Today's Editorial

22 April 2017

Map for the future


Source: Bu Sukanta Chaudhuri: The Telegraph


The ministry of human resource development has published this year's National Institutional Ranking Framework. This affords an opportunity to review the state of higher education in India. All such rankings are imperfect for many reasons. Many institutions do not participate in them. Last year's NIRF — the first — was too scrappy to be of use. Even this time, some major universities have abstained, while one has alleged wrongful exclusion through error. More crucially, different rating agencies adopt different criteria.

The NIRF does not match the assessments of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, another Union government body. The two chief international agencies, Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds, differ substantially. Indian institutions fare badly with both, owing largely to our systemic defects but partly to inbuilt constraints like the bar on international faculty in public universities. Above all, one may question whether such ratings, using broad generalized criteria, can trace the complex chemistry of academic excellence. But at least they offer a rough index of the state of play. We should not take them as gospel, least of all to foster unhealthy competition. Their real benefit is to provide a window to the campus cape beyond the figures.

The first point to grasp is that such lists offer a flattened view of markedly uneven academic terrain. Virtually every list is topped by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru — formally a university by enrolling a handful of undergraduates, but actually (like some others on the list) a research establishment of a vastly different nature. Almost as glaring are the growing disparities in funding and official favour between the three major categories of Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, Central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Banaras Hindu University ( second and third among universities), and state universities like Jadavpur and Anna University, in fifth and sixth positions.

The NIRF assesses them all by the same set of outputs like staff strength, staff- student ratio and quantum of research. Closer analysis, measuring these outputs against inputs like assured state funding, infrastructural support and procedural freedom, would yield a different graph of academic productivity, hence a different blueprint for the future. For instance, the top rankings in West Bengal — IIT Kharagpur, Jadavpur ( state), Calcutta ( state) and Visva- Bharati ( Central), in that order — should prompt fresh thought on the differential support that would allow each institution to realize its full potential.

The same might be said of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Punjab, Assam and Telangana. In all these states, state- run universities have approached or even outperformed vastly better endowed Central institutions. The NIRF underscores the long- apparent need for broadly equal support to all institutions of comparable performance, whether Central or state- run, professional or ' general'. The resource gap between Central and staterun universities increases with each passing year. Yet, even now, most of the former lack not only high ratings but general recognition, while a few state- run universities battle the odds to retain their positions amid general decline.

Depressingly, private universities feature sparsely in the ratings, although they educate two out of three students in India. In most institutions of all categories, the biggest lacuna is in research. The worth of a university depends upon its research agenda: it is this that sustains and invigorates the taught programmes. Shortly after Independence, India took a disastrous decision to separate research institutes from universities. The research nonetheless conducted in the latter (a substantial share of the low national output) is being further undermined in today's new dispensation.

Inadequate and discriminatory funding is a major cause; but it does not explain the lacklustre research scene even in many well- endowed institutions. That is due to the administrative stranglehold, with regimentation of thought and conduct, more and more evident in higher education policy at both Central and state levels. Nowhere does that regimentation extend to disruptive student politics, spearheaded by the party in power. Instead, mounting curbs and pressures are being brought to bear on the faculty.

It is unreal to expect that enquiry and innovation will thrive in such a milieu, even at the level of basic classroom teaching. Nothing indicates the poverty of current educational planning than the University Grants Commission's laying down a prefabricated undergraduate course to be taught throughout the land. What stake will the individual teacher have in such a course? What innovation can it generate? In many universities, conditions are so dismal that even this compliance may come as a boon; it is the outstanding institution that will decline.

We are inculcating a campus culture of mediocrity, conditioning both teacher and student to routine conformity rather than active thought and participation. Mediocre training translates into indifferent research. No kind of innovative thinking, even in a ' purely' scientific or technological field, can flourish except in a general ambience of free thought and speech. On the practical plane, research — especially the project based research that is virtually the norm in the sciences and social sciences, and a growing trend in the humanities — calls for local autonomy in man- management and expenditure.

Sheer bureaucracy can be a major deterrent. Indian researchers have learnt how to tackle its conventional forms, but it is increasingly taking the line of de facto political control. The statutory governance of Central universities has grown more and more restrictive over the years; the current regime has added a culture of surveillance and thought policing.

Most states reduced the universities in their control to local fiefdoms long ago. Bengal's Left Front government has been unduly singled out as an instance. Its record is inglorious, sometimes unpardonable; but by accident or design, it left the institutional framework largely intact, allowing scope for constructive effort. This explains how Jadavpur and Calcutta Universities, having weathered many storms, could figure first and fourth in the NIRF among state universities, besides high THE rankings. Jadavpur University, in particular, has afforded a freedom to work and innovate that does not obtain elsewhere in India.

This academically congenial milieu may not survive the crudely totalizing control and feckless restructuring undertaken by the present government in a series of legislations from 2012 to 2017, and no less its acts of omission, some of which seem deliberate. Curiously, every reported comment by Bengal's education minister about either Jadavpur or Calcutta University is belligerent or dismissive. The same is true, more virulently if anything, of successive human resource development ministers vis- à- vis JNU or Delhi University; even the once inoffensive University of Hyderabad has lost favour. It is bizarre and deplorable that the nation's best universities should be viewed by our rulers in this confrontational light. It indicates the knee- jerk response of authorities ill at ease with the academic world, anxious to suppress an alien entity by the crudest and readiest means.

The HRD minister disingenuously contrasted ' those who agitate' and ' those who work' in these places. The distinction applies to most Indian campuses, rather less if anything to the leading ones. If the minister is unaware of the academic standing of the faculty supporting the ' agitators' or protesting assorted evils in our polity, he has been imperfectly briefed. If the toiling researchers are indeed obscured and marginalized, as he says, he should do something about it. He might start by cleaning the Augean stables of academic funding: the bureaucratic tanglesthe inflexible rules, the delays of months and years in disbursing approved grants. Above all, he might consider whether the faculty of the nation's best universities, as assessed by his own ministry, might indeed be the fittest persons to run those institutions at the level to which they have raised them.

The adversarial relationship tells on the university community as well. Our campuses have always known protests and agitations, often on flimsy or perverse grounds. These distractions fell into perspective alongside the serious academic agenda. Never before, as now, has campus life fallen into an almost unbroken rhythm of protest and counter- intolerance — on issues sometimes grave, sometimes overblown, and always disruptive.

This is bound to affect academic activity, if it has not already done so. Graffiti- scarred walls, endless meetings and rallies, interruptions in work flow and academic exchange — none of this bodes well for a university. The solution is not to enforce ' discipline' by coercive means; it is to get off the institution's back and let it work out its own salvation. If it fails, no external force can save it, certainly not the motivated paternalism of the State or ruling party. Rather, that will frustrate all chance of success, leading to demoralized faculty, grounded projects and hamstrung research centres that constitute the accustomed heartbreaks of academic life in India.

The NIRF, like all academic rankings, is less a record of past performance than a ground map for future exploration. It can be used to develop the terrain sustainably or to destroy the academic ecology. The powers that rule and overrule higher education in India seem well set on the latter course. It may soon be too late to reverse the process.