The University Grants Commission must think through what it means by higher education. But thought seems to have been conspicuously absent from the UGC chairperson’s latest brainwave. In a recent public lecture, Mr Arun Nigavekar has sounded very excited about the idea of simultaneous registration for students in more than one university in the country. This remains disallowed in Britain and the United States of America. So India could be the pioneer in expanding the possibilities of higher education. There is, however, a kind of doublespeak in the chairperson’s rhetoric. There is much talk of openness and flexibility, of the widening of horizons, of limitless knowledge. But the other vocabulary — global, cutting-edge and feel-good — of better job opportunities (“service sector”, “knowledge workers”) is also kept up. Such a quixotic vision of higher education as both ideal and practical is difficult to take seriously, and acting on it might finally destroy what remains of academic excellence in Indian universities.
Going for multiple courses or degrees in more than one university would not only lead to administrative chaos (given the number of people who come to higher education in India), but it will also result in the debasement of the principles on which higher education ought to be founded. Indian universities should be centres of merit and excellence, of the serious pursuit of knowledge, and should not be turned into factories which mass-produce “knowledge workers” for the “service industries”. Mr Nigavekar might find such jargon lovely to use, but he must be able to distinguish between vocational or technical training for the service sector, and going to university for higher education. Inability to understand the difference between the two will belittle the importance of both, and will do irreparable damage to universities as well as the service sector. Freeing knowledge and freeing the market are not always one and the same thing. There is such a thing as excellence, and that is what higher education should stand for. Training workers for the job market is an important, but distinct, activity. The UGC chairman should be the last person to confound them.