That the government is aiming at having many universities with a global footprint is good. That it will itself choose them is not. The government will have to fund them. If later, we are told that the fiscal deficit is binding and funds are scarce but universities can do without much money because systems in any case need improvements and unit costs will fall, the disappointment will be crushing. For, good teachers have learnt to listen to assorted bureaucrats and netas for survival but don’t expect much change from their lectures. They know that systemic improvements can go far but while not too much money is needed, the net additional costs of incentives and disincentives will have to be met. It is true that technology has potential and is cost reducing at the output-unit level, yet somebody will have to meet the bottom line of the total rising costs.
If the government pays, it will intervene, the private education entrepreneurs tell us. But then, the entrepreneurs do so as well, and leaving aside very few exceptions, have not done too well in terms of quality improvements. So will the government have the wisdom to provide funds and allow autonomy? In a way, this is a no-brainer because governments themselves are responsible to Parliament for funds spent in the public domain. A possible way of solving this conundrum is to think of rules-based systems to operationalise autonomy and accountability.
Too often, accountability is emphasised at the level of the student, the teacher and the karamchari. This is, at best, partial and at worst irresponsible. Registrars and vice-chancellors have to be accountable. So do the sahebs in the Sachivalaya and Mantralaya or in Shastri Bhavan and North Block.
If we want to compete with good universities globally, we have to develop a culture where a vice-chancellor or president can pack his bag at short notice and go for a collaborative meeting or a scientific discussion anywhere in the world. If you are VC, JNU, you can do so. At least I would send a letter to the ministry and inform them that I am travelling in anticipation of their approval. But some of the universities that will knock at the doors of eminence will be the state universities. Will the system give them the same freedom?
Universities cannot be made “eminent” on a global plane by diktat. The urge has to come from within. The larger system can only assess the urge and support it. To me, that urge came one morning when I was having chai in the VC’s Lodge and read in the newspaper of a JNU student telling a correspondent that the university would solve a particular problem. The reporter told him that another university in Delhi had not succeeded. This boy said we are JNU, we are a great university. I knew that if the teachers and students had decided so, we would make the grade. In six months’ time, I was invited to be part of a select global rectors group of Cambridge, NYU, Sorbonne, Bonne, Leningrad and Tokyo. JNU was on its way to be a globally-rated university.
According to reports, the government will have a group of experts to select the candidates for “eminence”. This cannot be done in a routine manner. Perhaps the President, in consultation with the HRD minister, can set up a group of eminent Indians from the world of science, scholarship, business and scholarly politicians, which would receive the plans of universities that aim at global eminence and support them.
The idea of aiming for the best in the world of education is great. Let’s liberate it from the shackles of routine and aim high. If we fail, we would have built some infrastructure. If we succeed even in a few cases, our future will be more secure.