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All those who wring hands in despair every time India’s top universities fail to make it to the world’s elite list of academic institutions should now accept the truth that Indian universities, including the premier ones like Delhi University (DU), have a lot of work to do before they can figure in such lists. There are several challenges that institutions of higher education face here: Lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate and under-qualified staff, ill-equipped libraries and so on. But the biggest challenge — as the ongoing drama in DU over the four-year under-graduate programme (FYUP) shows — is probably the unrestrained politicisation of the higher education space.
In this particular case, the FYUP was fraught with problems from the word go. When DU launched the FYUP last year, certain sections of teachers and students were against it. But instead of assuaging their fears and bringing everyone on board, DU went ahead with the FYUP with the blessings of the UGC, the education regulator. But a year later, college aspirants have been thrown in at the deep end with the UGC asking DU to scrap the FYUP. No matter how much the UGC or the government tries, it is not lost on anyone why this has happened: The change of guard at the Centre has led to the hasty scrapping of the FYUP because the BJP’s view on education is not in line with that of the Congress.
In an interview to Hindustan Times, UGC member MM Ansari did not beat around the bush regarding the state of the education regulator. Saying that the FYUP controversy has been fuelled by political consideration and interference by parties in power, Mr Ansari added that the UGC had been used as a pawn by different governments at different times. Such interference has impacted the functioning of academic decision-making bodies like the senate, syndicate and academic council. The UGC Act of 1956 empowers the HRD ministry to issue directions to the UGC and this has also been misused by all parties. Hence HRD minister Smriti Irani’s stand that she would not interfere cuts no ice.
If Indian universities have to flourish, the first and the foremost requirement would be to end the politicisation of the universities and uphold the independence of the regulator. Otherwise, no amount of course correction will have any positive effect on the institutions or the students.