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WHY AUTONOMY'
- The size of Calcutta University makes decentralization urgent

After the polemics, the issues at large. The dust is yet to settle so I still have time to make a different case for Presidency College, a case missed by commentators and not even addressed by those who wrote the report for the government of West Bengal — or should I say Alimuddin Street'

First, a piece of history. The idea that Presidency College should be granted autonomy and be deemed to be a university first surfaced in the Presidency College Magazine in 1972. The article entitled, “A Case for Creating an Institution Deemed to be a University at Presidency College, Calcutta”, was not signed. I was closely associated with that issue of the magazine, so I knew that the author was Dipak Banerjee, an iconic professor of economics in the college.

Professor Banerjee’s prose was like the man himself: simple and elegant. I cannot hope to reproduce the lucidity of his logic. His argument flowed from the following premise: “The present state of the University of Calcutta — with its burden of 225,000 students in nearly 200 colleges — is such that some degree of decentralization is being recommended by nearly every authority in the field of higher education.”

Today nearly 200 colleges are affiliated to Calcutta University, which sits on the fate of some 700,000 students. According to the university’s official website, 100,000 students take admission to undergraduate courses every year. This only underlines the point about decentralization that Professor Banerjee had made in 1972. The sheer size of Calcutta University raises a critical point about its functioning and its future.

When the University of Calcutta was established 150 years ago, the then authorities — perhaps because they were British or because they were unaware of any other model, or both — adopted the system of affiliated colleges that prevailed in London University. Presidency College was its first affiliated — and most important — college. When the size of the university was small, the system worked, and even worked well. After Independence, the university grew in the number of students and in the number of colleges. By the Seventies — as Professor Banerjee noted — it was clear that the system was no longer working. This trend has continued and worsened.

The problems arising from this are not difficult to deduce. There is no uniformity of standards of teachers and students. This makes a mockery of setting the syllabi and question papers. Examinations become impossible to conduct with any degree of order and fairness. Imagine the task of setting and distributing question papers for nearly 100,000 students; and the prospect of having the answers of so many candidates fairly examined. It is truly mind-boggling. Yet Calcutta University, oblivious to the implications of its size, continues to cater to 200 colleges and a few lakh students. This mode of functioning also means that, in terms of teaching and examining, there is a pronounced pressure on the university to be fettered by considerations of the lowest common denominator. Nobody in his right mind can argue that this is a tenable situation or that it meets the demands of higher education. A university cannot only produce BAs and MAs without giving them even a semblance of an education.

What then is the solution' We have to seek an alternative model. The size of the university has to be reduced. The only way of doing this is by allowing individual colleges to function independently without being tied down to any university. It is true, of course, that not each of the 200 colleges is today in a position to function autonomously, which would mean recruiting its own faculty, setting its own syllabi, conducting its own examinations and so on. But some are more equal than others. And so the process can start: a small stride for Presidency College can become a giant stride for education. Does not a single spark cause a prairie fire'

Before entering into the thorny issue of Presidency College’s special position, one thing needs to be made clear. The point about reducing the size of Calcutta University is to do with education administration which is in dire need of reforms. Just as the economic reforms agenda is trying to boost individual enterprise and to reduce the role of the State, similarly in the field of education the role of a huge centralized university, like Calcutta University, should be reduced and colleges made independent of it. This is the logic underpinning the demand for autonomy. The flip side of this demand is the attempt to reduce the size and the power of the university. This argument was true in the early Seventies and remains so even today.

The committee appointed by the government of West Bengal to look into the question of autonomy for Presidency College did not even look into this logic in its report. The members reduced the entire matter to the relationship between Calcutta University and Presidency College. They further confused the question of autonomy — as have some other commentators — with the pursuit of excellence in Presidency College.

Excellence can be achieved with or without autonomy. The latter is not a necessary condition for the pursuit of excellence, which should be the aim of all institutions of higher learning, not just of one college. Presidency College in the days of its glory attained excellence without autonomy. But in those days the size of the university was not this big and, more importantly, there was much less governmental and political interference in the affairs of the college, especially in the manner teachers were transferred. It is necessary therefore to logically separate the two issues of autonomy and pursuit of excellence.

In 1972, as Professor Dipak Banerjee so convincingly demonstrated, Presidency College was in a position to demand autonomy as it stood. He argued that the college only needed a few incremental improvements to become a deemed university. This he argued would help and further the excellence that the college had already attained and was famous for. Today, as I have tried to reason above, the size and the state of Calcutta University has made autonomy an imperative. I would say this is pretty much self-evident.

What about the pursuit of excellence in Presidency College' Many would argue (myself included) that this is not on top of the college’s agenda, and has not been for some time. A variety of reasons is responsible for this and these have been analyzed in the report of the committee. Political and governmental — under the CPI(M) they are often synonymous — interference is one of the more important causes. This does not undermine the argument for autonomy; on the contrary, it reinforces it.

Professor Barun De in his defence of the committee’s position in The Telegraph (July 19, 2007) noted that the committee was given five references about the possibilities of different choices of “autonomous status’’. They were (a) the UGC 10th plan guidelines under which St Xavier’s was granted autonomy (b) any other form (c) non-affiliating deemed university status (d) university without affiliating colleges or (e) conversion to a university with affiliating colleges within it. Thus it was open to the committee to suggest under a combination of points (b) and (c) to delink Presidency College from Calcutta University and the government. It was also open to it to suggest that the academic content — recruitment of faculty, formulation of syllabi and so forth — would be done de nuovo. This would create an opportunity to retain only those faculty members who deserve to teach in Presidency College. And this could be decided by expert selection committees for each subject.

The committee could have thus recommended an alternative that would begin the process of decentralization, grant the college autonomy and give the pursuit of excellence in Presidency College a new thrust and orientation. The committee failed on all three counts. It gave a pat solution that can only satisfy the government and the ruling party.

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