The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- West Bengal is not without resources in education

At the golden jubilee celebrations of Jadavpur University, the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, stressed the importance of academic research, and its application to social needs. Jadavpur's role in conducting such research was rightly lauded.

But the rarer distinction of Jadavpur lies elsewhere: in a notable balance of technology with the basic sciences, humanities and social sciences. Its science and arts departments started as 'service' units for the engineering faculty. Today, many of them rank among the finest in the country. From a technological institute, Jadavpur has grown into a broad-based centre for basic and humane knowledge. This is the reverse of the usual Indian trajectory.

It is not, however, untypical of West Bengal. Our state has been slow to adopt new courses geared to practical training and economic needs. This may prove a blessing in disguise. The resistance has generally stemmed from stagnation and inertia, but it has allowed the basic disciplines to retain a central place in the curriculum.

There are other blessings we commonly overlook. Bengal's top echelon of colleges still offer one of India's best networks of undergraduate education, for the little that is worth. Our grouses against that great mother institution, Calcutta University, blind us to its ongoing participation in the business of knowledge, with ripple effects on other affiliating universities.

Of course there are academic hubs with a comparable repertoire of disciplines and attention to fundamentals. The outstanding instance would be Delhi. (Research in stitutes, or national centres like the IITs, NITs and IIMs lie outside my purview.) But in state after state, higher education has taken a very different turn.

Sometimes this is owing to grosser stagnation and politicization than anything seen recently in Bengal. But in many dynamic and prosperous states, it is the result of deliberate policy. 'Non- utility' departments, as the Andhra government termed them, are being closed or scaled down. Madras University has long operated its postgraduate arts departments with four, three or even two full-timers. In Maharashtra, five research centres in physics wound up in a single year. Except in some reserved posts, Maharashtra and Gujarat have frozen full-time college appointments for a decade or more.

Simultaneously, new centres are being set up exclusively for professional training. Of some 500 colleges under Osmania University, most are recent additions offering only a few job-oriented courses. Such courses are more beneficial than unreformed traditional ones that leave students both unenlightened and unemployable. But they reduce higher education to an undemanding training in secondary skills.

Our higher education system is selling out shockingly cheap to the global intellectual order, neglecting its duty to set up a powerhouse of knowledge within the country. The irony is multiplied by the Indian contribution to the powerhouse at global level. Our burgeoning industry and economy are subsisting without intellectual support, at the mercy of knowledge inputs from abroad. Few of our industrialists and financiers seem to realize the danger. The new international patents order, with other imminent developments on the intellectual property front, reveal the urgency for a home-based knowledge centre ' not least to tap the wealth of traditional indigenous knowledge before the multinationals do. No less crucial is the adaptation of knowledge to our particular social structures, lest our very prosperity prove our undoing in human terms.

This is where Bengal's academic strengths can be turned to advantage. The curricular bent of higher education in Bengal is markedly more congenial than in most other states for creating a knowledge hub on which the entire country might draw. This is not to eschew focused job-oriented training for the mass of our youth. It is rather to enable an extra dimension to that training, for those higher functions where technology must combine with judgment and creativity. In the arts, publishing and text management is one such area to which, as it happens, both Calcutta and Jadavpur Universities have addressed themselves; others might be translation, social surveys and the new media. I leave it to scientists to suggest possibilities in their own sphere.

But essentially, such a knowledge hub would reach beyond specific job skills to knowledge-based planning, referral and problem management at a higher level. This naturally means major human investment in research, and in curricular training for that research. This in turn involves refurbishing the entire system, though specific centres of excellence must play a crucial role within it, supported by a network of national and international links. The goal is to create a knowledge locale, an interactive academic community stamped, as it were, with brand identity.

Already, the manpower serving this function throughout India originates in good measure from this state. Knowledge entrepreneurs have identified Bengal as a cradle of talent. Despite our persistent institutional shortcomings, scholars and researchers trained in Bengal and (all too rarely) based there command general respect in theoretical, fundamental and humane studies. The state attracts the highest flow of technological researchers from across India. Consultants have noted the state's potential in this respect, yet little has been done to consolidate that potential. Whatever we have achieved has come about virtually by default.

Like the nation as a whole, West Bengal lacks a higher education po-licy. The few constructive moves have been ad hoc measures dictated by financial compulsion or irrepressible popular (hence political) demand. The most successful development is the clutch of new technological institutes. In medical education, on the contrary, a series of hasty and ill-advised moves have created a grave impasse. The mass of 'general' institutions in basic arts and sciences remain virtually untouched by vision, planning or co-ordination.

Yet West Bengal is singularly fortunate in having the Bhabatosh Datta Commission's report to guide its course. Prepared in 1984, this report remains deeply relevant, precisely because so little has been done to implement it. It affords a basis for restructuring the college network: clubbing departments to avoid duplication, rationalizing staff patterns, thereby releasing funds for new centres in new disciplines. This should be matched by laying down minimum facilities and infrastructure for every course. The higher education council affords a ready agency for the task. No state in India has undertaken such an exercise. The first to do so would enjoy an immense advantage.

The nation has decided that our higher education system is not worth its keep. In real terms, there is alarming disinvestment in this sector. It needs emphasis that the suggested measures are likely to save money in absolute terms. Besides releasing funds for infrastructure, it would enable a major campaign to bring the state's intellectual alumni back home. Many of them would be happy to return. If one in a hundred were induced to do so, it would automatically launch a revolution in curricular and research input.

Perhaps a revolution is not what we want. Among competing states, Bengal's academic establishment presents an exceptionally unwelcoming face. The delays and bureaucracy of the College Service Commission demoralize would-be teachers even before they enter the profession. In almost all institutions, information and public relations are utterly neglected. This matches a singular apathy to the physical environment. Many of our leading campuses are scarred by disrepair and plain filth. We are oblivious of the effect on visitors from elsewhere, or the cost in terms of lost grants, collaborations and admissions. On the whole, newer institutions are more sensitive to these external factors; but there is no sign of a general change.

If we learnt that our state has rich deposits of some rare mineral, we would (today at least) hasten to exploit it to benefit our society and economy. But when Bengal's goddess tells us, as she told Michael Madhusudan Datta, 'Your mother's store is full of treasure', we preen ourselves but do little to tap that wealth. The treasure is all around us in living shape: an amazingly gifted body of youth, and a sizeable band of older academic survivors. Shall we welcome the goddess, or turn her out of doors'

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