In an interview with The Sunday Express, Kumar refused to specifically remark on the escalating controversy over hijab ban at pre-university colleges in Karnataka but said that there were never any restrictions on students’ clothing while he was heading JNU.
The UGC chairman also said he welcomes criticism from the students and that any protests should be peaceful to ensure they remain “meaningful”. His priority, he said, was to implement the National Education Policy” and that he would see the higher education regulator talk more frequently to the stakeholders and vice-chancellors, listen to their concerns and challenges and provide solutions to them. Excerpts:
Take us through your top priority as the UGC Chairman.
My first priority is going to be the speedy implementation of the new NEP (National Education Policy). I am going to sit together with the officers of UGC and also the officials of Ministry of Education (MoE) and work out a plan that can be implemented. This has to be done by taking feedback from the stakeholders by sitting across the table and understanding the challenges that our educational institutions are facing and try to figure out solutions collectively.
What is your take on the government’s Budget announcement of setting up a new Digital University?
The current university system has fixed semester system and fixed curriculum; students have to attend physical lessons and get a degree. But now students want more flexibility, both in terms of curriculum and when they want to study or work. I believe that a digital university can offer that flexibility and bring education to students’ doorstep.
As part of the digital university initiative, we can make use of the excellence offered by top institutes of India such as the IITs, NITs and JNU. Some of these universities can be the spoke, and the digital university will be the hub. We can even collaborate with universities across the world.
But can a digital university work for science programmes?
There are some disciplines which cannot be offered in online mode because you require hands-on and lab experience. But there are many areas such as financial management and data science, which are in huge demand. IIT Madras is already giving degrees in data science-related areas that is completely online.
… Once VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technologies come into the picture, we may have a situation where I (a student) simply wear an instrument on my head and I can enter a virtual lab, take beakers, mix acids and see what is happening — just like a real life.
As the Vice-Chancellor of a central university what is that one problem you identified in UGC that you would now like to fix as its chairman?
UGC as an organisation has to work to address the interests and concerns of the stakeholders. We need to provide efficient services to all the stakeholders — universities, teachers and students.
For this, two things need to happen. First, within UGC itself, we need to have processes that are more e-office driven. Second, I would like to see UGC talk more frequently to the stakeholders, listen to their concerns and provide solutions.
This is the second year of NEP implementation, but there has not been been any significant increase in the education budget. How will a body like UGC achieve the NEP goals?
We definitely need good funding in the education sector. One good thing that has come from the Budget is an increase of 11.8 per cent in allocation for higher education. We will soon have the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) in place, which will work closely with the industry and various ministries to fund research. The proposed National Research Foundation will also address research funding. In the future, there will be a more integrated approach (to funding) instead of different agencies funding separate projects. We will also priorities our needs better and utilise funds more efficiently.
But what about investing significantly more in education as advocated by the NEP?
In the last two years, due to the Covid-19 situation, even though funds were given to the universities, not everything was utilised adequately because of various reasons. For instance, universities were closed and staff was 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 Ratio (GER) goal (50% by 2030) mentioned in the NEP?
When we talk about GER, we need to make sure that the dropout rate in the existing higher education institutions is arrested. To make this possible, students should feel motivated to attend classes and teachers have to play a significant role in that. Universities will have to invest in more training workshops to empower our teachers… Technology can also increase GER by brinhing education to students’ doorstep.
The government is working on setting up an overarching body for higher education (HECI). How does this affect your planning for UGC, which may soon be merged with a larger body?
All bodies such as AICTE, UGC will be part of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), but we cannot wait till HECI happens. We need to start our groundwork right now and implement reforms within our organization, so that whenever UGC is merged with HECI it will help improve the functioning of that body.
Your term at JNU witnessed unprecedented student protests. You are now heading 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 resolving conflicts with the student community?
I believe that we must encourage the students to stand up and ask questions. I motivate students to not just be happy with status quo, but question it and bring a change. I am happy that JNU students are active in making sure that changes are brought. That is why in the past five years, we were able to introduce lots of changes in the university.
I welcome criticism and all I ask is that all demonstrations and protests should be done in a meaningful way, and should not become violent or unlawful. For example, in JNU we had reserved a huge ground — Sabarmati ground — just for protests.
But during the peak of the 2020 student protests over hostel fee hike, you were criticised for shutting students out.
In 2020, I was physically attacked by some students, but thanks to the presence of mind of my driver, I could get away. The situation at that time was like that, and unfortunately we all were not familiar with technologies such as Zoom. Once people became familiar with these tools, we held several face-to-face meetings in an online mode… these had nearly 4,000 participants and a meaningful conversations happened. For any dialogue to take place, both sides have to come forward and create that kind of an ecosystem.
The EdTech sector has witnessed a boom during the pandemic even as there have been complaints of malpractice. Do you think this sector needs to 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 to grow and provide the backend technology for universities and institutes… If low-cost educational resources can be provided, then it will be a boon for the education sector.
What do you think of hijab ban controversy in Karnataka? Should students be denied access to education based on their attire?
I do not know the background of the incident that took place. However, if we look at my university (JNU), we do not have any such restrictions on what clothes they wear. I can only talk about my institution (JNU) and the practices here.
What was the thinking behind JNU not imposing a dress code on its students?
Well, today I am wearing a coat because it is cold, but tomorrow I may choose to wear a kurta if it is hot. So, I think clothes have more to do with weather conditions and comfort level. We have adapted clothing to what is more suitable to Delhi’s weather. We have not done anything new to clothing; it is a societal practice that is going on and we have nothing to say about our students’ clothing practices.
Religious practices can also influence clothing. What was JNU’s stand on that?
I think in our university, we never looked at this issue at all. Students wear what they wish to wear, which are civil in nature… For me, I was very flexible towards the clothing that my students had in my classrooms at IIT.
Now the UGC chairman, will you look into this controversy? In the past when some higher education institutions had imposed dress code on women citing safety as the reason, the UGC had come out against it.
I am not aware of any such rules issued by UGC. I will first have to look at the rules and then see.