There are very few institutions of higher education in India and even fewer that provide quality education. Within this rather small group, only a handful nurture talent and produce research that receives recognition globally. When institutions of good learning and research are such a scarce resource, could one justifiably restrict entry to them? Or even consider reducing the number of seats currently available for admission to these institutions. Yet, strange as it may seem, this is what is being contemplated at Jawaharlal Nehru University (and perhaps other such universities) today.
In the year that the government is recognising the achievements of JNU and declaring it the “Best Central University”, we should be considering ways of contributing even more to the interest of higher education and research in the country. Instead, it appears that the university may close its doors upon young talent seeking opportunities to study and pursue research here; there is a real possibility that fewer students may be admitted to different programmes of research in the next academic year.
Crises of one kind or another are not uncommon in our universities, and invariably they occur when universities forfeit their autonomy, willingly or otherwise. We see institutions decline when they cease to use the space and opportunity given to them to take decisions keeping in mind their history, needs and capacities. The condition of universities worsens when they are treated as just manufacturing units where numbers matter the most: The number of items produced on a daily basis by each person; the hours clocked in on each working day; hours spent in the classroom or meetings (thinking is obviously an unproductive activity), etc.
The present crisis (the simmering conflict and anxiety in JNU) has ostensibly been created by a notification of the UGC (May 2016) that specified the number of research scholars that professors of different rank may supervise at any given point in time. In issuing this order, the UGC may have attempted to address some specific problems faced by a few universities. But when that specific context is ignored and the notification is taken to be a general rule that must be followed in letter (and not just in spirit), an incredulous and rather absurd situation is created; and this is just what has happened.
In JNU, several faculty members have routinely guided more students than the number stipulated in the notification, and they are willing to continue to do so. The university was conceived as a place of research and in the manner in which its courses are designed and teaching distributed, there is indeed room for some flexibility. But when this history and capacity assessment is ignored, and numbers become the single criterion, we are confronted with a situation where only a few seats are available for fresh entrants.
Anyone engaged in research would agree that numbers cannot be the deciding factor. Students cannot be allotted a supervisor simply because she has less than the mandated number of students. Nor can one set aside all considerations of merit and justice to admit only those whose proposed research coincides with the specialisation of a professor who has fewer students. Both the intellectual well-being of the student and the quality of research produced is compromised if students are randomly distributed to ensure that each faculty is guiding the specified number of students. One can appreciate the need to set some boundary but the lines must be drawn by the universities themselves, and the latter must fight to claim that right.
We need general rules, primarily to ensure that the basic rights of the different sections of the university community are not compromised. It makes good sense to lay out formal procedures, and adhere to them strictly, when it comes to hiring teachers because all persons must have a fair chance of competing for these positions. Likewise, we might require well-spelt out rules to ensure that admissions are fair and transparent; that grievances are addressed and the rights of all concerned parties are given due consideration. But beyond that, on such matters as the number of students that should be admitted in any programme, which programmes of study should be introduced and at what level, how they should be taught, what research should be pursued, decisions are best left to particular institutions. Overcentralisation and standardisation are not conducive to original and creative research.
Fortunately for us, our universities have a well thought out structure that provides multilevel forums of discussion and consultation. In JNU, for instance, decisions on crucial academic matters are debated first at the level of the department (centre); experiences are shared across departments in school-level bodies and across schools at the university level. It is such bodies of collective deliberation, in which experts/peer groups from other universities are present, that need to be heeded to and strengthened if the universities are to successfully pursue excellence. For they allow the institution an opportunity to give due consideration to general norms while keeping in mind their own particular experiences and needs.
Institutional autonomy comes with a great deal of responsibility. This is why we need extraordinary individuals at the helm, who can create trust between different stakeholders, listen to them and give more substance to bodies of collective deliberation.
At a time when public attention is focused on elections, questions of institutional well-being and the concerns of specific universities may appear unimportant. But matters of good governance cannot be put on hold or left for a convenient time. The anxieties that grip our society and make elections so engrossing and unpredictable are also present in our educational institutions; and apparent neglect or indifference to them can destroy years of labour that go into the making of a good institution. Universities, it must be remembered, have a special role in society as they provide personnel for all other institutions. So when we weaken a university we cause irreparable harm to every sphere of our society.