The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The problems Presidency College faces are not academic

The present sorry state of Presidency College has been caused by the Marxists, who emulated Frankenstein by creating a monster in the shape of today’s Calcutta University, purely to carry out the government’s self-serving interests. They interfered ruthlessly through this mechanism in the college’s affairs, forcing independent thinkers in the faculty to be subservient to their political diktats.

Recently, however, sense has dawned under the leadership of the chief minister and moves have been initiated to return to academics the freedom of thought constituting its life-force. The government’s pet monster continues to thrive though, as evidenced by its refusal to release Presidency College from bondage. The college has been denied even the right to apply to the University Grants Commission for academic autonomy. Unfortunately, and unlike St. Xavier’s College, which enjoys the right, Presidency College needs the government’s permission to submit an application for autonomy. This permission was denied, though it was allowed a degree of non-academic autonomy. The most serious implication is that the appointment policy in the college will still be controlled by the state. This is precisely what well-known students from the past are objecting to. The purpose of this article is to discuss a few points that have come to my attention as a visiting lecturer in Presidency College.

Two questions emerge from the autonomy debate. First, did the college deserve academic autonomy and second, what does it stand to lose following the denial' The answer to the first question is that the overall academic state of the college is not as dismal as some would have us think. At this very moment, it is engaged in 66 research projects worth Rs 6 crore, funded by Central government bodies. During the last five years, it produced 25 PhDs from Calcutta and Jadavpur Universities under the primary guidance of its faculty members. There are 46 scholars engaged now in PhD work. The department of science and technology has provided Rs 3 crore to seven departments under a scientific excellence grant, Fund for the Improvement of Science & Technology Infrastructure. During 2004, the college was recognized as the only undergraduate college in the eastern region possessing a potential for excellence. In 2006, it was the only college in the metropolitan areas of West Bengal that the UGC-linked Bangalore-based autonomous accreditation body, National Assessment and Accreditation Council, awarded an A+ rating. It also recommended that the college apply to UGC for autonomy.

The geology department now houses a Centre for Advanced Studies with a UGC grant of Rs 1 crore. The department of biotechnology (a Central government body) has approached the college on its own with a proposal to confer on it a Star UG college status for biology (following inspection). And the École Polytechnique in France, boasting a 200-year long history of excellence, visited the college and initiated an exchange programme with the departments of mathematics and physics. The Paris committee included three eminent scholars: Jean-Marc Deshouillers (mathematics), Roland Seneor (physics) and Elisabeth Crepon (organic chemistry).They selected four final year BSc students to pursue the integrated MSc-PhD programme at the École with financial support. In addition, they have recommended that two teachers from the college should visit Paris, but the draft of the proposal is gathering dust in government departments. Finally, in the year 2006, students of Presidency College secured first positions in the BA/BSc Part II examination of the university in 12 out of the 17 disciplines taught there.

The claims regarding the college’s lack of academic credentials, therefore, need revisions. Several departments deserve academic autonomy, though a large number might not.

Our second question was, what will the college lose by the denial of autonomy' The first, and perhaps the most major loss, will be in terms of student intake. So far, the best students enrol in this college. The performance record in university examinations clearly establishes this fact. Now, however, with the refusal of autonomy, the trend may be reversed. Good students and their parents will entertain doubts about the advisability of entering this college. And this loss will extend from the less successful departments to successful ones.

A second loss will be that when the NAAC re-evaluates the college five years hence, it will be surprised to discover that its autonomy related recommendation was ignored. On the other hand, the colleges that gained autonomy, would reap benefits in the process, despite the fact that it was Presidency alone that received the A+ status, a status it may lose when re-evaluated.

The demotion of the college will make it even easier for the government to merrily interfere in its affairs. To give an instance, there are 25 positions of full professors lying vacant and authorities are reluctant to fill these up through advertisements. Instead, they propose promotions, based no doubt on the beneficiaries’ political loyalty. These policies act as disincentives to competition and hence the generation of excellence. But the government insists on delinking merit from rewards, though, one must also note, few truly meritorious persons are willing today to join the West Bengal Education Service, given its history under the Marxists. The situation is no different from that of industries staying away from the state.

The absence of outstanding persons ready to join undergraduate colleges is a general phenomenon ailing the state and not merely Presidency College. However, there are serious internal problems too that Presidency College suffers from and these have not emerged from the college playing second fiddle to Calcutta University. We noted that the college does not suffer completely from intellectual poverty, but the allegations in this respect are not entirely false either. Nature itself ensures that mediocre people far outnumber the truly excellent, even in Presidency College. However, this is not a new phenomenon. The Presidency of yore too had mediocre people in its rolls. The difference today is that the mediocre are not exposed to sympathetic guidance from committed and more competent seniors.

In the past, the real success of Presidency College lay in imparting to the intellectually less endowed an appreciation of academic perfection. It encouraged almost every student as well as teacher to strive and improve. This picture has changed, as is evident in the average students’ indifference towards the subjects they learn. In some departments, they stay away from classes and ignore internally conducted examinations with impunity. Tutorial homes providing set answers to set questions are treated as superior alternatives to class lectures, which was unthinkable in the pre-Marxist regime. Academic departments make little attempt to explain to students the all-important distinction between developing a love for a subject and scoring high marks in university examinations. Instead, they are encouraged to sacrifice long-term gains in the pursuit of short-term rewards.

The college premises are allowed to collect filth for weeks on end and little effort is made to beautify the campus. The environment of an educational institution is one of its assets. An attractive campus can act as an incentive for students to remain there, for learning one’s lessons next to a garbage heap appeals less than attending lectures in well-maintained classrooms.

Given this backdrop, would autonomy help improve the college in the true academic sense' Quite apart from competent persons being attracted away towards greener pastures, one needs to ask who will be the ones in charge of fulfilling the goals of autonomy. If the very same persons who currently run the weaker departments remain in charge, is there much hope for the college to ascend to its past status' On the other hand, if these persons are removed from their positions of power, who will replace them is also not a question that admits of a ready answer.

Thus, even though, as others have rightly pointed out, autonomy is necessary, the very granting of the status could precipitate a Catch 22 crisis.

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