The University Grants Commission (UGC)’s letter to central universities, asking them to teach courses based on student demand, is based on questionable academic logic. How many students queue up for a course often reflects how much it boosts the chances of their employment. While important, for a university, that must not be the only metric in determining the span of its academic ambition. The work of producing knowledge, training students in critical thinking and pushing ideas towards new frontiers — the reasons why societies invest in universities — cannot rest on a narrow, instrumentalist approach. That is to say, a university must make space for arcane philosophy as much as economics, even if there are few takers for the former. Seen in this light, the UGC’s insistence that courses be taught or stopped based on the number of enrolled students seems rather short-sighted. The Delhi University Democratic Teachers’ Front has said that it fears that “rationalising” courses in this manner would have grim consequences for social science and language departments, as well as job losses for those who teach in them.
That is not to say that departments must not align courses to “the marketplace of ideas”. But that presupposes a degree of autonomy — the freedom to design courses, and draw up syllabi — that few public universities in India enjoy. Universities also need resources as much as autonomy. The National Education Policy 2020’s ambitions for education and call for greater autonomy to higher educational institutions is undercut by several factors, from the slashing of funds to the challenges of inequality. The NEP’s emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning cannot also be served by shrinking the platter of courses on offer. The lack of autonomy is also reflected in the shrinking space for free thought in universities. The growing state hostility to debates and dissent shows up in the desire of governments to vet the subject of webinars or to sanitise classrooms of all contentious ideas in the name of nationalism.
True, one of the biggest challenges of the higher education system is its inability to produce employable graduates in sufficiently large numbers. While universities and colleges must do more on this front, the decision of how to maximise their resources, how to hit the sweet spot between academic ambition and market pragmatism, must be left to the teaching community. Each university will find the answer to that question on its own terms. The UGC must not impose top-down criteria that further shrink the space for experimentation and innovation in higher education.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 6, 2022 under the title ‘Wrong answer’.