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Missing the mark

The government plans to set up 14 new ‘national universities’. This is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, says Sukanta Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2009 22:54 IST

The more things change, the more they remain the same. For some time, India’s higher education system had favoured the marketing of high-paying polytechnic skills by private vendors. Today, official wisdom is touting a knowledge culture under State patronage. The two models have something in common: lots and lots of money. But the private players were out to grab money; the government to splurge it.

But only on 14 institutions. None of them exists as yet. A concept plan for 14 new ‘national universities’ is in circulation. It blazons the best principles: intellectual freedom, ready use of lavish funds, release from bureaucracy and synergy between teaching and research. Enshrining these ideals, the 14 centres will make India ‘the’ global knowledge hub, setting benchmarks for the universities we already have.

There is an obvious riposte. If wisdom has dawned, why not apply it, for starters, to the existing institutions? The implication is that they are too debased to reform. It is an old ploy. You let the system decay, or actively corrupt it; then, shunning systemic reform, you erect showpieces — not hubs or pivots but escape valves. When those fail, you set up others. You don’t win new territory; you lose old ground.

But this time (as every time) it will be different: we will throw big, big money at the new centres. Their annual research grant will be at least Rs 200 crore each. Teachers’ tax-free salaries will not be pegged to any scale, besides lavish perks and unlimited top-up from private sources.

It is all carrot and no stick. No set qualifications for the staff. Total freedom from regulatory bodies like the University Grants Commission. (If these bodies are bad for growth, why impose them elsewhere? Why have them?) And — wait for this — no financial audit whatsoever: even the Comptroller General of India is specifically excluded.

Why this extravagance, almost at a fantasy level? The sobriquet ‘Brain Gain Policy’ suggests the answer: to woo our brilliant compatriots who migrated abroad. Some have obtained there the success that the Indian system withheld at home. Let the Indian taxpayer support them now: prospects abroad have dwindled since the meltdown.

No doubt great good would result if competent NRI academics returned home. Is the recent handsome pay rise not enough to attract the academically, not to say patriotically, inclined? Why should such returnees remain in academic enclaves? If they do, how will they benefit their surroundings — which, the subtext conveys, would still offer a depressing contrast?

Experience suggests that homecoming academics are discouraged less by material deprivation than by strangling bureaucracy and partisan politics. If the former is bad, it is bad for any institution. As for politics — the whiff of loot will hardly lessen it.

I write as a partisan, for I teach in India. I see our institutions milked and corrupted by creatures of the system, which glibly disowns its misbegotten offspring in proposals like the present. I also see a fair strength of brilliant, internationally-qualified scholars, distributed patchily but not quite absent anywhere; and a humbler but sincere and able teaching force — at least a sizeable minority of the total — fighting heavy odds with little money or encouragement. Individual commitment apart, they are necessarily stakeholders in the system. Not so a returning emigré, enticed by emoluments and facilities that he probably would not obtain abroad.

But surely any deserving scholar could join the new universities? Perhaps, though the lines of the proposal exclude the resident Indian. The question is, why should they? Why abandon the system they have served? And how would the system survive their departure?

The higher education budget for the country increased by Rs 2,000 crore this year. By contrast, the 14 new universities would consume Rs 2,800 crore annually in research grants alone (to say nothing of salary and establishment costs). That would suffice to pay

Rs 15,000 to every primary school in India, Rs 30,000 per upper school, Rs 1 lakh per college and Rs 20 lakh per university — paltry sums beyond the dreams of most such institutions. It would leave Rs 250 crore to upgrade Sarva Shiksha Kendras to proper schools, and middle schools to secondary.

Such infusions could fund a genuinely national educational order, based on a credible universal school system. As for national universities — we already have 300 of them. We cannot wish them away. A portion of Rs 2,800 crore — with discreet checks and balances, not a free bonanza — would give their programmes critical mass. The general improvement would automatically throw up a cluster of front-ranking institutions.

A cogent case for the balanced, humane growth of higher education has been made in the Yashpal Committee report. It favours state initiative in academic planning; a holistic blend of disciplines in university programmes; equitable funding of all institutions, based on merited need; and incorporation of foreign entrants within the Indian system.

Contrast a bizarre sentence in the concept note: the new universities will be ‘unencumbered by history or culture of the past’. Oxford, Harvard, or even Massachusetts Institute of Technology (founded 1861) would be shocked. Must global culture deny space and time? It seems ominous for this ancient land to locate its future in a vacuum of the mind.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor of English and Director, School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.