Sunday, April 5, 2015

IE OpEd "Higher Education, Higher Meddling: No quick fixes can help public universities if successive government exercise power unbridled by reason"

"Higher Education, Higher Meddling: No quick fixes can help public universities if successive government exercise power unbridled by reason"
by Shahid Amin , Shobhit Mahajan | The Indian Express, April 4, 2015

Garib ki joru sab ki bhaujai (A poor man's wife is fair game). If anything captures the goings-on in the HRD ministry since the reign of Kapil Sibal, it is this saucy peasant proverb from the cow belt. Irrespective of the shade of the successive Central governments, the HRD minister and functionaries display a propensity, Alice in wonderland-like, for exercising power unbridled by reason and reasonableness. This has come to the fore most recently in the refusal of Anil Kakodkar, the respected nuclear scientist, to play ball with the minister in arbitrarily overruling an earlier consensus and interviewing no less than 36 candidates for the post of IIT director in a single day. "IITs are centres of excellence. They should be left alone," Kakodkar has responded in defence of having left the important task of choosing heads of these premier institutions to the minister and her epigones.
Six years ago, a UPA minister unrolled a plan to create 14 world-class universities ("universities of innovation") "unencumbered by history or culture of the past" — something that no world-class institution would dare boast. The underlying idea is to build islands of excellence by relying on "the highly skilled Indian diaspora". Now, fast on the heels of a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's diktat making it mandatory for all research scientists in its employ to put in 12 hours of gyan-daan in educational institutions outside their research labs, comes the news that US President Barack Obama has accepted the GIAN proposal mooted by the Modi government. As with other "smart" acronyms, when unravelled it yields the cumbersome phrase: Global Initiative of Academic Network. Under this programme, top-notch scientists will teach in Indian institutions from between two weeks to 20 days. This is clearly an India-specific movement of global academic talent, following on the heels of Sibal's still-born scheme to invite premier universities from the UK, Europe and the US to set up off-shore subsidiaries in our country.
The normal flow of international and inter-university academic talent is, however, for such outstanding academicians to hold regular joint-appointments for a semester each in two universities. Ronald Dworkin, the late professor of jurisprudence (the US and the UK) and the brilliant social historian Carlo Ginzburg (Italy and the US) are leading examples from the social sciences. We lost one of our most innovative sociologists, Veena Das, the author most recently of Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty — an ethnographic study of the urban poor, the "aam admi voter" of north Delhi — to the US, as "under the rules" Delhi University could not allow its faculty such intellectual freedom to benefit from and contribute to knowledge globally in a sustained way.  The new fortnightly GIAN idea of the Modi government, by contrast, envisages a veritable "fly-by-night" rapidfire igniting of Indian students' minds. More significantly, there has been no discussion. In fact, an earlier HRD minister was opposed to the idea of enabling India-based academics (Veena Das worked under the legendary sociologist M.N. Srinivas during the golden days of the Delhi School of Economics) to hold joint appointments in "foreign" universities. For its part, the US government allows Indian academics to teach semester- or year-length courses in American universities under a visa regime meant to facilitate "skill development", requiring a time-bound return to the home country for putting the skill gained to domestic use. The visiting Indian academic, one would have thought, gets paid because she contributes value to the particular US university, which invites her, so to speak, for her "skill-imparting" qualities!
The present government is equally keen on pressing the high visibility insta-cook button, while stirring the slow bubbling gruel of higher education with the ladle of ill-thought, top-heavy recipes. A one-size-fits-all uniform course content across the country is to be matched by a single Central Universities Act riding roughshod over historical specificities; students could now move effortlessly, with scant regard for compatibility, from one university to another, as teachers could be shunted out, the intrepid Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka way, wherever and how so many times the Indian state deems it fit for them to serve the educational requirements of the nation, and in whichever part of the India that is Bharat it deems fit.
It is interesting that the question of institutional autonomy catches public attention when, as in the case of the Kakodkar story, it concerns flagship institutions such as IITs. By implication, for the rest of us wallowing in the mud of public universities, there seems scant possibility of more than a few stunted lotuses blooming. Equally, due to the structure of almost magisterial authority allowed under the colonial dispensation to vice chancellors, the professoriate in these institutions fails signally in its fiduciary obligation to uphold academic and moral norms. Not for nothing were the fellows and professors of Oxford University able to out vote their VC's attempt to award an honorary degree to a controversial politician from the subcontinent. And some paid a price for it, as when Richard Gombrich, the renowned Indologist, was denied the chair at Oxford that S. Radhakrishnan had once held, as he had successfully opposed the honouring of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by Oxford University, citing his inglorious role in triggering the 1971 war.
For their part, desi institutions such as Delhi University cannot quite effect Bertolt Brecht's sardonic suggestion — if dissatisfied with the existing lot, "elect another people". For the usual vishwa vidyalayas, the parameters are given: a national intake of students from unequally diverse backgrounds and a sudden doubling of enrolment and influx of first-generation students. And most crucially, a system that gives the faculty no say whatsoever in choosing its own colleagues.
No amount of quick-fixes can help our public universities meet the new challenges as long as the cavalier and top-heavy system of faculty recruitment is allowed to continue.
Amin is a retired professor of history and Shobhit Mahajan is professor of physics, Delhi University.

Online Comments
Katyal: The article does not make much sense. However, given the fact one of the authors is Shobhit Mahajan, the famous charsi student from St. Stephens, it is no wonder he was able to create such a mishmash of drug induced literature.
Gopal: It's shame for academics to write so poorly. I am inclined to agree with them anyway on this issue but all they done is to offer a few anecdotes. My guess is that the real problem is - balancing of two concerns: the heavy handedness of centralization and the poor quality of management with decentralization. How can we balance one against the other so that we can get good governance? It's a question that bedevils India.
SP: Not sure if author is blowing up some issues or has chosen wrong examples. Sabbaticals are possible for our faculty. Many cases people going to a job with much higher pay at times do not come back. So there may be reasons for existing rules. Nothing wrong if HRD Minister takes a hands on approach in recruitment of IIT directors, as long as it is part of her job. I think we should be hasty in prejudging issues. The GIAN program may be more convenient to international faculty, as many may not want to leave their position in University for a full semester.
Sanket Sudke: There are so many universities in India with millions of students. Why is everybody focussing on IIT's, IIM's etc. ? Better reform the university system instaed of setting new IIT's.
K M: Wonderful point. Every one is obsessed with IITs snd IIMs whose products are ultimately selling syrup water or working in finance markets. The real people who are providing the technical muscle are the students coming out of the second rated and third rate universities. it is the students from private Engg. colleges who migrated to US and other countries and brought laurels to the country. The Govt should concentrate on the other universities where masses are studying.
B. SRIDHAR: It is an undeniable fact that our educational system has been systematically polarized by leftist intellectuals and needs urgent course correction. All the educationalists are leftist liberals mostly from Du or JNU. Anil's resignation was indeed stupid and unnecessarily hyped by the media. He could have sought time to interviewing and the reason cited by him is stupid to say d least. If educationalists seek to do the same things they were doing for the last six decades then the author is living in a fool's paradise. It will be morally correct for people like Romila to keep safe distance because time has come to correct the wrongs
V.S.Malhotra: How can we throw blame for meddling on those in whose make up we all are involved. Were they not at one time sitting in front of us in our class rooms like "clean slates' - to use John Locke's phraseology - on which we could write any thing we wished.
Farhan Ansari: We should educate farming to children in every school in india. America searching these childern to become farmer. The Mechanic
K M: Are you ready to send your son to do farming or to do the job of mechanic?