Closing in on campus

Our universities are not any better,robbing another generation of opportunity

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published: February 11, 2009 12:08 am

There is one sector in which the news gets consistently worse: higher education. Public universities are,and should remain,important. Even better universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University are now struggling even more than they were,under the weight of obligations imposed upon them. Classes in DU departments were already a struggle. Many teachers will tell you privately that after the expansion they have become something of a pedagogical impossibility. JNU’s great advantage,its reasonable class sizes,has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Since we had practically no strategy for improving PhD programmes,even the generous handouts of the Pay Commission will not solve our core problem: shortage of quality faculty.

There is now the farce being enacted over reservations in faculty positions. The government itself wants to exempt 40-odd institutions from the requirements of reservation. Some may think this is small relief. But no one is expressing outrage at what this move represents. It shows exactly how reservations have,for the most part,not solved the problem of access; in fact they are the fig leaf used to hide the colossal failures of the Indian system. I wish one Dalit or OBC politician would express as much outrage at the quality of education their constituents receive as they do when they call for reservations. This move also shows the complete arbitrariness of the governing principles in higher education. Why exempt only this handful of institutions? What statement does it make about the rest of the institutions?

Now the UGC has decided to centrally regulate fees and admissions to all private universities and professional courses. It will set admission norms,conduct a centralised admissions process and determine the level of fees. Admittedly,there is a problem with several private institutions. But the problem is,in part,created by regulation itself. Even bad institutions have takers because we are such a supply constrained system. A mechanism for protecting against outright fraud could be created and strengthened. But instead the UGC wants to control who and what you can teach and how much you can charge.

It would be comforting for us if we could explain away this self-defeating irrationality as emanating from one or two ministers. But the destruction of higher education involves wider complicities. First,the Supreme Court has consistently muddied the waters by not understanding the basic economics of education,and the dangers posed by giving the state such overweening powers. It has armed the UGC with obsessive powers for standardisation.

Second,colleagues in academia have a real fear of diversity. We all trumpet ethnic diversity,but balk at diversities that are the source of innovation and creativity. Why should a country like India not have all kinds of institutional structures? Some going for a high fees model,some for low fees; some having the ambition to do very basic teaching,some to be world-class research universities,some catering to whoever shows up and others being selective in their admissions,each innovating in their own way. Some may create arcadias like Shantiniketan,others narrow technology-bound institutions.

Third,there are many vested interests within the political class opposing change. On one count,about more than a hundred significant politicians derive significant sources of income from running institutes of higher education. You would think they would be a force for reform. But it is precisely these politician turned educational entrepreneurs that have the greatest vested interest in blocking competition. A bad public system and high entry barriers benefits these entrepreneurs the most. They are also,because of political connections,very adept at navigating the licence permit raj of the state,something that would deter the most formidable genuine education entrepreneur.

Education is one sector where the state is determined to destroy whatever slivers of innovation are taking place. And we are all parties to the contorted hypocrisies that govern education policy. Politicians are hugely outraged at fee hikes by private schools; none of them is asking why MCD schools are becoming less attractive,or the fact that land that should be earmarked for schools to lower the cost of education is being auctioned off for malls. There is now substantial evidence that the growing popularity of private schools amongst Dalits and the poor has something to do with the fact that they are much more likely to be subject to brutal corporal punishment in government schools.

So much of the communalisation of politics is directly linked to state arbitrariness in education. The sense amongst many institutions that they are denied basic rights of freedom of association and trade in education that are made available to so-called minority institutions has fuelled immense resentment.

This government’s last legacy will be to set up a regulatory authority to monitor whether textbooks are teaching anything inimical to constitutional values. Given the dissemination of prejudice and hate this seems,on the face of it,a reasonable idea. But sometimes it is our secular friends’ idolatry of state power that is more worrying than the false gods of the fanatics. For nowhere in this new demand is the slightest acknowledgment that the deep communal crisis we have has its roots in the fact that small cabals of Left intellectuals so controlled narratives of history that an open and frank discussion of complex historical issues became impossible. The state of West Bengal decimated its education system by thinking of it as a handmaiden of ideology; and yet there is deep communal tension simmering under the surface there,as in Kerala.

State regulation is not always the best response to problems; some will have to be tackled socially. Tolerance will be better served by depoliticising academia. But the more power you give to the state,the more you will politicise academia. The UPA thinks that a regulatory body will do its bidding now; just wait till the opposition gets its hand on bodies armed with new powers.

The UPA is culpable for five wasted years in higher education; but somewhere we all have to worry whether we have robbed yet another generation of the freedom and innovation they deserve.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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