This academic session, at least half a dozen students have quit Nalanda University in Bihar, abandoning their studies midway. The main reason, students alleged, was that over the past few months, and especially since Sunaina Singh joined as the vice chancellor in March, the university has “changed drastically”.
For one, several teachers have left. As a result, many specialised courses advertised by the university that students hoped to study within the disciplines offered by the School of Historical Studies and the School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions are no longer available. Consequently, many students have had to abandon their original research plans and take up new ones. Nalanda has even reneged on the promise of running research-only master’s programmes. It has also reintroduced examinations from this year.
In addition to curriculum changes, students alleged, the university has begun gender segregation in hostels and generally become unsupportive to students, many of whom find Rajgir, where the campus is situated, a difficult place to stay. In August, students were allegedly made to sign a handbook saying they cannot participate in any protest.
Scroll.in sent a series of questions about the students’ allegations to the vice chancellor but she did not respond. Instead, Biswachintamani Ambika Prasad Pani from the Office of Academic Affairs issued a statement saying the university “strongly refutes the misleading information”. The statement adds, “The university administration works in the best interest of the students and there will be always a handful of students who would not like to see any good change.”
Rashmi Shetty and a classmate quit the university in early September, at the start of their second year of Buddhist Studies at Nalanda. About 40 students had enrolled in the two courses of History and Buddhist Studies in 2016. “Ours was the first batch,” she said.
Explaining her decision to quit, Shetty said: “We were short of teachers. At the time of admission we interacted with Max Deeg [from Cardiff University] and were told he would be the dean. He took a few classes but never joined full-time and left. Three new faculty members we were promised at the time of admission never joined and even an acting dean disappeared after a few weeks.”
Nalanda was established in collaboration with over a dozen East Asian nations and, when the first academic session started in September 2014, the university had a large number of foreigners on the faculty.
But the new administration under Singh, Shetty alleged, is suspicious of foreigner teachers. “They say things like foreigners cannot teach Indian philosophy as well as Indians can and that there should be more Vedanta in the programme,” she said. “Teachers’ contracts were not renewed or their service was not confirmed, and they left.”
Buddhist Studies started out with six teachers and now has four, Shetty said. The Historical Studies faculty, another student said, is down to four from eight.
About this, the university’s statement says: “Faculty hired for short duration left after their term came to an end. The courses in the School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions are offered in alignment with the mandate of the School.”
But here is the catch: unlike other central universities where syllabuses are fixed, course material at Nalanda depended largely on the students’ research interests and the specialisations of faculty members. Teachers’ leaving meant those areas of study shut down. The affected students scrambled to find new guides, altered their research objectives to fit into what the remaining faculty could supervise, or just left.
“Six-seven second-year students have left this year,” said a student who asked not to be named. There were about 40 students in Historical Studies and Buddhist Studies put together last year. The batch that joined this year is smaller.
Shetty’s own research plan “was designed to be completed under the guidance of Patricia Sauthoff”, the American scholar whose contract was not renewed after June this year. Sauthoff’s offering courses on yoga and politics had irked the Bharatiya Janta Party’s general secretary Ram Madhav. “After Sauthoff left, no one could guide my research,” said Shetty.
A history student said several of her classmates faced the same problem. “A classmate’s teacher left and she is now working with another guide even though his specialisation and her interests do not match,” she said. “The teachers still here are worried about us too.”
The student also complained that the introduction of exams was announced suddenly in August. “Even the teachers came back clueless about this,” she said.
Shetty expressed concern about the dean of the School of Ecology and Environment Sciences serving as the acting dean of Buddhist Studies. But the university’s statement says: “Dean is an administrative position and deans do officiate till a regular dean is appointed. As there was no professor in the School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions since past two years and even now, the senior most Dean from another School officiates.”
For many students, Shetty explained, Nalanda had been a “risky choice”. She herself had completed a Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University and chose to study Buddhist Studies at Nalanda over job offers.
“Everyone is too tired and scared to fight now,” said the history student. “My parents are telling me to just keep my head down, finish and get out.”
Foreign students are affected worse, Shetty said. “There are students from Brazil, Sri Lanka, Peru and Japan at Nalanda who cannot simply leave,” she added. “People have left their jobs to study here.”
Still, a student from Romania did leave after “having her money stolen and being dragged by the neck on campus”.
Students have been demanding investigation into cases like the assault on the Romanian student as well as more visits by doctors and psychiatrists, speedier recruitment and clearing of scholarships, and better communication.
‘Like a prison’
Instead, the university has apparently taken steps to make it more difficult for students to act collectively following protests against a sexual harassment case in March.
It has banned male and female students from going to each other’s hostels. “Rajgir is a really small place so there is no place to just hang out at,” said Shetty. “Earlier we would gather in one of the four hostels that are spread over about 1.5 km in the town. From this semester, because of the ban on visits, we have large numbers of students just walking around on the roads which is not safe.”
Further, students returning to the university for the new session had to sign the “students’ handbook” that carried a new clause: they were not allowed to protest. Last year, there was a shuttle service to ferry students them from hostels, to even Patna on weekends. “That service was closed,” said a student. “It is so difficult to go anywhere. I had no problem with Rajgir when I first came even though it is very isolated – it was quiet, serene, beautiful. Now Rajgir feels like a prison and Nalanda is a closed place.”
Responding to this, the university’s statement says: “Rules and regulations are part of ensuring quality in education apart from providing security to students. The university is in the process of preparing an academic structure, pedagogy, evaluation pattern. All these are essential in bringing quality framework into the university.”