Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A note for Mr Javadekar

Higher education needs redemption and renewal. New HRD minister must be open to new ideas.

Written by Ramachandra Guha |
July 8, 2016 12:15:51 am
Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar after the Cabinet meeting at South Block on Tuesday. (Source: PTI) Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar after the Cabinet meeting at South Block on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)

India is (so we say) the world’s largest democracy; China the world’s largest and most powerful one-party state. Democracies are supposed to nurture free and original thought, whereas totalitarian regimes are said to promote insularity and ideological conformity. Yet in rankings of the world’s or Asia’s top universities, Chinese universities are invariably much better represented than our own.

When this surprising fact was brought to the attention of the last HRD minister, she cast aspersions on the way in which these rankings were arrived at. She insisted that India (perhaps she meant Bharat Mata) would not accept such prejudiced assessments. We would instead devise our own swadeshi means of ranking universities, to show (if nothing else) that we were mentally fully Indian. This display of patriotic pride could not however mask the stubborn, uncomfortable, fact: That in all independent assessments of universities and research centres, those in totalitarian China comfortably outperform those in professedly democratic India.


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It may not always have been so. In the 1950s and 1960s, independent India, then under the prime ministership of the now much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru, nurtured many high-quality educational institutions, such as the IITs, the IIMs, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. To these were attracted some of the country’s finest minds, who often turned their back on prestigious (and lucrative) jobs abroad to teach and do research in India. Nor was this efflorescence restricted to science, technology, and management. Consider the Delhi School of Economics, which, with the likes of Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, A.L. Nagar and Amartya Sen on its faculty, was in the 1960s one of the leading centres of economics research in the world. Other departments of Delhi University, such as physics, chemistry, sociology, and literature, also had world-class scholars within their ranks.

At this time, the 1960s, Chinese intellectual life was in the doldrums. Chairman Mao’s madly misguided Cultural Revolution had depopulated the country’s academic institutions of their finest minds. Scientists and social scientists alike had been yanked from their posts and sent to labour in the countryside instead. In the cities, those scholars who remained were intimidated by young, half-crazed Red Guards, waving copies of Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations.

It was only Mao’s death, in 1976, that enabled the slow, tortuous, rebuilding of China’s universities, as it did the rebuilding of the Chinese economy itself. Meanwhile, in India, our institutes of higher education had entered into a period of decline. The causes for this decline are many, and various. Let me here identify four factors, that, operating singly and in combination, have plagued our universities in recent decades.

The first is the excessive stranglehold of the bureaucracy. Rather than let universities or IITs or IIMs set their own standards, their own curricula, their own norms of recruiting faculty and students, or allow them to charge reasonable fees and raise funds, these processes have been directed from above, by the University Grants Commission and the HRD ministry. The educational bureaucracy has become a behemoth, interested in perpetuating and enhancing its power rather than in encouraging quality institutions to flourish.

The second factor is ideological bias, promoted by the party in power. For the sad truth is that saffronisation has had numerous precedents. Nurul Hasan, in the 1970s, and Arjun Singh in the 1990s and again in the late 2000s, were Congress HRD ministers notorious for appointing academics who were of their own “left-secular” persuasion to positions of high authority. Likewise, in its long tenure in power in West Bengal, the CPI(M) made sure that top jobs in the state’s universities went only to those who would follow the “party line”.

The third factor is regional chauvinism. The faculty of Mumbai University once came from all over India, in keeping with the city’s cosmopolitan character. Now it is dominated by Maharashtrians. Likewise, Kolkata, Madras, Bengaluru, Lucknow and Allahabad universities, all once had many fine teachers from other parts of the country, but have now become parochial ghettos.

The fourth factor is corruption, financial as well as moral. In some states it is not unknown to have vice chancellorships bought and sold. The appointment by heads of department of under-qualified friends and associates, or ideological kinsmen, to teaching and research posts is of course far more widespread.
For all this, the higher education scenario is not entirely bleak. There are some genuine centres of excellence, such as the IITs and IIMs, and the Indian Institute of Science. Our central universities still have many fine scholars, and there are even state universities which have top-class departments (for example, the literature department in Jadavpur).

There is something here that can be renewed and redeemed. Unfortunately, instead of seeking to understand the predicament of our universities from within, Smriti Irani sought to bully and bludgeon them from above. The arrogance she displayed towards IIT and IIM directors was unconscionable. Her vendetta, prompted in each case by the BJP’s student wing, against Hyderabad University and JNU, deeply damaged what are arguably the two central universities most capable of redemption, each, notably, with some excellent scientists on their staff besides the leftist historians the minister’s acolytes so demonised. Her attempts to impose Sanskrit and the national flag were a mixture of tragedy and farce.
Teaching and research can flourish only in conditions of intellectual autonomy and the pluralism of ideas. The new HRD minister has his task cut out: To clear the debris left behind, and then seek to renew our universities and research institutes. Below, from a lifelong beneficiary of the Indian public university system, are a few suggestions as to how he might go about his job.


First, he should reduce the hold of the UGC and expand the autonomy of research centres and universities. Second, he should create conditions for quality private universities to flourish, which can then challenge public universities to up their game too. Third, he should find ways of encouraging bright young scholars currently based abroad to come back and work in India (the revival of Chinese universities was greatly enabled by the return of their own intellectual emigres).

Fourth, he should decline to take directions from the RSS — or the ABVP and VHP for that matter. Finally, he should call a two-or-three-day conference where our leading scientists, social scientists, legal scholars, medical researchers are invited to lay out their ideas for educational renewal, with the minister listening and his staff taking notes all the while. That would be a worthwhile exercise in itself, while also marking an appropriate distance from his overbearing and incompetent predecessor.

The writer is based in Bangalore. His most recent book is ‘Gandhi Before India’

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