The University of Calcutta and its companions in Bombay and Madras have each been awarded a booty of Rs 100 crore in the recent budget, presumably for being around and kicking for more than a century and a half. As a Calcuttan, one ought to be happy. More so, if one happens to be an alumnus. Yet a feeling of apprehension and uneasiness hangs in the air.
What would the university do with the money' Would it spend the money on research' On erecting new buildings' On recruiting faculty' On enhancing student facilities' Probably the money will be spent on a bit of each, but more important, would this spending improve the miserable impasse the univer- sity has managed to put itself in for quite some time now' One wonders.
In the West, especially in the United States of America, a good university devotes disproportionately more of its resources and attention to research as compared to teaching. A faculty up for tenure or a department applying for a grant is judged almost exclusively on the basis of research. Rankings of departments across universities are also arrived at mainly on the basis of publications in learned journals by the respective faculty. Yet certain minimum standards of teaching are to be maintained, especially because the students, who are made to pay through their nose for college education, are not ready to take any hanky-panky from the faculty. In short, university teachers in the West have to labour and sweat to strike a balance between teaching and research, an endeavour tilted more towards the latter, but not to the utter neglect of the former.
In India, for some reason or the other, teaching and research have been dichotomized. Specialized institutes are entrusted with the work of research and universities exclusively with teaching. There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule but they are mere exceptions. The university teachers justify their scanty research by pointing at the teaching load, which in their opinion is enormous. The researchers, on the other hand, avoid teaching on the pretext of doing full-time research. The result is disastrous for both teaching and research. Competent postgraduate teaching requires an effortless promenade to the frontiers of the subject and a thorough familiarity with the finer nuances of the trade which are possible only with active research. Good research, on the other hand, requires the ability to ask fresh questions, which is often enhanced by interacting regularly with young and impressionable minds. Above all, the excuses given to concentrate on one pursuit, completely ignoring the other, is at best callous and at worst aimed at intentional shirking of responsibility.
The University of Calcutta, it goes without saying, suffers as much from a relaxed research environment syndrome as most seats of higher learning in the country. Unfortunately, it suffers from other deeper syndromes as well. The deepest malaise is, of course, the interference of the ruling Left Front in the working of the university. This interference has increased over the years and has ruined the academic standards in a number of ways. First, following a conscious policy decision, more students were admitted to the post-graduate programmes than is actually good for maintaining the minimum standards of classroom teaching. Postgraduate education was posed as a democratic right, which was to be granted to each and everyone who asked for it. The left justified the move as a leap towards equality, but the truth of the matter was that postgraduate education had been used as a temporary substitute for employment generation. In an employment-hungry state like West Bengal, it was infinitely easier to pacify the youth by admitting them to a postgraduate department than by providing them actual employment.
An increased intake at the university had other political returns as well. A larger class of students had more youths that could be potentially indoctrinated into the party tenets. A larger class had also the advantage of a large number of mediocre students who were indifferent to the quality of teaching. This, in turn, helped mediocre teachers, hired by the left to suit its political purpose, survive at the university. The greatest harm was done by the hiring process itself. An increasing number of party loyalists were hired in the faculty and in the administration who could spread the party fables to the students and to the outside world and whose only credential was their closeness to the party. A faculty position was often used as a laurel rewarded to party loyalists or their dear ones for doing invaluable service to the party. So much so that it became a virtual impossibility to get into the University of Calcutta for an outsider purely on the basis of academic merit. This was corruption to the core, for the university was run not by funds coming from the party's chest, but by one hundred per cent taxpayers' money.
The political interference took its toll. Good students, serious students who once cherished being at the university, went away to distant places in search of better education. Academics worth their salt started ignoring this place of learning, which had once housed scholars of the highest possible order. And the exceptional few that showed an interest in joining the university were often shunned by the authorities because they imposed a threat to the party's grip on the institution. All this was done in the name of equality, under the pretext of destroying elitism and there stood the University of Calcutta, a shadow of its past glory, a pitiable example of mediocrity breeding mediocrity.
It is in this sordid background that one needs to ask: how far is the Rs 100 crore prize likely to be properly spent' It is well understood that a good university is not merely made up of buildings, laboratories or libraries. The most important factors are the personnel. Given the rather regretful condition of research conducted at the university in the recent past, the chances of building up fresh research teams are apparently slim, and without proper research, teaching is bound to be inadequate and dated. The deciding factor, of course, is the party's attitude towards higher education. If the party decides to continue with its present stance, the Rs 100 crore is more than likely to go down the drain.
Yet one has two distinct reasons to be hopeful. First, as a legacy of the past, the University of Calcutta can still boast of having some of the finest minds in the country as its faculty. Because of an unfavourable environment, most of these brains were dormant as far as research was concerned. It is certainly possible to wake them up by hiring a fresh group of young and motivated people and by changing the research atmosphere. More importantly, one can trace signs of early changes in the attitudes of the government, pioneered by our chief minister, towards education. The attitudes towards industry and towards trade unions have already been changing, albeit with ups and downs. These changes, in turn, have created some interest on the part of the potential investors in the state. Why can't we hope for similar changes in education' If the government is willing to send the right signals and provide the right incentives, it is still possible to attract groups of young and bright academics to the university which, indeed, is the key to its resurrection.
The University of Calcutta symbolizes higher education in West Bengal. We wish our rulers had the good sense to take pride in that symbol. We wish they had stopped using it to meet narrow political ends. Perhaps we are wishing the impossible. But then it is our wishes that keep us going. Let a new era start with the fresh corpus of Rs 100 crore.