Empowering students to speak the truth, says Jamia Vice-Chancellor Najma Akhtar

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Published: June 22, 2020 3:10 AM

Ranking parameters give us some direction where all to improve; we are working towards excellence and one of the ways it is getting reflected is good rankings.

Najma Akhtar, vice-chancellor, Jamia Millia IslamiaNajma Akhtar, vice-chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia

The MHRD’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranks universities and colleges based on five parameters—teaching, research, graduation outcomes, outreach and perception. This year, Jamia Millia Islamia was ranked tenth. If it wasn’t for a poor score in ‘perception’, the university could have fared better—in fact, in ‘teaching’, ‘graduation outcomes’ and ‘outreach’, it was in the top-five. Najma Akhtar, vice-chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia—and the first woman to hold the post—says that the university is working towards excellence and one of the ways it is getting reflected is good rankings. In an interview with FE’s Vikram Chaudhary, she adds that be it a JNU or a Jamia, if students perceive that something is wrong, they go out and speak up. Excerpts:

Jamia Millia Islamia not only broke into the top-10 in NIRF rankings, but also improved its position in the global THE and QS rankings. Was it due to a conscious effort?

Our focus is to keep working towards overall improvement, and that has now started reflecting. Ranking parameters give us some direction where all to improve; we are working towards excellence and one of the ways it is getting reflected is good rankings.

What is your plan for restarting physical classrooms?

Unless it’s proven safe, I don’t think we will be opening physical classrooms. Online education delivery is anyway going on.
When the lockdown started, we realised we were not fully prepared (in teaching online); I believe that was the case across all universities in India. So the first thing I did was organising training for the faculty on how to teach online. I think we were the first university in the country to train its own faculty members on online teaching; it’s a free training and we have now opened it for faculty from other universities as well.

How many placements/job offers have been impacted due to Covid-19?

Industry is being invited on webinars and interviews are happening online, but I have told my students that this year placements are going to be very tough (aapko bahut mehnat karni padegi placements ke liye, jobs ke liye). We don’t have the exact number of students who have lost job offers, because not all students have told us the same, but we have been telling the employees to continue with placement activities. I have an apprehension that the salaries on offer this year may not be as good (as they would have been in normal economy times).

What sort of research is happening at Jamia Millia Islamia on Covid-19 or pandemics in general?

We were told (by the minister) that he will support research. Social sciences research is going on—we have five adopted villages and are finding out how they are coping up with the pandemic—but engineering and medical research requires money; you need well-equipped labs. We have sent the minister some 25 proposals and are waiting for funding; even though we haven’t received it, we have asked our researchers to start.

Were any students locked up inside the campus?

There were about 600 students who were inside the campus when the lockdown started. Around Eid when road and train travel was opened, we send them to their homes; we could not place them in normal public buses, so we tested them, and when all were found coronavirus-negative, we hired buses and sent them home. They were from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Kashmir. Right now we don’t have any student living on the campus, but for 100-odd students who are preparing for UPSC civil services and who have cleared the preliminary exam.

Does the university have a role in educating the larger public on matters that are pertinent to shaping a more egalitarian, more tolerant society?

This university is located inside an area that is not so economically well-off. It was started with an intention of nation-building and working for the community; Mahatma Gandhi was very active here. A lot of our activities happen with the community; our students keep travelling to adopted villages, they stay there, and work for the community. We are focusing a lot on girl child education. While we are not IGNOU, we have one of the biggest distance education outreach.

What role do educators and university administration have in inculcating a sense of ‘speaking truth to power’ amongst students?

We obviously don’t have a separate department that empowers students to speak the truth. I think our teaching in general empowers them. Be it a JNU or a Jamia, if students perceive that something is wrong, they go out and speak up. The dharna-kind of protest is new to Jamia, but nothing has ever happened inside the campus. Protests happen at every university—for backward castes, for fees, etc.

How is Jamia Millia Islamia celebrating 100 years of existence?

Universities get funding so that they can celebrate or create some infrastructure celebrating the event. The money is usually Rs 100 crore. We asked for a lesser amount earlier this year, but still haven’t received it. I know these are tough times and the number of universities has also increased so the funding has obviously reduced. I feel we should not be dependent on the government alone; we have to find other ways of earning money, like teachers doing consultancy, support from alumni, sharing our physical infrastructure, and so on. We are celebrating the centenary by holding webinars and other online activities.

Postscript: Najma Akhtar tells me that this is the first time a government-funded minority university has entered the top-10 in any major rankings. It’s not an elite institution, its students don’t come from an elite background, and yet if it has been able to get into top-10, it speaks volumes about educational improvement happening at Jamia Millia Islamia.

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