A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Deconstructing the Politics of Access: The Case of the University Student*

Rama Mathew


As we address the issue of access to English for the large majority of young adults in the country, from the viewpoint of those who have had many years of formal instruction solely devoted to teaching English as a subject in a vernacular medium school but with not much success, there are certain aspects that seem axiomatic. Therefore, it is necessary to put them down right at the start to clarify the premise on which my paper is based.

Firstly, we must acknowledge that because of its status as an international/global language, English proficiency has become a necessity as it allows upward social mobility within the country and also opens the door to numerous opportunities all over the world. More importantly, it enables one to get access to vast amounts of work in different subject areas—both print and e-materials—crucial to higher education.

This raises the second point about equal access to English with regard to social justice. This  viewpoint of the “right to English”, based on Bourdieu’s notion of  “cultural capital” (1991) makes it imperative that we make English accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s caste, religion, socio-economic status, geographic region and so forth, thus following the principles of social justice (Rawls, 1999). The National Knowledge Commission (2006) underscores this view explicitly: “English has been part of our education system for more than a century. Yet, English is beyond the reach of most of our young people, which makes for highly unequal access [emphasis added] (p. 1)”

The Context

Given this premise of unequal access to English, I would like to examine the case of adult learners at the tertiary level who are not able to use English language skills with ease or at the required level, i.e. they cannot read, write, speak or listen in “new” academic or social contexts. These students study English for nearly one thousand hours even in regional medium schools. This is a matter of grave concern since the exposure the student has to an acquisition-poor learning environment is of a longer duration as English was introduced very early in classes from 2003, if worse in certain regions due to paucity of competent teachers or school-based constraints.

Typically, these students have had Hindi (or other regional languages) as their medium of instruction up to the school level, or have been in not-so-good private schools where, although the official language of instruction is English, for classroom purposes and day-to-day use, Hindi (or the regional language) is the lingua franca. There may be other reasons for their inability to speak English that may relate to the curriculum, textbooks, classroom pedagogy, tests/exams, teacher competence and attitude, to name a few. When such students enter a university, their poor English language proficiency, coupled with low self-esteem impedes their academic study and future life prospects in major ways. Therefore, the tough question that confronts us is, given the setback, how can we equip these young adults with the necessary (language) skills and strategies and empower them to become full-fledged participating members of the university vis-à-vis the society?

A Pedagogy of Possibility

In this section, I will discuss what might be a reconceptualization of a pedagogy that opens up possibilities for students to acquire communicative competence as well as to explore how language shapes subjectivities and is implicated in power and dominance.

 Peirce (1989) argues that the teaching of English can indeed be undertaken as a pedagogy of possibility (Simon, 1987 cited in Pierce 1989)—an approach that challenges inequality in society rather than perpetuating it. This follows from the poststructuralist theory of language, where “language is not only an abstract structure, but a practice that is socially constructed, produces change, and is changed in human life” (p. 405). Peirce further examines the limitations of the theory of language first proposed by Hymes in 1979. She suggests that we need to actually go beyond these limitations by exploring a second order of questions such as the following: Why do such rules exist? Who makes them? What interests do they serve? Can these be contested? Are there other rules that can expand possibilities? If we teach students to critically examine the rules that are often constructed to support the interests of dominant groups, we will actually help them to challenge the conditions that form the basis of those rules. Moreover they will learn to examine the way they perceive themselves, their role in society and how society can be changed for the better. An uncritical integration into the society will, on the other hand, promote existing inequalities and widen the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. 

This kind of pedagogy, that Simon calls the pedagogy of empowerment, is not neutral but a practice of “cultural politics”, since teachers consciously or unconsciously shape students’ perceptions of themselves and the world. “To empower is to enable those who have been silenced to speak.… It is to enable those who have been marginalized economically and culturally to claim in both respects a status as full participating members of a community” (Pierce, 1989, p. 374). Peirce further argues that this will help them to be responsible for their success in life, success not only “in terms of material advancement but in terms of the learner’s greater understanding and critical appreciation of his or her own subjectivity and relationship to the wider society” (p. 409). Thus, adopting a pedagogy of possibility encourages students to explore what is desirable as opposed to limiting their growth.

This pedagogy also addresses the “access paradox” by Lodge (as cited in Joseph and Ramani, 2006) according to which, while providing access to a dominant language further entrenches its dominance and hegemony, not providing access entrenches marginalization and increases the value and status accorded to that language (see Tully, 1997 and Mathew, 1997 for a discussion of this point). A step towards making this “capital” accessible to all our learners, therefore, would be to “de-elitize” it and consciously tone down the aura that goes with it as there seems to be little concern for the devastating effect English teaching has, especially at the lower levels, on local indigenous languages, which Pennycook (1994) calls “linguistic genocide”. We will also need to encourage additive bilingualism (or additive multilingualism)—where we can learn L2 and L1 with equal competence—as the work of NMRC (National Multilingual Education Resource Consortium) demonstrates in Orissa and other states.

This line of thinking finds echoes in work done by others, most notably in the concepts of Freire’s (1970) dialogical pedagogy and Giroux’s (1988) critical pedagogy. While this pedagogy could form the basis for education at any level, I would like to argue that it is urgently needed for adult learners because of their well-developed cognitive and affective abilities and other language skills, for example, in their L1 or the regional language, which enables them to confront hidden and taken-for-granted assumptions and the nuanced nature of language.

The Case of Delhi University

In this section, I will briefly describe the effort being made to mainstream the university students who have lagged behind because of their inadequate English language skills by providing them the necessary tools to confront this impasse. A scheme, known as the “English Language Proficiency Course (ELPC)”, which is outside of the regular University academic programme has been designed for such students. This program is offered at Basic, Intermediate and Advanced levels and comprises 80 hours each. In fact, through this program, a version of the pedagogy of possibility is being tried out albeit not in all its entirety and complexity.

Student profile

The students who enrol for this programme are students of under-graduate, post-graduate or Ph.D. programmes at the University who have had at least 8-10 years of formal instruction of learning English as a subject. Their single, most important desire is to be able to speak English fluently; PG and research students also have, as one of their goals, to be able to write better, especially their assignments and dissertations. A striking feature of this large group is their high level of motivation—they are ‘willing to do anything’ to learn English.

Materials used in the course

Since the materials available in the market have been found to be unsuitable in terms of language/cognitive levels, the subject matter/content and format for this course have been specially designed for the intended learner. The use of loose-leaf, theme/task-based materials developed by teachers marks a departure from an expert-oriented model. The materials also undergo regular revisions based on the feedback received from both students and teachers, during and after the course. Thus, it is process-oriented and set within a stakeholder-approach to curriculum design and implementation. Although these are well-known notions in ELT literature, in the Indian context where a top-down syllabus and textbook approach is the norm, this is significant. More importantly they have been designed to suit the needs, aspirations, and perceived goals of young adult learners based on their feedback.

Teacher profile and classroom pedagogy

A week-long orientation to understand what teaching/learning a language (as opposed to a content-subject) involves, and to appreciate the issues faced by the disadvantaged adult learner is the first step in initiating the teacher to nuances of this complex enterprise. An ongoing dialogue/negotiation among the stakeholders is an important feature of the programme. This is achieved through emails, visits to the centre where the course is taught, and review meetings where feedback from teachers and students on different aspects of the course is examined.

Our learning so far

The actual words of students and teachers serve as evidence of the issues that are addressed in this course. Students have invariably benefitted a good deal as is revealed through scores on end-tests that focus on all four skills of language and teacher and student feedback. As young adults, they have strong and well-formulated views on classroom methodology and teacher’s attitude. They like group work, pair work, and role play activities where they can express their opinion on something, come to a consensus (or not), and are satisfied when they feel they have been heard. This feeling has been unequivocally expressed over the years by students who have consistently given feedback, “In this course we have no fear of making mistakes.

The course also revealed that the students like to engage with controversial topics such as gender, environment, generation gap, and other prevailing social issues. Sometimes, however, the teacher needs to find out what is bothering the students and inhibiting them from speaking up. For instance a student who was very shy for a long time opened up when he found that he could complain about the supercilious attitude of the girls in his class! Apart from such instances, the students find classes “democratic” where everyone gets an equal chance to participate. They find teachers ‘friendly, supportive, wonderful’ because sheconcentrates on all students, does not demoralize the weak student”. Some students may even be quite critical of the teacher: “Teacher xxx should shed her attitude, be punctual and regular.”

The students are aware of the injustice meted out to them and react to it quite vehemently, since the course allows them to do so. For instance, when a task required them to complain in writing about wrongly parked cars in the parking area, their first objection was to why cars (which belonged to the rich) should be given the pride of place while bicycles and motorcycles had to make do with the remaining, cramped space. This way, inadvertently they sabotaged the task and justifiably so; the teacher allowed this, since the task involved writing a letter of complaint in a real life context.

Another challenge the programme faces is the notion of heterogeneity. Since the course makes a sincere effort to address learner needs, the task of making it relevant, meaningful and language-rich to all the students in the class is highly demanding. A diagnostic test at the beginning answers this problem to some extent, but the parameters of heterogeneity are far too many and too complex and defy simple solutions. Here, the teacher’s sense of plausibility (Prabhu, 1987), of judging what works and what doesn’t and acting accordingly is being experimented with. 

The teachers of ELPC are mostly friendly, patient, wait for even slow learners to respond, and get them into groups and discuss things as though they are one of the learners themselves. One teacher remarked: “I immensely enjoy teaching something meaningful and useful to the students. In my routine classes the emphasis on improving the English language learning skills is missing. I realize that this is what we should have been doing as teachers of English.” Similarly, students are also puzzled: “Why aren’t our regular classes interesting? Why can’t Sukanya Ma’am (name changed) teach like this?”

University teachers who typically do not get any formal exposure to language pedagogy, are trying to come to grips with substantive issues such as a humanistic approach to teaching, managing classroom activities, reducing teacher talk and increasing student talk, addressing heterogeneity, making sure everyone goes back satisfied, and so forth. This change seems to be significant when viewed in relation to the traditional method of teaching from a prescribed textbook with a view to completing the syllabus, regardless of how many students come to class or who comes and with what agenda.


The washback effect of this exercise especially for teachers seems to be positive: “we are coming together as a community, and are beginning to speak the language of pedagogy” (of possibility). Even the students might learn to break out of the “culture of silence” (Freire, 1972), to engage in a dialogue among themselves and with teachers. However, there are other questions that need to be addressed. In an effort to make the materials and the approach accessible to a larger number of students, we are trying to digitize and upload them on our web portal. Would this achieve the desired results in terms of developing in learners the ability to negotiate, critique and challenge what they are offered, to the same extent as in a face-to-face engagement? Is a consultative/collaborative mode that we are trying to explore possible?

In conclusion, I would like to propose a note of caution. In my attempt to locate Delhi University’s ELPC within a critical pedagogy perspective, I hope I have not told a success story or presented a simplistic representation of the complex forces that underpin an attempt to run a seemingly simple English proficiency course for the past seven years. In my view, however, a discussion of the pedagogy of possibility does help us to reassess and reconceptualize taken-for-granted approaches to teaching and learning.


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* A version of this paper was presented at the Sixth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning in Kochi, India, in November 2010.

Rama Mathew is Professor of Education in the Department of Education at Delhi University and also the Dean of Faculty from 2012 to 2014. Prior to this, she taught at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad where she was involved in English language education. She has also designed an English Language Proficiency Course for the students of Delhi University. She is currently working as Head of Research Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of the “English in Action” project in Bangladesh.