Peripheral presence

The devaluation of academia

By Prabhat Patnaik
  • Published 18.07.18

We are about to witness a major change in India. Academics are going to be marginalized in decision-making relating to academic matters. An implicit marginalization has been going on for some time anyway, but now it will get the imprimatur of parliamentary legislation. A new act drafted by the ministry of human resource development seeks to abolish the University Grants Commission altogether. Its fund-distributing role will be taken over by the ministry itself, while its supervisory role will be implemented by a newly created Higher Education Commission of India.

The composition of this Higher Education Commission will be as follows: a chairperson, a deputy chairperson, and 12 members, of whom two will be professors, two vice-chancellors, one industrialist, and the rest officials, from the Central government, from regulatory bodies of education and from accreditation bodies. Of the 12, in other words, only two would be functioning academics. Matters relating to higher education, therefore, will now be decided largely by non-academics.

Of course since higher education draws public funds, it needs to be publicly supervised. But public supervision can only be parliamentary supervision, not ministry supervision. And, above all, it must be supervision, in the sense only of a general oversight. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru University has had a University Court with outside members, including members of Parliament from different political parties, of which the university's chancellor is the presiding officer and which meets periodically to discuss the university's functioning. Its jurisdiction is bounded, so much so that at one of the Court meetings long ago, when Prime Minister Morarji Desai, presiding over the meeting as the university's chancellor at the time, had talked about there being too many communists in the institution, a senior academic, Professor Sivatosh Mukherjee, had actually pulled him up, saying that he had no business starting a witch-hunt.

The proposed Higher Education Commission's jurisdiction, however, is not restricted to general supervision alone. It will "lay down standards of teaching/assessment/research"; it will "evaluate the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions"; it will specify minimum eligibility criteria even for the appointment of deans and heads of department, posts which currently rotate among faculty in several universities; and it can order the "closure of institutions". If a university violates any norm which the Commission lays down, then it faces penalty; on not paying the penalty its chief executive can be jailed for up to three years. The UGC has none of these powers. The Higher Education Commission is thus visualized as an executive council-cum-academic council for the university system as a whole, with some additional powers thrown in.

The proposed legislation has drawn much flak from academics for instituting political control over academia, since control by government officials basically means control by the political bosses whose biddings they are supposed to carry out. But the obverse of greater political control is a devaluation of academia.

This began a long time ago when aspirants for vice-chancellorships began lobbying ministers for getting appointed to these posts, and, once appointed, to curry favour with them for remaining in office. This was a new phenomenon. Earlier, vice-chancellors like N.K. Siddhanta or B.N. Ganguli (both of Delhi University in my student days) would never be found in the corridors of power. The first vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, G. Parthasarathy, was of such seniority and stature that he towered above most ministers of the time. By contrast, it is not unusual these days to have university vice-chancellors queuing up for an audience with the minister. And one even hears stories of some vice-chancellors of state universities prostrating themselves before the chief minister as a form of greeting.

Almost all political formations alas have been guilty of encouraging this trend, including the Left. This is surprising in the Left's case because it has traditionally respected academia. It used to be said after the Bolshevik Revolution that if one saw a car on a street in revolutionary Moscow, then it was likely to be ferrying either a commissar or a professor. And Indian communist leaders of yore took pains to keep themselves abreast of the thinking and research that went on in subjects of their interest in major universities. The Left in power, however, has not treated universities with the same respect as its older leaders.

For a while it appeared that having vice- chancellors acquainted with ministers would work to the advantage of the academic community. After all, several scholars keen on their research were not interested in taking up administrative duties and becoming vice-chancellors. If some persons did, and could work their way through the corridors of power, then so much the better; they would act as a buffer between the wielders of political power and the community of scholars, shielding the latter from any interference from the former. But this sort of precarious equilibrium is always difficult to maintain for long, and certainly not if the political authority is keen on interference.

The current Central government is keen on interfering in university affairs, not just to fill universities with loyalists irrespective of their qualifications, but above all to keep out academics with a different world-view; and it has taken advantage of the devaluation of academia, which has been occurring for some time, in order to try and marginalize it altogether. Now we shall have the absurd spectacle of academics queuing up outside the ministry of human resource development for accessing their research grants, and outside the Higher Education Commission for defending what they have been teaching.

Or, maybe, they would just prefer becoming hacks. Why bother with research at all if the price to pay is umpteen visits to the corridors of the ministry of human resource development, where one is made to feel an unwanted supplicant? And why bother with devising new courses when one runs the risk of being labelled 'anti-national' or an 'urban Maoist' because of the course content one has developed? Innovativeness be damned; one just keeps one's nose out of trouble.

Narendra Modi apparently wants Indian universities to figure in the list of the world's top-100 universities, which is the ostensible reason for these proposed changes. This is an absurd objective anyway which already smacks of commoditization ('our products must rank better than their products'). But in addition if the quality of institutions of higher education is to improve, then the academic community must be free to express itself, for which it must be self-governing, as far as possible, with only general parliamentary oversight. The joy of being an academic lies in one's ability to share one's thoughts with students; the university structure and the structure of higher education administration must be such that this becomes possible. Controlling academia is the surest way of condemning our universities to becoming nondescript.

Jawaharlal Nehru University, for instance, might or might not have figured in a particular list of the world's top 100, but it commanded recognition all over the world because of the space for free discussion which it had provided. Such freedom is crucial for a university; anything which destroys it diminishes the university and contributes to the creation of a non-thinking society. The country can ill afford this.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies,Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi