Excellence and uniformity are bound to be somewhat at odds with each other. There is something essentially wrongheaded about the Central government’s finical desire to homogenize the course names and durations in all of the country’s premier institutes of technology. In the process, what is once again showing through is a predictable discomfort on the part of the State with the autonomy of certain institutions of higher education. Exercising the will to centralize and, therefore, to control institutions of higher education is what these repeated instances of intervention boils down to. The Centre must realize that once the institutions have been set up as centres of excellence, they must be allowed to function according to their internal convictions and commitments. To allow them to do so is the mark of ‘strong’ governance, which, in this case, has nothing to do with the display of regulatory authoritarianism. Nor does it help to give the whole situation a legalistic cast by conflating the University Grants Commission Act of 1956 and the Institutes of Technology Act of 1961. In fact, this complicates, rather than clarifies, the issue of which institutions are under whose authority.
There are the human resource development ministry and the UGC, on the one hand, and a series of distinguished institutions of higher education on the other. And although the setting up of the latter was done under the auspices of the State, their original objective of the pursuit of excellence in research as well as pedagogy in the sciences and engineering, and in some cases the humanities and social sciences, was founded on crucial notions of independent functioning. Those who run these institutions and teach in them, although technically under the ministry, were deemed to know best what was good for the institutions’ goals — and that is how they have to be allowed to run. The priority always has to be given to merit and excellence. This is also true of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore or Delhi University, both of which have come into conflict with the regulatory zeal of the government. The Centre’s great hurry to set up a number of new IITs and institutes of management all over the country, apart from diluting the idea of excellence, begins to appear in a worrying light in this context. To not feel threatened by autonomy and independence is the mark of a modern State.