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UNHEARD OF IN HISTORY
- The home and the world in higher education

A year ago, the Union government made an announcement unheard of in history: it would create 14 world-class universities in one go. It has been more cautious since. Only 25 per cent of the promised funds have materialized, and it is a complete mystery how even that has been spent.

The mystery may be explained by another report: the University Grants Commission, our chief planning body for higher education, has not yet produced a concept note, let alone a plan of operation. The government has now swung into action: it will pass a law to generate academic excellence. This must be another first in human history.

To think of setting up 14 ‘world-class’ universities, or even one, by government fiat is patently absurd. World-class universities grow over time, each along its unique trajectory, impelled from within by the faculty and students and, at one remove, by the community. The government can at most provide funds and ensure congenial working conditions. It may be possible to create a world-class educational facility by throwing enough money at a greenfield campus. The upcoming King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia has a start-up grant of $10 billion or Rs 50,000 crore: three-and-a-half times India’s provision for 14 universities. That’s what it takes to steal the West’s thunder. Even so, the highest-priced research faculty will spend no more than three weeks a year at KAUST. They will chiefly work from their campuses out West, built over decades or centuries at a cost that is literally incalculable. How far will their research redound to KAUST and have a spread effect there? Will KAUST really rival Cambridge, MIT or Stanford? Or will Western academics merely exploit its funds to advance their careers on home soil?

A university cannot be run with contracted consultants. A successful university is a community linked to the wider community outside its walls. A university of international standing is a crucible where people of diverse backgrounds and compulsions are welded into a community by a shared work environment.

Such an environment demands a freedom from bureaucracy and a level of para-academic support that the Indian government may find inconceivable. Lavish funds cannot yield their full benefit under unimaginative controls that stifle initiative, or with support services that dilute it. Moreover, an outstanding academic will want colleagues on a par. Our academic ethos is low on professional accountability: the current benchmarks are so misplaced as to be counter-productive.

The proposed universities may be better funded than the best current ones, but are unlikely to match the facilities of even second-tier universities in the West. They would draw capable Indian academics who might still seek further goals abroad, and some foreign academics who, with rare exceptions, have failed to make the top grade at home. At immense cost, we may (or may not) obtain a set of institutions marginally superior to the present best. Will it be worth that cost — and not in monetary terms alone?

At Independence, India had 19 universities. It now has about 300 state-funded institutions of university status. Of the 130 plus general universities, 20 are funded directly by the Central government. There are also an indeterminate number of private universities (virtually all set up in the last decade) and 114 deemed universities. With few exceptions, the last two groups offer a short menu of lucrative professional courses. Not one covers the range of disciplines expected of a true university, and virtually none has research facilities worth the name. They are a world apart from the great privately-endowed universities of the United States of America, international knowledge hubs whose balance-sheet is not based on the income from fees.

The Indian scenario was very different 10 years ago. The handful of Central universities were perceptibly more privileged, but not grossly so. By some adjustment of funding patterns, we could have ensured a reasonably level playing-field. Of the nine universities so far identified with ‘potential for excellence’, only three are Central. We are now faced with a markedly stratified system, where the great majority of institutions will be stunted by implicit downgrading.

If all the current proposals go through, India’s higher education system will look something like this in 2020. At the top — if within the Indian system at all — will be a university of south Asia, a notionally international body coming up near Delhi. It will be funded chiefly by the India government at ‘international levels’ — that is, surpassing those in India’s own institutions. One rung down will be 14 ‘world-class’ or national universities. The third caste will comprise the brahmins of yore, the Central universities — at least one in each state, including 16 new ones. Bottom of the heap will be the state universities, now officially relegated to a lower tier of facilities and achievement. Alongside this four-tier government-funded system will be a parallel order of private universities (including extension campuses and franchisees of foreign universities), with its own hierarchy which is just beginning to take shape.

As it is, state universities are lamentably ill-funded. The UGC spends only 10 per cent of its money on them. Calcutta University received only Rs 5 crore over five years as tenth plan assistance, Jadavpur University Rs 7 crore. This was not owing to any shortcoming on their part: during the same period, they were among the nine universities in the land credited with ‘potential for excellence’. They are also among the 50 institutions (only some 20 of them universities) producing over 50 per cent of the nation’s research. No, the paltry grants were due to a self-perpetuating system of discriminatory Central funding.

State governments too are niggardly with academic funding even when not poor: flourishing states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have sorry records in this respect. The overall deprivation of state universities is nothing new. But the new institutional hierarchy will perpetuate it, so hobbling their status and morale that they cannot develop the ‘potential for excellence’ they may already have attained. Simultaneously, universities in the privileged categories can step up the relatively lavish spending, and even waste, already apparent in a few.

It is ironic that the government’s new model should contradict its own assessment of current levels of excellence, potential or actual. A more rational course would be to substantially enhance funding and allow meaningful autonomy to the best existing universities, irrespective of their official status (whether Central or state-run), with incentives to the rest to catch up. We would thereby make best use of the talent and infrastructure already in place; enhance the international contacts already current in our best universities; save vast sums on physically setting up new campuses, while regenerating the present ones; and, most importantly, boost academic morale and empower our best scholars to improve the total system. Instead, we are embarking on a programme of waste, divisiveness and officially demarcated privilege, for academic gains that seem unlikely to accrue.

One last factor, which has nothing and everything to do with universities: the new stratification of higher education extends the grotesque disparities already entrenched at school level. ‘Our’ children go to ‘good’ schools, usually privately run and more or less expensive, while ‘their’ children scrabble for an education in shockingly ill-staffed, ill-endowed dumps, and the still sorrier offspring of ‘those out there’ don’t go to school at all. In an era of global ambition, we are worried lest ‘our’ children do not get quite such a blatant advantage when they proceed to college. We are therefore redesigning the higher education system to let them retain that edge.

We need not worry. The egalitarianism of the current university system is subverted by appalling inequality of access, as mediated by the school system. We deplore our low enrolment in higher education compared to the developed countries: we overlook the chilling fact that 35 per cent of our people remain illiterate. No university system can flourish with such a narrow base of entrants; more basically, it cannot flourish amid general educational deprivation. A world-class university demands a world-class environment, less in terms of roads, housing or shopping malls than of universal education and social empowerment.

India’s best investment in higher education would be to ensure decent primary schooling for every child. The rest will follow. But that would take time, and do nothing to empower ‘our’ offspring or pamper our own pretensions to privilege and intellect. For that, 14 select institutions, even if half-formed, are a surer bet. ‘We’ are a tiny part of the nation after all.

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