Waking the Higher Ed Elephanthttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/waking-the-higher-ed-elephant/

Waking the Higher Ed Elephant

The enormous significance of the Nehruvian vision for higher education in India is now coming home to us,as India earns...

The enormous significance of the Nehruvian vision for higher education in India is now coming home to us,as India earns its niche in the 21st-century world. With all its many shortcomings and failures,it still remains true that at the higher level of teaching and research in almost all branches,be it natural sciences,medicine,social sciences or literature,Indian universities have enabled their students to find placement in the best of institutions anywhere in the world. Yet,there is still a very long way to go.

Having taught history for 44 years at Delhi University’s Hindu College (where incidentally Kapil Sibal was briefly my younger department colleague some 40 years ago) and JNU,I can perhaps claim a little intimacy with some of the problems that inhabit higher education. Chief among these is not financial constraints: it is the problem of resistance to experimentation oneself,coupled with an even greater reluctance to let one’s students engage in it. In other words,the chief problem is intellectual inertia. Thus,despite everything,teaching and research in India has not produced one overarching concept or theory,or one invention that has led to a paradigm shift in virtually any branch of knowledge — or,for that matter,in governing humanity’s daily life. Our systems are too hidebound for that. G. Parthasarathi,JNU’s founding Vice-Chancellor,didn’t share this narrowness; his vision,to allow its students and faculty precious space for freedom and intellectual adventure,still survives in patches,and is what has earned it such high respect.

Yet,even in institutions like JNU,the space was highly constricted and seems to have become more so over time. Theoretically,for example,a student can seek admission to any discipline in JNU irrespective of one’s previous disciplinary background,if one is able to clear the admission test; and there have been cases where such boundaries were indeed crossed. But on the whole the ratio of such cross-discipline admissions would not exceed a fraction of a per cent. The boundaries get tighter once admission has been given. The faculties are mainly uni-disciplinary,as are the courses; and reaching out to courses in other disciplines is tightly controlled. Yet,whenever these controls are relaxed,the results are spectacular. Let me cite two such examples.

Ramya Srinivasan was a young lecturer in English literature in Miranda House when she sought admission to the PhD course in history at JNU with the proposal to work on the evolution of the many legends of Rani Padmini of Chittor over several centuries and in different regions. She could not convince the Centre for Historical Studies that,given her background in English,she would be able to deal with the subject with competence. Luckily,the Centre for English was more relaxed and admitted her,to be jointly supervised by Professor Minakshi Mukherjee (later Professor J.G. V. Prasad) and me. Today,an associate professor of history,she is the author of an outstanding book on the subject,that dexterously combines her expertise in literary criticism and historical contextualisation. Sumit Ganguli was doing his Master’s in medieval history and wanted to opt for a course in human rights. Asked the faculty: what has human rights got to do with medieval history? But somehow he got permission. He pursued the subject further — coming back to Chennai as UNHRC’s representative.


Thus,just a little leeway in letting students go beyond the strict rules can produce competence of very high calibre. Our students at the university level deserve more,rather than less,such flexibility. And this flexibility needs to be institutionalised.

But a prime requisite of greater flexibility is the teachers’ constant engagement in updating as well as widening their own knowledge. Failure to do so,even for just three-to-five years,can leave one a long distance behind,given the rapidity with which knowledge in each discipline is changing. With the very impressive improvement in teachers’ salaries recently,it is the libraries and the laboratories that call for immediate and focused attention. This,and some system of rewards for excellence — which necessarily also implies absence of rewards for the laggards. Nothing damages a system more than its inability to distinguish between energy and lethargy. It is a shame that we do not have a mechanism in place even for ensuring regular taking of one’s classes,much less of updating one’s knowledge. It is hard to imagine greater inhumanity than for a teacher to pass on outdated knowledge to one’s unsuspecting students.

With Sibal in charge,expectations are high,hoping for radical change. It will be a great tribute to Nehru’s vision to raise the system once again to the stature which he had accorded it. Raising of teachers’ salaries is one major welcome step in that direction; the stage is ready for the many others.

The author was Professor of History and Rector,JNU express@expressindia.com