Indian higher education continues to be crushed under a mountain of bad faith. Just contemplate the spectacle in its awful enormity. The regulator, the University Grants Commission, takes out a front-page notice against India’s foremost public university, warning against admissions in its four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP), as if this university were just another of those fraud universities against whom the public needs to be warned. This very same regulator sat silent when issues where raised about the four-year programme when it was first introduced. Delhi University itself had engaged in a travesty by introducing a potentially defensible change in its undergraduate programme in such ill-considered haste. The government, as always, spoke in forked tongues. The previous government refused to intervene on the ground of university autonomy, while secretly pushing this travesty through. The current education minister claims to want to restore autonomy to both the UGC and universities. But the UGC order clearly states that the the FYUP is being cancelled at the behest of the Central government. How much more duplicity can we have over autonomy?
But it gets worse. If the measures and counter-measures display a callous disregard for both procedure and substance, the men behind the measures have brought more indignity to higher education. Think of how offices have been denigrated: a vice chancellor who refused to listen to even reasonable voices on reform (and this government’s stupidity will now turn him into a martyr for autonomy), a UGC whose mediocre abdication has turned it into a post office of the government, educrats, that peculiar species which will tick off every programme so long as it is fashionable with government, and bureaucrats who do not understand the first thing about pedagogy have all conspired to create this morass.
The academic community has also presented an unseemly spectacle. There are some excellent and dedicated academics. But as a group, we come across as unbearably small-minded. We do not know how to handle disagreement and come to workable compromises that help progress. Our own divisions destroy our credibility in the eyes of the public, which sees us as self-serving, obdurate fossils. Our sheer ideological over-commitment belies belief. Some of the very same constituency that would have been glad for the UPA to use the UGC to overturn the universities order are upset that the NDA has done it; and some of the constituency that supported the FYUP has turned against it because the government has so decided.
And think of the laughing-stock we have made of ourselves. Would any half-serious education system treat such momentous decisions with such causal whimsy? Would you expect a major university to keep its students in such suspense, subject them to every consideration but pedagogy? The private universities that take non-refundable deposits for applying will be laughing to the bank as Delhi University delays its admissions processes. Debates over education reflect a third-rate brawl masquerading as high-mindedness. And which political culture in the world so crudely politicises higher education by putting one university’s course structure on election manifestos? What else do you need to signal that universities are about plebiscitary politics, not education?
Untangling this mess is not going to be easy for a variety of reasons. This column has argued that successive governments, but particularly the last one, have carpet-bombed the regulatory framework in such a way that even basic principles are not clear. The combination of the war between regulators like the AICTE and UGC has taken its toll; the courts only half understand the issues involved, and pervasive distrust of the university system has weakened the autonomy of its decision-making bodies. The word autonomy has become a slogan of war, not a feature of academic culture. Every bit of the system wants to claim autonomy for itself and not for others. Just ask yourself a basic question: Who should define the academic identity of an academic institution? Who defines it in practice? We do not have a clear answer to either question.
One way of dealing with such a mess is, of course, to decentralise and allow diversity. There can always be imaginative flexible arrangements to ensure coordination. But our system will not allow reasonable flexibility. Nor does it understand the very sensible Deweyean idea that a lot of democracy and pedagogy is learning by doing. We can debate whether the form of the four-year course was appropriate for Delhi University. But there are dangers inherent in the atrocious order the UGC has passed to redress a bad situation: it assaults university autonomy in a most unseemly way and its rhetoric reverts to that crass homogenisation that killed the system in the first place. On a plain reading, the UGC is basically putting a lid on experimentation and innovation.
What is the solution? The problem has never been the shortage of solutions; it has been the shortage of space. Delicate procedural work and reasonable cultures of argument will be needed before equilibrium is restored. For starters, since the new course replaced the old one, there is no old course to revert to. It will have be redesigned and reapproved. Three of India’s most accomplished education ministers on paper, Nurul Hasan, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kapil Sibal, successively produced the sensibility behind the monstrous system we have. Education is not only a cog in the ideological apparatus of the state, as too many academics have also come to believe. In education, there needs to be a presumption against centralisation. The approach to institutions cannot be crassly instrumental. None of them understood that reform will require the patient untangling of many crossed wires; it will require reclaiming institutions one by one in a context that respects their identity and needs.
So suffocating is the atmosphere on this issue that we are gasping for air even before we can discuss sensible solutions. Regulation is now quicksand, where any intervention will draw you into greater slime. If this performance is anything to go by, the morass will get worse. The UPA’s big legacy was to craft bills that will make for an even more unwieldy regulatory structure. There is no indication that this trend is about to be reversed. We can talk about fashionable theories of reform. But if all any government did was make seven or eight public universities truly world class, exemplary and grounded, we could create a revolution. Instead, it looks like one more will bite the dust. You know you are in crisis when, as Polybius said, you can neither endure your condition, nor the means to overcome it.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’