In my other life, I am an assistant professor of political science at a college in Delhi University. This year, however, I have a welcome a break: I’m on a post-doctoral fellowship at a research institution. For the first time in over a decade as an academic, I have an office, a desktop PC and more-or-less functional internet.

Last week, taking full advantage of these luxuries, I sent out a silly group message to my friends on a social media site in the middle of the day from my office computer. Within minutes, I received a reply from one of the recipients – a friend who works in a regular office. By regular I mean she has a desk, a computer and internet to herself for the duration of her time in office. “Ah you’re at work, explains the quick response!” I wrote to her on group chat. We both knew it would be hours before we received a response from the other recipients of my message – all lecturers at Delhi University.

They were also at work, but work for them involved back-to-back lectures packed with too many students and too little time. On a good day, they will manage to pack in a few minutes of rest between lectures in the staff room and the harried canteen boy would have served tea quick enough for them to make it to the next class without burning their tongues.

As for work stations or offices, forget it. With no demarcated physical space they can call their own, they engage in mortal combat with colleagues for precious locker space. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy don’t even dare stake a claim – they are “ad hocs” and their fate is to be washed away like rain in the monsoon semester or to crack like ice in the winter semester. They carry their registers and books around on their person, losing body fat and building rare muscle-groups in preparation for the lean months of unemployment ahead.

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Libraries are noisy, under-stocked places with outdated computers, patchy internet at best and a hundred students taking a chance to gossip in the air-cooled space because the canteen and common room are full. The university provides wifi, but you would be lucky if it was working, and if it was, if you found a quiet corner to work, or even check Facebook.

Increasingly, time between classes (if any) is taken up by endless meetings and admin work, or teachers find themselves on extra-curricular duty, sitting in college auditoria or dusty lawns until dusk, watching rehearsals or trials of numerous student societies for the nth time. As they move from lecture to lecture, clocking 18 hours of class time a week – a one of the highest in the world (in India we teach more direct hours than counterparts not only in the US, Europe and Australia, but in Latin America and Africa), they carry laughable relics of the past – bulky attendance registers that would put a munshi to shame. At the start of each semester, they hand-copy students’ names into the register, carefully making partitions for the up to four different courses they may find themselves teaching, depending on the state of divine grace that year. In any case, it’s never less than what is respectfully called a 2-2 load in the US – two courses each semester.

In the past few years, roll call has begun to take up to a quarter of class time as intake of students has swelled to accommodate the Other Backward Classes reservations policy. Many of us support reservations in a country where quality higher education is out of reach for a staggering majority of school graduates. But the joke is clearly on us, since higher student intake has not been matched by a greater recruitment of faculty. So classes have bloated to unmanageable proportions and quality has inevitably dropped. Some of us drily remark privately that it’s a relief that 15 minutes are spent on roll call, since we can only stand shouting over the general din of 75 students stuffed into a classroom meant for 40 for the remaining 45 minutes. I have often had to step over students squatting on the floor to get to my desk, and if the class was near the (air-conditioned) staff room, I would run out to it, take deep gulps of cold air and run back to my sauna chamber of a classroom.

A joke gone sour

It’s all very funny. Indeed, until a few years ago, hopelessly in love with our work, my colleagues and I would eat our lunch communally and guffaw about these events. There was a sense of pride in overcoming daily challenges and being in this together, since ultimately, the classroom was our space, and nobody could take that away from us. Unlike other professions, we didn’t have bosses breathing down our necks. Inside the sovereign kingdom of our classroom, we had what most human beings value most – freedom and creativity. If we did our jobs well, that sense of freedom and discovery would infect students and be multiplied several times over, leading to miraculous long-term results.

Over the years however, with the barrage of ill-thought-out systemic changes to higher education in India, the laughter has dried up. Admittedly, there is a section of teachers – usually associate professors close to retirement – who are both less affected by the new changes, having already reached the limit of their promotions and pay, and too tired or jaded to complain. But for all others and most of all for the floating population of ad hocs, each day is chaotic, exhausting and often humiliating. There is a sense that the wider world has stopped caring what we do and how we do it, and the respect that was traditionally shown to teachers has whittled down to barely concealed contempt.

We are under-paid compared to our private-sector counterparts with comparable levels of training and higher education. Students, with the merciless acuity of the young, are quick to pick up on these internal and external hierarchies. A few years ago, one came to me after a class and enquired with genuine curiosity and concern, “You are quite bright, why don’t you think of joining the IAS?” I should have known then that that tactless if heartfelt comment was the beginning of the slide.

Killing originality

It’s obscene that in these hierarchies, bureaucrats and politicians who are there because at best, they passed a highly competitive but seriously skewed national examination, are clearly above us. They depend on good teachers to get where they are, and suddenly develop notions like the disastrous new ordinance released by the University Grants Commission. One of the central pillars of this new ordinance is increase in direct teaching hours from 18 a week to 24, thus obliterating in one fell swoop the cautious gains of previous regulations (which had given a relief of four hours for associate professors and two hours for assistant professors); and more alarmingly, putting thousands of ad hoc teachers out of work.

When the teachers bodies protested initially, the Human Resource Development ministry and UGC put out dissembling, misleading clarifications and modifications that included a friendly suggestion that we drop the research component of the points system for promotion. No let-up in teaching hours, no increase in facilities, draconian requirements for appointment and promotion in a crumbling system including publishing only in UGC-approved journals (oh the farce!), but let’s jettison the most creative and intellectually satisfying part of an academic’s life. No original thinking please, we’re Indian.

One can venture hundreds of explanations about the callousness with which education policy is decided in India but I have a sneaking suspicion that at the bottom of it all is pure spite. One of Karl Marx’s most prescient and profound observations was that capitalism would not rest easy until the managers had become as miserable as the workers. It explains why those outside teaching – including bureaucrats – begrudge us our job satisfaction. Until recently, it was one of the few white-collar professions that was not drudgerous and exploitative, save for the pay. The managers of education are determined to make us as miserable as themselves and as the scores of blue-collar workers in the country. The odd, selective pay increase they wave in our faces every few years is just lipstick on a pig.