The much-touted shining nation wishes to morph into a new phase of education where the old liberal humanist idea of the university is sought to be altered into a model of productivity and growth.
The nature of public universities in India is being re-thought by our political class,
given a certain lean and mean shape by policy makers and regulatory bodies.
The freshly minted policies, in turn, are being attested and safeguarded by the judiciary. One is less certain about the execution of these drastic and rapid changes at the day-to-day level, effected by ill-trained, petty academic managers who are running some of the most prestigious universities and departments in the country.
To compound things, these darbari administrators are completely sanguine about their mission.
The problem is simple: the administrators who are supposed to bring changes to higher education work with a feudal controlling mindset while they are expected to run the universities like corporate houses.
Delhi University is a case in point. Here is a university which used to run on specialisation and a hierarchical organisational design. Besides some notable democratic movements within the university over the years, the overall culture has largely been stodgy and demagogic, running on a system of spoils and patronage.
But now, the administrators seek to make individual departments disciplined and accountable, and are busy creating new centres and programmes in order to jumpstart changes they have a catchword for: ‘innovation.’ But since all these are being effected through fiats and diktats and not by consultation, the very basis of division of labour, on which modern organisation stands, is falling flat.
What one notices is a gradual distribution of the employees of the university into four distinct but dysfunctional classes of functionaries: the academic administrator, the disinterested scholar, the political activist teacher and the workers/executors. On the other side of the platform stand the consumer students and their bewildered guardians.
Organisations run on complex, conflicting relationships with their empowered employees. Any institution based solely on productivity and efficiency impedes communication among its specialised units.
This stalemate is then compounded if the administration works on a system of control rather than communication with its workforce, behind a smokescreen of democracy. In Delhi University, for example, the idea of the darbar is being extended directly to its consumer students — giving them a hearing and then justifying all ideological changes by a sociologically restricted sample of apparently consenting students.
Partly it has also developed as a defensive gesture: the administration does not wish to confront academic activism and legal hassles by risking democracy and transparency among the rank and file.
The result is a dysfunction in each of the four categories which would usually synergise. Each of the four categories has moved into a bastardised phase. The administration, which ideally needs to work on a system of positive communication, has become an automata that is unsure of its own employees.
The scholars and researchers — who tend to work on original motivations — have lost pride in their work. Some are fast becoming fellow travellers, trying to dovetail their research with the new dispensation.
Others are fleeing to less hostile pastures at the earliest opportunity. The scholar teachers have lost faith in their work owing to monstrous repetition and increase of petty administrative work load with which they do not identify. There is little work commitment.
Work-wise, the administration has divided the faculty into the full time and the informal section. Motivation-wise, teachers are getting divided between sycophantic executors and the radical activists who gradually get alienated even as they stay within the academia.
The non-teaching staff quickly sense this disjunct and either turn cautious or routinely try to flex petty power muscles. In such a situation, much of the work gets done by a strange sort of shadow boxing: each group trying to figure out what the other three are doing and thinking.
Merely making hierarchies formally flat, web-like or networked may not solve this bastardised predicament. Much of the coordination depends on shared goals and expertise. Unfortunately, professionalisation of a work force with affective ties and rights is not something feudal managers have ever particularly appreciated.
Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor of English, University of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.