I read Rohit Kansal and Dipankar Sengupta’s ‘Rethinking Universities’ (IE, September 20) with a sense of dejà vu: The familiar mix of high principle and managementspeak, the insidious shift of focus from all higher education institutes (HEIs) to public universities, hence the easy branding of the academic as a species of laid-back sarkari babu.
From a lifetime in public universities, I know their iniquities only too well: Shabby campuses, surly public relations, a byzantine bureaucracy. All these need reform, and fast. Yet the system’s intrinsic merits produced an academic diaspora that the world values, a major force behind the global knowledge economy. The credit goes to institutions across India, not IITs alone. (“There are two of us here from Burdwan,” said a fellow of an Oxford college.) As this implies, at least the upper segment of HEIs maintained an international profile. There were no ranking lists then, but we looked the world in the eye and engaged with it intensively.
Till 2003, virtually all Indian HEIs were public institutions. But implementing the Mandal Commission report from 1990 altered the academic demography. The educationally privileged classes used their money power to shift to a more exclusive system. Today, roughly 70 per cent of tertiary students enrol at private HEIs, which run at least notionally on the lines suggested by Kansal and Sengupta. The benefits should have been apparent by now. Instead, why the deepening gloom?
The authors would blame an outdated dystopia: State-funded HEIs with underworked teachers in secure jobs. What teachers? What funds?
In December 2021, 30 per cent of posts in central universities were vacant. For professors, the figure was 40 per cent. Several states had a worse deficit: 62 per cent in Odisha, where two universities had no teachers at all. At a university in another state, a batch completed their Master’s degrees without any full-time faculty. If the matter rested with them, teachers would surely not hesitate to appoint themselves. The tangles form higher up the chain — financial, bureaucratic or judicial.
The system keeps ticking through various levels of academic serfdom: Lifelong “temporary” and “ad hoc’” appointees; “casual” and “guest” lecturers, supposedly taking a few classes but saddled with a full-time routine. They are paid fixed sums far below salary scales, with regular breaks in service. Even so, nearly 25 per cent of college posts in Delhi were totally vacant last December. It is likely to be worse elsewhere.
This is not a conducive milieu for creative reform. Without a respectable level of staff and infrastructure, attempts at rigorous management are doomed to fail; or if enforced on an underprivileged workforce, will create stress and resistance that cannot translate into action.
So too with funding. The discontinuance of Five-Year Plans deprived public universities of their staple development grants – which, incidentally, were performance-based. The budget for central universities rose by 6.6 per cent this year — or not at all, adjusting for inflation. State-level HEIs are in peril. Traditionally, the state paid for salaries and maintenance and the Centre for development, chiefly through the UGC. Today, the University Grants Commission is a misnomer: Its funding schemes are largely suspended. The Education Ministry notionally administers the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). Universities (including mine) which were granted substantial RUSA funds were left stranded when the money dried up less than halfway through, leaving a trail of abandoned projects, unemployed staff and incomplete buildings.
Even more uncertain is the “Institute of Eminence” (IoE) status — awarded after rigorous assessment of the very kind Kansal and Sengupta advocate. The tag entitles public HEIs to Rs 1,000 crore. Two state-level universities, Anna and Jadavpur, made the grade. Given their grotesquely lower funding they must have worked far harder to match the IITs and IISc; but because of the ministry’s inflexible diktats on state government support, the award remains stalled to this day. Clearly, the authorities are guided not by performance but by bureaucratic criteria.
There is another channel for resource-building, though for public universities it can hardly be cited to reduce government support. They can be empowered (as opposed to exhorted) to seek other sources, public and private. This calls for freedom of operation that the Centre and most state governments are vying to take away.
I may elaborate on my own experience. Jadavpur is a small university under a famously insolvent state government. Yet it qualified as an IoE and earlier as a “University with Potential for Excellence”. It is among the meagre handful of Indian HEIs in the first 1,000 in THE and QS rankings. This is because it has always allowed its faculty extraordinary freedom of operation, provided they worked within some broad parameters and sent audited accounts strictly on time. This has ensured hundreds of crores of funding over the years. The university grew on its own external earnings — from now-defunct schemes of the UGC and various ministries, as well as corporate bodies. A research school to which the university paid a lakh a year regularly garnered a crore.
Faculty members negotiated with funders as with academic partners. We genuinely approached both in the same spirit of enterprise. I once negotiated a major programme with another university and only then informed my own vice-chancellor. Instead of crushing his audacious subordinate, he expressed delight. The result was a Rs 3-crore project.
Today, my brilliant colleagues struggle to keep their projects afloat. Curricula are laid down by the UGC in minute detail. Both the Centre and the state demand endless pounds of procedural flesh — there is no freedom of operation. The licence-permit raj has not fled the land but migrated to academia. Add to this the restrictions on free speech and writing (in the IITs, anything causing “embarrassment” vis-à-vis the government). Only the demented would expect freedom of teaching, research and publication in this degrading milieu. A person cannot queue up with a cap in hand one minute and range the world in one’s thoughts the next. You cannot toggle between being a free and a caged animal.
I love Kansal and Sengupta’s metaphors of “dismantling silos” and restructuring. I would only ask where in the hierarchy the process should begin, and which way it should run. If the authorities got off academic backs, at least the latter could fitly be blamed for their failures.
The writer is professor emeritus, department of English, Jadavpur University