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Out of control

The combination of vagueness and a desire for centralized uniformity can be a dreadful thing - especially when institutions of higher education are subjected to it. Unfortunately, the University Grants Commission, driven at the Centre by the ministry of human resource development, has come to embody precisely this unsavoury mix of tendencies, enshrined at the core of the Indian State. The UGC has now sent out a set of letters to all Indian universities with pieces of 'advice' that are ambiguous in their meaning and implications in the most disturbing sense of 'ambiguous'. What the UGC seems to want to ensure is that Indian higher education not only teaches, studies, thinks and acts according to the UGC's diktats, but also dresses according to its protocols of uniformity. Handloom fabrics have to be worn at convocations because the prime minister thinks that is what the proud Indian ought to do, for the sake of national pride and of the weavers. If this sounds relatively trivial, journalism courses have been asked to avoid "elements" that might promote terrorism. When asked to clarify "elements", it was said to mean "study materials". University curricula have also been "asked" to include lessons on "vital issues" like weapons of mass destruction, disarmament and the "peaceful use of chemistry".

This is, of course, authoritarianism at its most obnoxiously and dangerously mindless - revealing not only its urge to control but also its utter lack of any understanding of the vital institutions and processes it wants to control. Sometimes, this authoritarianism takes more specific forms, like controlling the appointment of institutional heads, sending out model syllabi and brazenly altering methods and schedules of teaching, examining or awarding degrees. At other times, there is this verbally obfuscating vagueness, motivated by an impulse that is far from vague. The UGC must learn to keep out of such crucially constitutive principles of higher education. Academic merit and excellence is fostered by nothing less than independence from the interference of the State. Universities, even when they are financially assisted by the UGC, have to be allowed to remain free to determine how they are going to teach journalists, historians or chemists their disciplines. And what they wear to the convocation is not the UGC's business either.

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