members, approval given was only provisional following a meeting in April and no formal consensus had been reached, reservations about the Programme were not incorporated in the subsequent drafting of the contract, thereafter no other faculty member was consulted regarding the Programme and no meeting on the subject was convened. While the application was submitted in July, the contents were not made available to the rest of the faculty till August 28, despite meetings held in the intervening period. This was done only after the HoD had already given assurances of agreement to the EU. 

The same violation of democratic protocols took place at the level of the University as well. This Programme is going to cost 570,000 Euros (approx. 3.6 crore), of which the EU will pay 300,000 Euros (1.9 crore), roughly 52% of the total cost. The rest of the 48% has to be financed by DU. There are fixed University statutes for dealing with collaborative projects that require resolutions to be passed within the Academic and Executive Councils of the University. However both these bodies were bypassed, and the proposal was passed through direct backdoor negotiations between DoS and the DU Vice-Chancellor. In such an environment, where the very VC of the University is willing to break rules (like the case of the semester system), such departments become equally complicit. 

Moreover, to get around University regulations, the title of the project was changed from European Studies Centre to European Studies Centre Programme, because ‘centres’ of advanced studies fall under specific operational protocols in the University that ‘programmes’ do not. By framing the project as a ‘group faculty programme’ it was rephrased as an engagement involving only certain faculty members, which is clearly not in keeping with the terms of the contract, while the contract in reality concerns the whole department. There is a clause which states that one of the major activities of ESP will be the “framing new syllabi and redesigning existing syllabi for the M.A. and M.Phil. programmes”. These courses demand commitment from other faculty members and should require their prior consent. Similarly, the contract specifies the number of hours that professors will be required to devote to the project per week for which they will be financially remunerated. Thirdly, there are proposals for “routinising” the Programme and developing “permanent relationships” between partner institutions beyond the stipulated period of two years, which raises legitimate concerns about the long-term implications of the Programme. Finally, there is also a contractual obligation stipulating a seven years confidentiality agreement pertaining to numerous matters, including finance, which makes this whole project all the more suspicious. Until one knows the details of what requires confidentiality and why, it is reasonable to expect that people will be distrustful. 

While most of these concerns have gone unaddressed, a casual defence for the contract was offered, suggesting that negotiations for funds typically involve a certain degree of “wheeling-dealing” wherein funders need to be given assurances to keep them happy, while terminological ambiguities are left intact in the contract through which receivers may exercise autonomy. While such a cynical argument sounds realistic and practical, the slew of violations mentioned above raises questions of whom the proponents of the Programme are really ‘wheeling’ and ‘dealing’ with. 
In conclusion, it is important to note that this entire quagmire has larger implications for the functioning of public institutions of higher learning in this country. Many were grateful to the students who had made that meeting possible and saw the occasion as a brilliant example of democratic dialogue. But this is false self-congratulation because the context of the meeting, held only after teachers and students constantly pressured DoS to engage with their concerns openly, itself indicates a breakdown of democracy in this university. Moreover, there has also been a refusal to seriously consider the objections being raised, let alone commit to addressing them in a sustained manner. The Programme has already been pushed through. The message between the lines is that the implementation of ESP is inevitable, since it is too late to recommend amendments to the contract that would properly reflect the concerns raised. Instead, what is offered is a ‘sweet’ apology, as if the whole thing was just an unfortunate happenstance that everyone equally regrets, mixed with a casual assurance to participating students that they’ll get to go to Europe after all. This is nothing less than a mockery of the protestors and their concerns. 

ESP is yet another instance of the erosion of democratic regulations in University where the very idea of dissent begins to seem like a pathological aberration that must be restricted to minimal debate, and silenced. The mere exposure and discussion of wrongdoing is not enough to stop it. That is why, long before we address larger ideological haggles over the privatisation of education, we need to address what Veena Naregal calls the “procedural privatisations” taking place within our own institutions.
Malay Firoz is a Research Student at the Department of sociology, Delhi University


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