The University Grants Commission and the ministry of human resource development have just announced plans of converting 45 autonomous colleges into universities as part of the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan program. While the large-scale conversion of autonomous colleges into universities may help increase the number of students pursuing higher education and could perhaps lead to improvements in the infrastructure of these institutions with the availability of greater resources, one cannot shy away from asking what other crucial elements go into making a university an academically vibrant place and a generator of new knowledge and skills, rather than only a transmitter of learning. It is only if we seriously attempt to confront this issue as we create new universities that we may be able to change the fact, rather than only lament that none of our universities is amongst the top 200 or so in the world.
It is worth reflecting on the experiences in recent times of building universities on the foundations of colleges, which have had a rich and distinguished history. Two somewhat different paths are highlighted here: one, termed the ‘Presidency model’—for conversion of Presidency College, Calcutta (established in 1817), into a university in 2010, and the other termed the ‘Cotton model’, where the new university, christened as Cotton College State University was created in 2011 with Cotton College, Guwahati (established in 1901) as a constituent college. The conversion of Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, (established in 1868) into a university in 2006 is essentially similar to the Presidency model. All three are state-government institutions and required legislation on the part of the respective state governments to bring about these changes.
In the creation of these universities, one of the crucial issues is how to deal with the existing staff and faculty in the colleges. In the Presidency model, the college was essentially dismantled: all faculty positions went to the university and those administratively tied to the college, such as the post of principal, were abolished. College faculty had the option of being considered for appointment to the university or being transferred to other government colleges. Of those who chose the former option, some were selected while others were not. Presidency University virtually reinvented itself, recruited many promising and well-established academics, and worked hard to earn the status of an Institution of National Eminence from the UGC.
In both models, the effort should be on enhancing the symbolic capital of these institutions, rather than on holding on to particular positions or specific structures. Both Presidency and Ravenshaw took the difficult decision to transfer out a number of existing faculty. They have shown a strong commitment to selecting the best candidates, an element critical to the building of a good university. Existing faculty may or may not qualify for university positions according to UGC norms formulated after the Sixth Pay Commission, even though they may have de facto taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels for several years. A university to be excellent must nurture research and teaching. Its teachers have to be top-notch but they must also generate knowledge. All college teachers may not meet the UGC’s academic performance indicators. At the same time, it must be stated that API norms, since they have been framed keeping in mind the huge diversity of colleges and universities across the country, constitute only minimum requirements. In fact, these requirements are by international standards unsustainably low; universities and institutes of excellence must and do demand much higher-than-UGC requirements when they recruit faculty.
In both Presidency and Ravenshaw a significant fraction of the existing faculty transferred to other government colleges. West Bengal and Odisha have several state-run colleges to which the teachers could be transferred. The two universities held open recruitment for new faculty, a process that is fundamental for the success of this kind of model. It should be noted that such a course may be difficult to implement in every case while undertaking the large-scale conversion of autonomous colleges into universities across the country.
The case of Cotton College in Assam bears closer scrutiny. The government of Assam has steered clear of some of the difficulties posed in the establishment of Presidency or Ravenshaw by making Cotton College a constituent college of the newly constituted university via the CCSU Act. Accordingly, both college and university exist and a synergistic relationship can develop between them. By the Act, undergraduate teaching continues within the college, while postgraduate departments will be within the new university. Teachers from the college who fulfil the requirements are free to apply to the university to all posts through an open selection process.
Thus, firstly, these articles of the Act ensure immediately that teachers are not transferred from the college. In Assam, there are at present very few government undergraduate degree colleges, e.g. those in Diphu, Haflong and Kokrajhar, and it would be difficult for teachers to relocate. Secondly, a space is opened up for teachers from across Assam, including from its other colleges, to apply to the new university. It may also be noted that legislatively, the jurisdiction of the university is the whole state of Assam. Thirdly, the university can also initiate a process of selection of faculty for its current as well as proposed postgraduate departments, from within the state and from elsewhere within or outside the country. This is essential for building up the new university.
Apart from these crucial aspects, there are other distinct advantages to the ‘Cotton’ model. Cotton College, as with Ravenshaw or Presidency, has been best known for its undergraduate teaching. It is being increasingly realized today that undergraduate teaching is the basis of excellence in higher education for if there are no high-quality feeder colleges, postgraduate programs in the universities will languish. Yet, the status of undergraduate teaching has over the years been undermined with the spotlight shifting to higher levels.
Approximately 85 per cent of our students in the higher education system are undergraduates, and building up a strong academic foundation at this level is an essential requirement for the general improvement of the quality of higher education.