Excellence must come with a price in the higher education market. The government of West Bengal is being made to confront this simple, but not always palatable, actuality — repeatedly it seems. The latest recommendation to this effect has been made, extensively and unequivocally, in the report submitted by the Ramendra Kumar Poddar committee appointed by the state to look into the government colleges and suggest ways of improving academic standards and teachers’ accountability. After surveying the undergraduate colleges aided and directly run by the state, the committee has recommended that education be made significantly more expensive in these institutions — very much more than what has been timidly and tardily achieved through the recent fee-hikes. This advice comes from a committee headed by a left educationist and reflects the views of a wide section of academics, administrators and student and teacher fora. The committee has also considered global trends for a period of more than two years.
Such a recommendation will certainly have to counter automatic charges of elitism in a state with deeply entrenched attitudes to and ideologies of government-sponsored higher education. Communist West Bengal has always seen the democratization of education in terms of substantial subsidies, without bothering very much about purely academic questions of merit and quality. This has been accompanied with a notion of educational respectability which considers a graduate degree as indispensable for all sorts of aspirations and achievements which have very little to do with the pursuit of academic excellence. This has inevitably led to unmanageable numbers and a plummeting of the standard of services offered by the colleges. Teaching, other facilities, library resources, the quality of the premises have all suffered dismally in consequence. Rather than promoting equality, this has also fostered a culture of devaluation and abuse of the subsidized facilities precisely because they come with a negligible price tag. The government will have to be bolder and more clear-headed in implementing the essential elements of these necessary recommendations.