Last week, Jawaharlal Nehru University removed nine heads of department and chairpersons of schools from their administrative posts for opposing an attendance policy it introduced in January.

The policy made attendance marking compulsory, not only for all classroom teaching, but also for research scholars enrolled in the university’s MPhil and PhD programmes. There is no classroom teaching for researchers, and their meetings with their supervisors do not follow a fixed schedule either. But they are now required to sign in at their school or department every day.

Students launched protests immediately, and the department heads, agreeing with them that adults should be allowed to skip classes they do not find useful, refused to enforce the diktat, leading to their removal.

Barring the few undergraduate programmes run by the School of Languages, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University is entirely a post-graduate university.

Researchers and academics in some other universities and institutions disclosed that similar attendance policies have been written into their rule books as well, even in some of the most elite centres of scientific research. While Jawaharlal Nehru University’s students and teachers have been largely alone in openly resisting the attendance policy, some faculty members in other universities have tacitly agreed to not implement such policies strictly. However, the fact that such a policy exists makes them uneasy.

Researchers are not required to attend classes, they often use libraries and laboratories of institutions where they are not enrolled – and these may even be located in different cities – and many of them hold part-time or even full-time jobs. It is for this reason that members of many institutions have quietly refrained from strictly implementing compulsory attendance policies.

Researchers say that being compelled to mark attendance gets in the way of their work. A research scholar enrolled in Delhi University’s Department of Geography, for instance, is compelled to travel close to 40 km from Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, to the university’s North Campus, to sign the attendance register every day even though her supervisor is in Dyal Singh College and she uses the library at Jawaharlal Nehru University, both in South Delhi.

Similarly, scientists at a post-graduate research institute in Kolkata are concerned that their attendance rules, till now only on paper, could make things difficult for them – they collaborate on international projects, frequently work late at night and will find it difficult to swipe in at 10 am as the rule stipulates.

A PhD student of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University is opposing the new attendance regulations because they could mean his losing his job as an ad hoc teacher at a South Delhi college. “If I have to show my face at the Centre [for Economic Studies and Planning] every day, I will not be able to keep my job,” he said.

Most researchers, ad hoc teachers and especially scientists at the Kolkata institute, were reluctant to have their names published, each fearing retributive action from their institutions.

“In academia, what should be tested is what I have delivered – the knowledge I have disseminated and the knowledge I have created,” explained Sudhir Raniwala, professor of physics at Rajasthan University. “It would be much better if researchers and teachers are evaluated by what they deliver rather than by counting their hours in the University premises.”

Rajasthan University requires academic staff to spend a minimum of 30 hours at the department in a week even though scholars like Raniwala spend hours in the evening or at night on research collaborations with scholars from other countries. The university implemented biometric attendance – teachers scan their thumbs – about three years ago.

Useless policy

At best, a compulsory attendance policy is a demeaning but useless imposition. “I used to be in the laboratory all day before the attendance rule and I spend all day here now,” said Samir Sahoo, a second-year PhD student in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s physics department. But now the 26-year-old must sign in and out. Even for those who run computer programmes or experiments all night, there is no option but to sign in between 9 am and 10 am, he said.

Despite being opposed to the policy, some faculty members at Jawaharlal Nehru University have implemented an attendance marking system because most students are on scholarships and a set of guidelines issued by the varsity on February 8 require all scholarship and fellowship holders to “meet the prescribed minimum attendance” to continue receiving financial assistance.

The lack of trust in scholars that a compulsory attendance policy implies rankles. Sahoo called it “a formality” and explained that science researchers would already spend hours, often entire nights, in laboratories anyway. Like Sahoo, second-year MSc student, Nitish Kumar, 24, was at the physics department to attend an early-morning class on Thursday despite leaving the laboratory at 2 am the previous night. He had been passing electricity through a copper nitrate solution to produce a “fractal cluster” and photographing its development over five to six hours. He said he “never missed” a class even before the attendance rule.

“People attend classes because they are getting something from the instructors,” said a professor of physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is echoed by Raniwala at Rajasthan University and K Laxminarayana, economics teacher at Hyderabad Central University, which does not have an attendance policy for researchers.

Students and faculty members also point out that there are other ways to ensure that research is progressing. For students on financial aid, scholarship claims are cleared on the basis of certification by the supervisor. Hyderabad Central University has doctoral review committees that “assess the work of the students” every semester, said PhD scholar, Suman Damera. “Social science students work in their own rooms or in libraries,” he added. “Going to the department every day will not help them finish their work.”

Speaking of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the physics professor continued: “The problem of attendance arises due to the gap between the fees and the cost of education. The administration’s view is, if they pay so little, how dare they not attend.” He added that the research scholars the administration is “infantalising” are in their mid-to-late 20s. Some are married and most are responsible for their families. Earlier, researchers who had completed their laboratory work had the option of writing their thesis at home. A strict attendance policy means even they have to visit the university daily.

Nitish Kumar and Samir Sahoo in their laboratory at the School of Physical Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Hampering research

Much of the problems caused by attendance policies – when not quietly undermined – arise because university administrations do not seem to comprehend the different ways in which information is gathered and researchers collaborate.

Laxminarayana pointed out that social researchers access the libraries at Osmania University, the American Studies Research Centre or the Centre for Economic and Social Studies – all in Hyderabad – for their work. Each library is known for being particularly well-stocked with material on specific fields. For instance, the American Studies Research Centre is especially useful for students of internal relations.

Similarly, students of life sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University go to Mumbai to use the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometers at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, said a teacher. One physics student is in Italy for a month and a group from the varsity’s School of Computational and Integrative Sciences has been in Germany for the entire semester on an exchange programme, said students. Now there is added paperwork for each of these steps.

Sahoo collaborated with researchers in Delhi University. Earlier he could set out from Mahi hostel in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and head for North Campus. Now he has to stop by the School of Physical Sciences first to sign in for the day. This may be a short detour for him, but for the PhD scholar in Delhi University’s geography department, compulsory attendance marking has meant four extra hours on the metro. “It is not reasonable,” she complained. “I am studying settlement dynamics along the National Highway 8 and they [North Campus libraries] do not even have sufficient material on my topic. Yet, I have to go and sign every day.” She takes the metro from Gurgaon to North Campus, a journey of about two hours one way. “I get very little time for doing my work,” she said. But already in her fifth year, she is about to submit her thesis and exit the programme.

The stakes are higher for the economics researcher in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The implementation of attendance regulations will require him to choose between quitting his ad hoc teaching position at the college or abandoning his research altogether. “I will have to leave,” he said. “I come from a lower-middle-class family. My parents are not working and my bother is still a student so I need my job.” All five weekdays he is required to be in college, where he has responsibilities other than just teaching. “Whole night I study – I issue books from libraries and have remote access to digital library as well – sleep for a few hours in the morning and then go to work,” he said. “Half the researchers in my department are working – they teach, take part in research projects or tutor students privately.”

Sudhir Raniwala at Rajasthan University is collaborating with researchers in Geneva and said that he “attends meetings on Geneva time sitting at home”. The university still requires him to spend 30 hours at the department whether he has classes there or not. “Should I stop thinking after the five or seven hours are up?” he asked. “In the same way, a researcher needs to be evaluated by his work and not by how many times he has shown his face to me.”