The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bright past, bleak present
- Presidency College is no longer a centre of excellence

The author is an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta

Time, they say, is a great leveller. As I look back over a stretch of around forty years or so at the day I walked through the portals of Presidency College for the first time in my life, wondering incredulously how an unexceptional student such as I could have been admitted to the august institution, trembling in apprehension that my carefully concealed shortcomings were soon to meet the derision of my peers, I cannot help being struck by the enormous change that time can bring about. For it appears from recent reports that an entrant into the college will no longer have to worry about his credentials.

I recall that I had received the green signal from St Xavier’s College prior to the announcement of the Presidency list. Much impressed by my achievement, I was about to rush to get enrolled, when my big brother, seven years my senior and a Xaverian himself, intervened. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Wait for the Presidency list. If you get admitted there, leave Xavier’s alone. Remember, Presidency is PRESIDENCY!”

Today, towards the fag end of a teaching career in economics, I am no longer sure that I would follow my caring brother’s advice if, by some miracle or the other, I were to be presented with the choice once again. Indeed, I might even start behaving like Buridan’s ass. Unable to decide which was the better school to enter, I could well end up remaining uneducated for the rest of my life. And indeed, St Xavier’s would not be the only dilemma in the assortment of equivalents before me, because the programmes at other institutions stand out also. Or, so at least is my impression, as I interact with the young faces in the classrooms at the Indian Statistical Institute.

The ISI itself had succeeded in remaining a bit of a mystery for a long many years. To the uninitiated, it was a laboratory of sorts where they churned out numbers, either for the government, or for no apparent reason at all. An institution specializing in the obscurium per obscurius. But to those who knew, it has been housing some of the greatest statisticians and mathematicians India has ever produced. It runs one of the finest teaching programmes in statistics and mathematics. Not in India, but in the world. More recently, however, the ISI has emerged from its relative obscurity by running independent programmes in subjects other than statistics and mathematics.

One of these happens to be the Master of Science in quantitative economics course, a programme that attracts some of the best economics students in the country. It is while assessing students in this class that I became aware of the havoc that time can cause to established beliefs. The course began some five or six years ago, but Presidency College, despite its reputation, has not managed to secure its expected share in the cake when it came to successful entrants into this sought after, but limited entry, programme. What explains the change'

It is impossible, and improper to pretend, to diagnose the illness with exactitude. One can at best offer surmises. And I am afraid that my conjectures do not agree with the view that the fault lies entirely with the government in power. The latter surely has a share in the blame, but it is not the sole culprit. An equally responsible party is the college faculty itself. Presidency College, going at least by the example set by the economics department, has had the unique distinction of being an undergraduate school where faculty members engaged in research. This was borne out clearly by the setting up of the University Grants Commission Advanced Centre in that department.

It employed research fellows and faculty members with the explicit objective of carrying out research. As it turns out, the Centre, which still exists, has not flourished in the end, partly due to lack of funds, but partly also because of its inability to attract too many eminent scholars, other than the ones who set it up. It is not surprising that academics interested in doing research were not enthused about joining the Centre. The only teaching opportunity the department of economics offered concerned undergraduates and, except for truly outstanding people, this can turn out to be detrimental to research activity. Emphasizing research in an undergraduate college leads to a mixing up of priorities. It should be avoided if possible.

Yet, one must not berate undergraduate teaching simply because it may not be research oriented. Research is a challenging activity. But so is undergraduate teaching. It is a far more difficult task to build the foundations for a fresh high school graduate than to interact with an advanced graduate student, who needs no training in the fundamentals of the subject, and even if he does, can be asked to go and do it by himself. What is necessary is that undergraduate teaching be accorded the proper respect it deserves. Undergraduate teaching is an honourable activity, not because of its research content, but because it’s a damned hard thing to accomplish with distinction.

Presidency College has a tradition of such brilliant teachers, teachers whose names will stay written in letters of gold for many years to come. They will be remembered by the most illustrious of their students with fondness and admiration.

It is from this point of view that I believe it would be counterproductive to try and turn Presidency College into a postgraduate institution. Efforts are afoot to initiate regular Masters courses in the college. Quite apart from the fact that the college lacks the teaching resources for the purpose, in terms of its faculty size, the move is bound to dilute the quality of undergraduate teaching, where alone lies its comparative advantage. A poorer turnout of college graduates can only be socially harmful. It will do little good for the programmes of higher studies elsewhere in the country. I would go even further and say that Presidency College should make serious attempts to strengthen its teaching resources by inviting established teachers from other institutions to participate in its undergraduate teaching on a voluntary basis.

How well do the government’s recent pronouncements fit in with all this' Miserably, to say the least. The idea of increasing the size of the student body with a view to justifying per head expenditure borne by the state is capitalist logic at its worst. Especially so when it comes from the longest surviving bastion of socialism in the country. It is a fact of life, unalterable by the holiest of socialist doctrines, that all human beings are not intellectually equal. Nor are they equal in terms of other skills. A brilliant student of physics is likely to fail as an apprentice in a carpenter’s workshop. The carpenter will have no hesitation in throwing him out. Why should the rules pertaining to an undergraduate class in Presidency College be any different from the workshop’s' Can a dedicated teacher do his job honestly if he has to address a heterogeneous group of students' Either he has to orient himself to the lowest common denominator, or address the relatively competent students alone, quite oblivious of the needs of the rest of the students.

Presumably the government has solid grounds for maintaining the Nandan theatre in the city in its immaculate shape. A possible reason could not be that it yields measurable profits commensurate with the cost of maintenance. A mere look at the state of the privately run theatres in Calcutta would convince anyone that Nandan is not a profit-making organization. But no one in the government will ever argue that Nandan should be dismantled.

Nonetheless, poor Presidency College will have to justify itself. That too in terms of numbers.

Numbers sanctify, as Monsieur Verdoux might have observed.

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