It was 1937 and the Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University, Amarnath Jha, had invited Amrita Sher-Gil to show her paintings to the entire city in an exhibition at the university. This was also the time when the university had academics like Meghnad Saha working in its laboratories. In 2017, a government-backed audit declared the university as being on the brink of becoming “unviable” and “unworkable”. One of the most illustrious universities of the country has been all but declared sick. Academic institutions mature with time, and hence, they last hundreds of years with growing grace — well, not in India.
A Sher-Gil exhibition on a university campus today, if a vice chancellor has the aesthetic courage to organise it and that too from university funds, would evoke a question from the government’s auditor without realising that when a university opens such an exhibit to the public at large then it is teaching the society about excellence and about art through the works of the highest exponent of the craft. That is its role.
The university has changed. From being a safe place to think differently and say things that one wished, from spending weekdays and weekends in laboratories and libraries, from making friends who aspired for more than you do, from sitting in on lectures where you wished the clock would stop and the teacher would go on, from meeting folks who would engage you in a debate on the cutting edge in their field, from learning leadership through co-curricular activities, the university has become a holding ground in decrepit campuses with broken spirits, with uninspiring faculty who, at best, teach to examinations and not learning, as well as an administration that does the bidding of the government of the day. The university has lost its ability to imagine its role.
And all this while, governments and their regulators emasculated the abilities of universities by prescribing how every decision had to be made and how the lecture could be imagined. The best left teaching and the not-so-good flourished, becoming directors and vice chancellors. The few good faculty who remained struggled or retreated in their quiet labs. That a few unusual institutions survived and made admissions highly competitive, made society feel that god was in heaven and all was right with the world.
Four challenges face the university as we enter the new year of hope. First, the debilitating effects of “sarkarikaran” of higher education. Universities cannot remain domains of control. They are supposed to be pathways of possibilities. They are not extensions of the government, not even the public universities. Each has a distinct aspiration, culture, and capabilities. They need to be enabled as individual entities and attempts to standardise their systems, curriculums, ways of teaching, ways of doing must end. The integrity of an institution is based on the fearless minds of its academics to pursue areas of research that others may find difficult or inconvenient. The “sarkarikaran” mindset has made this academic mind subservient to the administration both within the university and outside it.
Second, building quality institutions is about people. Hungry students, India has in abundance; hungry faculty have largely left. All systems have to be geared to bring the best and the most engaging to become part of the university. It has to be the most compelling profession in society in every sense — in its richness of experience, in its conversations, in its freedoms and possibilities, and even in its compensations. Only the best can bring the university back from the brink. And if we continue to pack our institutions with faculty hired on considerations other than merit, the nation’s misfortune will be where a generation of the bright will be taught by its mediocre.
Three, the classroom has to be reimagined. Teaching and learning for the examination has been our forte but the new demands of society and the future of work require critical and independent thinking, learning through doing, asking questions from multiple disciplinary perspectives on the same issue, using evidence for building arguments, and reflecting and articulation. The warning of contemporary educational philosopher, Ruth Johnson, must be heeded when she says that higher education should not “either be a mere servant of the government policy or a passive respondent to public mood: Higher learning does not teach what to think but how to think”. Teaching has to be re-invented.
And finally, quality education requires resources. Laboratories and workshops that allow students to conduct experiments rather than learning as spectators or low student-teacher ratio or tutorials and teaching assistants that help students learn better and remove their deficits or journals and databases or laboratories to improve on the language of learning — all require more funding. Unless the government spending on higher education doubles, our institutions and students therein will remain impoverished.
At a more fundamental level, we have not articulated why education is most crucial for the removal of poverty in India and for its development. Access to education without quality is no education at all. It reduces the capabilities of our institutions to enable our students to become better citizens with high-quality skills. Let us make some progress in that direction this year.