Saturday, April 7, 2012

THE PRICE OF PRIVILEGE IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Why has our Central university sector, especially its more recent entrants, underperformed as a whole? The reasons can be summarized as location and tradition. A university cannot be built overnight, nor can it flourish except in close integration with a community. (This does not imply parochialism; rather, that the host community actively welcomes and interacts with the wider universe opened up by a ‘univers-ity’ worth its name.) Across India, there is a network of universities (chiefly with state government support), and a more intensive one of colleges reaching into the hinterland, that have achieved this integration over decades, perhaps a century or more. Instead of supporting them with adequate funds or addressing their (often grave and sordid) problems, the nation’s government has effectively turned its back on them. The schemes for their advancement add up to little, not to mention the obstacle course to avail of them. The Twelfth Plan is reported to have introduced some items of basic support to state-run universities. While welcoming the move, one hopes this palliative will not be the pretext to deny more substantial benefits.

 The ironic truth is that, though the funds envisaged for greenfield Central universities are lavish by Indian standards, they are quite inadequate to set up a truly superior infrastructure and resource base from scratch. Even if these institutions acquire an exceptional faculty (which on present showing seems unlikely), they could not achieve more than the better state universities have already done. But had the same funds been sanctioned to the latter (of course after due assessment), they could have built higher on the base already in place, acquired the extra resource boost needed to create a truly outstanding institution. That would have been a far better use of funds, with a nationwide spread effect. Instead, we are offered a sprinkling of isolated centres under direct control of the Union government. Some of these islands exist only on the map, but they bear impressive names. A common buzzword is ‘centre of excellence’. Unlike ‘Potential for Excellence’ or ‘Centre of Advanced Study’, a ‘centre of excellence’ is not a recognized academic category with specific benchmarks. It can mean anything and nothing. Moreover, the phrase is increasingly used not in recognition of work done, but in pious hope of work that might be done, sometimes in newly set up institutions. If those hopes are belied, there is no way to stem the bounty. Following Parkinson’s law, the only acceptable solution is to pour in more money, or still more, into new institutions. The other, patently absurd label is ‘world-class’. You cannot set up a ‘world-class university’ by fiat: it has to acquire that status by long endeavour. At most, you can offer infrastructure and resources at the level of the great international universities, built up over decades and centuries. The cost, in so far as it could be quantified, would be astronomical.

It is insane to envisage such a sum for any greenfield university in India, even by pauperizing the rest. Any conceivable funding level would at best be middling by international standards. Some extant Indian universities have already attained that level over time. A word seems in order about two formally international institutions. One, South Asian University, started operations two years ago. The India government is meeting its entire capital cost of 300 million dollars, plus 100 acres in South Delhi. Its juniormost lecturer receives as much as senior professors at a Central university, besides benefits that cannot possibly match rumours but are clearly exceptional. The other, Nalanda International University, appears not to have a website, so there is no way of checking reports of its gestational expenses. The Wikipedia entry quotes an estimate of a billion dollars to set up the campus and improve the environs. That is equivalent to one-third of India’s higher education budget. Of course, the bill will be shared by taxpayers of many nations. India’s initial pledge was Rs.1,000 crore, not to mention 446 acres of land. It seems appropriate to make the highest demands of these institutions, advantaged beyond the dreams of most Indian academics. Unless they achieve dramatically more than Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University (to name two of our most privileged and productive campuses), they will not justify their existence. And we should not have to wait unduly to draw that benefit. Let us think of a more practical benchmark, already met by many humbler institutions: what we might term ‘international recognition’. By this criterion, students acquire a training that ensures later success at the world’s best universities. Teachers produce research at par with international standards, visiting and interacting with the faculty at leading centres abroad. Faculty from those centres, in turn, visit such a university, on lecture tours or longer fellowships. Exchange programmes, joint teaching and research programmes, perhaps even joint degrees are set up with universities abroad. These institutional links are supported (and often initiated) by wide personal interaction between faculty. This may seem familiar and unexciting, for several universities across India — both Central and state-run — have long reached this level, and sustain it as a matter of course.

It would not strike them as a pretext for drum-beating. They are naturally demoralized when by bureaucratic fiat and media prejudice, their achievement is ignored, their further potential aborted, and their funds and powers grow more and more elusive, while immense sums are diverted elsewhere on hypothetical grounds. That demoralization affects both recruitment and performance. We are dismantling a working, if creaky and rusted, structure, to erect a new one at astronomically greater cost, of an untested design that simply may not materialize. Let it not be like those actual constructions at State largesse that benefit none but the contractors. There is anger and frustration on many of India’s most productive campuses. It is not owing to an unwillingness to adapt but a sense of redundancy, so that there is no point in adapting and no resources to do so. I am appalled to see outstanding colleagues at Jadavpur, heading internationally recognized centres, supplicating to Delhi babudom for meagre grants sanctioned long ago. Even purely academic visits to Delhi, rewarding and comradely in themselves, are embittered by the iniquitous contrast with our lot back home. Successful teachers at a state-run campus are constantly asked, “Why don’t you join a Central university?” They are thereby led to campaign for Central status (as a group at Jadavpur are currently doing) as the only way to protect their interests. One would like to see the state of West Bengal, under its energetic leader, press the Union government for a more equitable deal for state-run universities. (The previous rulers, in spite of their litany of a stepmotherly Centre, hardly touched this issue.) Instead, we are seeing indeterminate moves at reproducing the all-India imbalance at state level, doubly compromised by empty coffers: there is little or no money for anyone at all. Even the career advancement scheme, the only carrot held out to state-funded faculty, is in abeyance for lack of funds. Current state policy on higher education eludes the seeker: the relevant committee report is not available on the internet. Meanwhile, starting with the pre-election freeze from February 2011, Bengal’s universities have been in virtual paralysis, their operations halted pending a structural reform still not complete. This need not have obviated a simultaneous process of policy planning, a blueprint for making Bengal India’s knowledge hub — an eminently feasible prospect, for which the grounds are already laid in non-geographical terms.

The reported plans to translate textbooks and hold common entrance tests do not address such ambitions. The silence bodes ill even for Presidency University, the one institution exempted from the general fate but, as yet, virtually not in being. Its mentor group has rendered signal service by bidding openly, for the first time ever, for international standards in higher education in Bengal. As indicated above, other institutions may have attained such standards, but piecemeal and on sufferance, without formal recognition by the establishment and sometimes in the teeth of opposition. Such was the record of the last 34 years, as earlier of the British raj. It remains to be seen whether the present government agrees to tolerate excellence with good grace wherever it occurs. For Presidency, the mentor group’s report can only be the first step. Presidency faces the daunting prospect of validating a seal of excellence bestowed on it in advance. The task will be made harder by a policy vacuum and overall academic demoralization across the state. Until the general vacuum is removed, Presidency cannot set about the crucial task of defining itself in relation to its home community.

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