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Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, a Central university founded by Rabindranath Tagore, has never got itself accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, as is required of all Central universities. In its disregard of the University Grants Commission’s rules of accreditation, Visva-Bharati is one of 27 universities, which include Delhi University, and Jamia Millia Islamia, also in Delhi. Yet, in describing it as a “unique institution”, the president of India, in his recent convocation address at Visva-Bharati, was also making a case for preserving its distinctive “heritage” by making an “exception” for it “in the framework of higher education”. Is this unfair to other institutions of higher education, many of which have histories and characters of their own that need to be acknowledged and sustained in a similar way? How should institutions of higher education work out approaches to accountability and self-assessment that would be understood and accepted not only nationally but also internationally?

The potential contradiction between uniqueness and uniformity becomes particularly difficult to resolve when it comes to educational institutions, whatever their pedigree. In a sense, this is how it should be — difficult to subject to fixed rules. This should be true of the State’s relationship with all institutions of excellence, so that centralization should not function as the mandatory application of a readymade straitjacket of rules and criteria to which all institutions are subjected irrespective of their history, present ethos and principles. These institutions, in turn, should be rigorously committed to ideas and practices of excellence in ways that account for themselves in terms of universally understandable notions of capability and merit. Maintaining this balance is an ongoing process that both the State and the individual institution have to sustain in a just and responsible manner.