I read ‘Rethinking Universities’ (IE, 20 September) by Rohit Kansal and Dipankar Sengupta (IE, 20 September) with a déjà vu: the familiar mix of high principle and managerial language, the insidious shift of focus of all higher education institutions (HOIs) to public universities, hence the academician’s easy branding as kind of laid back sarkari babu.
From my life in public universities I know their iniquities all too well: shabby campuses, gruff public relations, a Byzantine bureaucracy. All of these need to be reformed, and quickly. But the intrinsic merits of the system have created an academic diaspora that the world appreciates, a major force behind the global knowledge economy. The credit goes to institutions across India, not just IITs. (“There are two of us here from Burdwan,” said a fellow from an Oxford university.) As this implies, at least the higher end of higher education institutions maintained an international profile. There were no rankings at the time, but we looked the world in the eye and worked intensively on them.
Until 2003, almost all Indian higher education institutions were public institutions. But the implementation of the 1990 Mandal Commission report changed academic demographics. The educationally privileged classes used their money power to switch to a more exclusive system. Today, about 70 percent of tertiary students enroll in private higher education institutions, operating at least fictitiously according to the rules suggested by Kansal and Sengupta. The benefits should be obvious by now. Instead, why the deepening gloom?
The authors would blame an outdated dystopia: state-funded higher education institutions with underworked teachers in permanent jobs. Which teachers? Which funds?
In December 2021, 30 percent of positions at central universities were vacant. For professors this was 40 percent. Several states had a bigger shortage: 62 percent in Odisha, where two universities had no teachers at all. At a university in another state, a group completed their master’s degrees without full-time faculty. If the matter were up to them, teachers would certainly not hesitate to appoint themselves. The tangles form higher in the chain – financially, bureaucratically or judicially.
The system continues to tick through various levels of academic serfdom: lifelong “temporary” and “ad hoc” appointees; “casual” and “guest” teachers, ostensibly taking a few classes but saddled with a full-time routine. They get fixed amounts well below the salary scales, with regular breaks in service. Yet nearly 25 percent of Delhi university posts were totally vacant last December. Elsewhere it is probably worse.
This is not a favorable environment for creative reform. Without a respectable level of staff and infrastructure, attempts at rigorous management are doomed to fail; or if imposed on a disadvantaged workforce, it will create stress and resistance that cannot be translated into action.
Likewise with financing. The abandonment of the five-year plans robbed public universities of their fundamental development grants – which, incidentally, were performance-oriented. The budget for central universities rose 6.6 percent this year — if at all, adjusted for inflation. State-level colleges are at risk. Traditionally, the state paid for salaries and maintenance and the Center for Development, mainly through the UGC. Today, the University Grants Commission is a misnomer: its funding arrangements have been largely suspended. The Ministry of Education fictitiously runs the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). Universities (including mine) that received significant RUSA funding were left behind when the money dried up less than halfway, leaving a trail of abandoned projects, unemployed staff and unfinished buildings.
Even more uncertain is the ‘Institute of Eminence’ (IoE) status, awarded after a thorough assessment by the very kind advocate of Kansal and Sengupta. The tag entitles public HEIs to Rs 1,000 crore. Two state-level universities, Anna and Jadavpur, made it. Given their significantly lower funding, they must have worked much harder to match the IITs and IISc; but due to the ministry’s inflexible dictates about state aid, the grant remains stalled to this day. It is clear that the authorities are not guided by performance, but by bureaucratic criteria.
There is another channel for building resources, but for public universities this can hardly be cited to reduce government support. They can be empowered (as opposed to urged) to seek other public and private sources. This calls for freedom of action that the Center and most state governments are trying to take away.
I can explain my own experience. Jadavpur is a small university under a famously insolvent state government. Still, it qualified as an IoE and previously as a “University with Potential for Excellence”. It is among the meager handful of Indian higher education institutions in the top 1,000 in the THE and QS rankings. This is because it has always allowed its faculty an extraordinary freedom of action, provided they worked within some broad parameters and sent audited bills strictly on time. This has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the years. The university grew on its own outside revenue – from now-defunct schemes from the UGC and various ministries, as well as corporate bodies. A graduate school to which the university paid a lakh per year regularly yielded a crore.
Faculty members negotiated with funders as with academic partners. We have approached both sincerely from the same entrepreneurial spirit. I once negotiated with another university about a major education and only then informed my own rector. Instead of crushing his daring subordinate, he expressed his 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 great detail. Both the Center and the state demand endless pounds of procedural meat – there is no freedom of action. The license-permit raj has not fled the country, but has migrated to academia. Add to that the restrictions on freedom of speech and writing (in the IITs, anything that causes “shame” towards the government). Only the demented would expect freedom of education, research and publication in this degrading environment. A person cannot stand in line one moment with a cap in hand and the next moment go round the world in thought. You cannot switch between being a free and a caged animal.
I like Kansal and Sengupta’s metaphors of ‘dismantling silos’ and restructuring. I would just like to ask where in the hierarchy the process should start and how it should proceed. If the authorities were given the academic backing, at least the latter could rightly be blamed for their failures.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University