Arun Kumar


Higher education in India suffers from a lack of a democratic leadership that understands its true nature. For those heading academic institutions, accountability is personal and not institutional or societal. The erosion of autonomy and accountability in centres of education is the biggest challenge an aspirational and rising India faces.


The Director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, has resigned because he was sought to be marginalised by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD). The faculty and alumni of IIT have come out in his support but the issue festers. Unfortunately, this has little to do with the real problem facing IITs — a lack of adequate faculty and little cutting-edge research.


Even before the indiscriminate expansion of the IITs began, these institutes faced a shortage of faculty; at times to the extent of 40 per cent. The IITs face a reverse filtration of talent. The best obtain a B.Tech degree and either leave for foreign shores or move on to study management. The second best continue pursuing higher degrees which in turn leads to a weak research programme. Like IIT Delhi, other institutions of higher education in the capital have also been in the throes of crisis.


The country’s best university, Delhi University, has been in a state of turmoil for several years. Its vice-chancellor, who has been responsible for this continues in spite of accusations of wrongdoing. His presence is demoralising for academic staff and the student community. Since a university is not about its buildings but crucially its students and faculty, their alienation damages the institution irreparably.


The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) faces a crisis because the earlier vice-chancellor recklessly expanded its scope. While this provides a false sense of dynamism, for an institution of higher learning, this spells trouble since it is almost next to impossible to get good faculty in a short period of time. Dependence on outside experts for courses is problematic since they do not bear primary responsibility. The vice-chancellor, accused of wrongdoing, is under investigation.


Autonomy being eroded


These are not isolated institutional problems. They are generic in nature and can be found to exist in different degrees in almost all institutions. What plagues Delhi University once prevailed at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. A shortage of faculty and the use of ad hoc teachers affects almost all universities.


The highest National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC)-rated university, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), faces declining standards of research. The university, whose raison d’être was research, confronts growing instances of plagiarism because those in authority brush it under the carpet. The problem is being dealt with mechanically by providing software. Instead, the real problem is the breakdown in trust between student and teacher. Many students have little time to spend on their dissertation since they are working elsewhere and/or preparing for competitive examinations.


Some faculty in order to be popular dilute standards and supervise three or four times the number of research students prescribed under University Grants Commission (UGC) norms. There are others who run non-governmental organisations and institutions outside JNU. The result is a conflict of interest and where academics with little time for research supervision allow anything to pass. There is a lack of leadership at JNU but this is true of other institutions also where decisions are not made on time.


“The claim that India has arrived on the world stage rings hollow without an independent technology base”


All this is symptomatic of a lack of a vision of higher education in the entire system — from the Ministry to the UGC to the institutions of higher learning. The Ministry and the UGC expect their diktat to run, little realising that their demands from these institutions may not suit all. “One size fits all” and “standardisation to achieve standards” is anathema to higher education. Such prescriptions damage the better institutions as has been the case with the introduction of the mechanical Academic Performance Indicator (API)-based recruitment and promotions. Rather than ensuring quality, this move has led to the emergence of poor quality journals, conferences and so on and the promotion of mediocrity. It is undermining the autonomy of academics which is crucial in fostering accountability to the long-term interest of society.


The HRD Minister’s conclave with the vice-chancellors of the Central Universities in September suggested fundamental changes in the running of these universities. Since the Central Universities are some of the premier universities in the country, what they do becomes the model for other universities. Therefore, it is important to know whether what was discussed would help resolve the problems of these universities. The same vice-chancellors who created the problems described earlier are now heading the committees working on the proposed changes.


Apparently, a council of the vice-chancellors of the Central Universities, with the Minister of HRD heading it, has been proposed. In addition, all the Central Universities are to be brought under a common Act, there is to be a common curriculum, a teacher’s recruitment board, transferability of students among these universities and so on. If any of this is implemented, the autonomy of Central Universities will be severely eroded. This was the programme of the United Progressive Alliance government and is perhaps being pursued because the bureaucrats of the Ministry are driving the agenda.

Key problems


The key problems confronting higher education in India are quality, equity, access and financing. In the last 10 years, there has been a massive ad hoc expansion of Central Universities, IITs and Indian Institutes of Management resulting in a shortage of faculty by 40 to 50 per cent. Established older institutions are doing a bit better but not much since about 33 per cent of the positions at Delhi University and JNU lie vacant. Shortage by itself does not reflect the extent of the problem since quality of faculty is crucial. Appointment of ad hoc teachers at salaries close to minimum wages and for years at a stretch is demoralising and results in a deterioration in quality.


Good faculty are reluctant to join newer institutions as they lack infrastructure and because many of them are in remote areas. Transferability of teachers across Central Universities can only spread good academics thin and lead to a deterioration of quality in established universities. In an authoritarian system, this can be used to punish teachers by posting them to remote areas, thus undermining autonomy and leading to sycophancy.

When transferred to weak institutions, good academics could become demoralised. Sending weak academics to good institutions may not lead to their betterment but could result in a deterioration of quality in these institutions. Good students would not transfer to weak institutions but poor quality students would want to migrate to good institutions and this could lead to corruption.


Teaching and research


Our education system is plagued by the separation of teaching and research. Knowledge is largely acquired through rote learning of notes or reading books that are a “cut-and-paste job”. Thus, understanding is at a discount. Consequently, many Indian intellectuals tend to be “derived intellectuals”, recycling knowledge from the West. Exams are mechanically passed by “mugging up” material which is then promptly forgotten. Knowledge is neither assimilated nor converted into wisdom. The result is that the system largely produces people with indifferent quality and where industry complains of a lack of skills.


Independent intellectuals are seen as being troublemakers and are harassed. Mediocre academics, realising that they cannot excel academically, resort to petty politicking and/or become sycophants of those in power in order to climb the ladder. Those at the top take the support of the latter group and adopt the principle, “show me the face I show you the rule” It is this group that violates rules secure in the knowledge that the authorities will not act against them. They bring a bad name to higher education and erode the accountability of the institution.


The government has announced a slew of programmes like ‘Make in India’ which depends heavily on a strong research and development capability which in turn requires a dynamic system of higher education. The claim that India has arrived on the world stage rings hollow without an independent technology base. It is no wonder then that we are forced to borrow technology from China for bullet trains or ask the U.S. to help clean our cities. The ‘Swachh Bharat’, ‘Clean Ganga’ and other such campaigns require citizenship which a democratic and inclusive education system can deliver but a purely formal education system cannot. Unless the crisis in higher education is tackled, the government’s best laid plans can be derailed.


In brief, higher education in India suffers from a lack of a democratic leadership that understands its true nature. Those heading these institutions are usually the favourites of those in power (political or money). They largely implement the agenda of their masters and, therefore, do not feel the need to be accountable to the academic community. To them, accountability is personal and not institutional or societal. They undermine the autonomy of the democratic bodies of universities, like the academic council through threats and inducements. Some institutions have no unions that can balance the autocratic behaviour of their heads. Thus, the erosion of the autonomy and accountability in institutions of higher learning is both from within and without. This is the biggest challenge before an India that aspires to arrive on the world stage.


(Arun Kumar is the Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and President, JNU Teachers’ Association.)

(The Hindu, January 8, 2015)

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