In an email on October 10, 2016, the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai were informed that the manual process of taking attendance in classes is going to be replaced by biometric recording. The email states that the process of mounting the wall devices in the classrooms has already begun. Fingerprint enrolment will also be started shortly.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences already has a very strict attendance policy. It is a must to have 75% attendance in order to be allowed to sit for the examinations. Even with medical conditions, the absenteeism cannot go beyond 33%. People with extreme medical conditions also are not exempted. In case they do not have 67% attendance, they are barred from appearing in the exams and have to give supplementary examinations, which is mentioned in their final mark sheets. As a result of having to give supplementary exams, students are barred from applying for any foreign exchange programs, or even scholarships that are given by the institutions. With the outbreak of dengue and chicken pox in the campus last year, many students from financially weaker backgrounds, had to suffer the consequences of this draconian attendance rule, as they failed to fulfil the attendance requirements and were therefore barred from applying for exchange programs and scholarships. In many universities like University of Delhi, the students in post graduate courses are not as strictly bound by attendance rules. The minimum requirements to appear in examinations is 66% and if under medical condition a student is not able to attend 66% of the total classes held, they are allowed to appear in the examinations provided they have submitted required medical certificates and prescriptions. If during the examinations students cannot appear for particular paper(s), they are allowed to appear in the next year and there is no alteration made in their final mark sheet nor are they barred from applying for scholarships and exchange programs.
What is perhaps most shocking is the fact that no discussion with the student community took place about whether or not this method should be implemented. This step, in the light of recent incidents in campuses across the country, comes across as extremely suspicious. According to an MPhil Research Scholar who did not wish to be named, “In the recent past there has been a sudden and very noticeable increase in the number of security guards on TISS campus and with that has increased the incidents of moral policing and encroachment of students’ privacy. There have been demands made to make the campus safe and inclusive, and take on sensitisation programs and other measures, but the authority always gives the excuse of fund cuts. Why are funds being used in taking unnecessary steps like this, and not in implementing real necessary measures? There is shortage of scholarships for marginalised students. Can the authority please focus on that instead?”
An MA student, on the condition of anonymity said “The concept of mandatory attendance seems very flawed to me. There is practically no relation of learning with how frequently a person attends classes. If there is huge lack of attendance in any particular class, I think there is a need to introspect the course curriculum and teaching method of that course. Making attendance compulsory is not doing any good. No one learns anything from being forced to sit through an uninteresting lecture.”
The following message was posted in a Facebook group also, “We, as students of TISS, must come together and fight these attempts of the administration to sabotage and control activities and movements of students. This should be seen as part of larger scheme to promote privatisation and Brahminisation of higher education institutions. We must claim our democratic right to educate, agitate and organize and be part of the larger struggles for creating a more egalitarian and just society.” There has been an increase in the attempts to depoliticise the campus over the past year, where especially the students from marginalised communities are politically active. This attempt to tighten the attendance rules by introducing biometric recording seems more like a veiled threat to the students to focus more on classroom education and less on discussions, debates, interactions and other ventures outside classrooms that may be political in nature, or to suffer in the form of being barred from certain necessary opportunities like scholarships and exchange programs, thereby keeping the upper class, upper caste hegemony in academia intact.
When contacted, one of the elected student representatives said that a process of dialogue with the authority regarding this has been initiated. A five member committee has been set up, consisting of the Deputy Director (Academic), the Registrar, a senior professor, and two student representatives. This committee will review every decision regarding the biometric attendance recording, and no steps will be implemented without being approved by this committee. It has also been made clear by the university that the fingerprint data will be used just for attendance and will not be linked to anything else. They’re claiming that all the data will be deleted at the end of the final semester, the process of which shall be supervised by the said committee.
As conversations with the students reveal, the committee was formed only after the students raised their concerns on social media. The general trend of excluding common students in the larger decision making process has become even more clear. The struggle of the student community of TISS is thus not only against this particular step of the administration but a larger notion of exclusionary authoritarianism.