The discourse on what is wrong with Indian universities is an old genre and the usual answers are, thus, stale and summed up in one word: “Everything!” Many obituaries have been composed, yet astonishingly, the same universities have produced women and men who occupy the pinnacles of political, economic, scientific and social power, and even esteem. The question of how such figures scaled the commanding heights of power is rarely posed. Perhaps, systemic decadence as a social resource is gravely underestimated in India!
Prof. Pankaj Chandra in Building Universities in India (2017) asks the old question: “Where are the Indian institutions going wrong?” Even as he provides a book-length response, adopting a frankly “managerial approach”, Chandra is refreshing clear that the first goal of education for all is to “prepare enlightened citizens for the nation”. I have always believed that education at all levels must provide soldiers for constitutional justice and not shoulders for the State, and that the meaning of “enlightenment” should not be a puzzle. The Preamble to the Constitution and Article 51A (prescribing fundamental duties of all citizens) provide an entire menu of values. Education must be secular, scientific and democratic if the basic duty to develop “scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of critical enquiry and social reform”, and “excellence” — individual and collective — is to be fostered. Refreshingly, Chandra mentions, among other goals, the preparation of the “youth for livelihood” and “to help find one’s life-long passion for learning and one’s own meaning of life”. The key to understanding universities is that they “reflect experiments for the future”.
And Chandra’s gravamen is that in a youthful nation, there is little understanding by those who hold public power of that capacity for experimenting for the future, which educational institutions have lost somehow on the “way to growth”. The explosion in the number of Indian universities and colleges has led to two deleterious effects: a “complete takeover of higher education” by the government through centralisation and “exit of quality talent from academia”. To this must also be added the “shrinking” of the educational purpose, affected by a wider social milieu, accentuating breakdown of law and order and impunity from the law. Lack of trust in the system and campus violence has fostered many alienations, and the spirit of learning and wise stewardship has almost vanished. It appears that the Indian Universities “have become unaccountable”, this accountability having already shifted “from outcomes to rules”.
It must, however, be said that Prof Chandra paints with a broad brush. His macro-generalisations about the social pathologies of major university systems, which also reinforces their bleak future, do not match the histories and diversity of educational institutions. My own experience as the Vice Chancellor of South Gujarat and Delhi University testifies to considerable churning among teachers and students — on issues of university autonomy and accountability (or the battle between two ‘As’, for I believe that there can be no accountability without autonomy and vice versa); and cultivation of spaces for social responsibility: a great dialogue took place at both the institutions mentioned, concerning the meaning of equality and gender justice, and I am confident that similar internal dialogues have taken place elsewhere. We need to archive different experiences of life and difference on many campuses, as well as pay a little more heed to empirical studies, to avoid myths of control and further privatisation of education as a panacea.
I commend Chandra’s courage of conviction in insisting that the “government will have to simplify the governance… and reduce the web of control … if we are to see any change in the outcomes” and nuanced “governance will require enabling universities as per their aspirations and needs”. Further, I agree with the demand that industry “has to play a critical role… by demanding a new type of student”. But obviously, no change may sacrifice university autonomy in the name of accountability. Total change must augment their autonomy by creating an enabling environment for the system to realise and promote its potential. And this may best be done if government, companies and foundations decide to “stay away from defining their affairs”. If “micro-managed, they tend to lose the clarity of purpose”.
It isn’t just abstention from the impulse to control; “the state must present a stable policy for institutions to plan their own strategy”. This means, first, that limits to innovation by annual budgets must yield to long-term financing. Second, ministers of education (for the Union and states) “must give up the practice of selecting heads of institutions” from the shortlist and assign that role to eminent educationists. Third, the government, should not have any say in appointment of the head of the institution, faculty and its functionings. Fourth, the new mode of governance must remain based on a simple postulate: “Academics are not an extension of the bureaucracy”. Fifth, I may add, that the State has an important ‘nudging’ function as now recognised by contemporary economic theory, which is seen to be far more efficient than command-and-control administration.
The author’s proposed solution concerning “flexibility” and “innovation” that should guide the architecture of a new higher education system, is worth serious public debate. He suggests a six-fold approach: (1) a policy-making body at Union and State levels (2) a higher education and research board (3) an accreditation and coordination agency (4) a funding and granting council (5) a data agency (6) and a dispute resolution board. Pages 295-330 elaborate the details of this “New Azadi” approach for universities.
The learned author would be the first to acknowledge that most of these prescriptions are not new. But, welding these elements in education for all into a “new ecology” for the renaissance of education certainly is. A serious public debate among all the stakeholders is necessary. But that can only begin when we go beyond the “whims and fancies of the government of the day”. What may we do to infuse a sense of urgency about the catalytic role of education? Has a responsive society arrived that cares passionately for education?