When for the first time I went to the US as a Fulbright research fellow, I was affiliated to the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.
When I returned, a question that often came up was: How is it that I went to a School, that too after teaching in Bombay University’s post-graduate Department of Civics and Politics for over six years? The question then, as now, shows lack of familiarity in India with the system of Schools in Universities.
What the School system does is to place all interrelated subjects under a broad discipline. For instance, all social science subjects such as anthropology, economics, politics and sociology could be placed under School of Social Sciences. Similarly, there could be a School of Life Sciences or School of International Relations (IR) or Languages.
While newer universities in India, particularly Central Universities, have followed the school system, Maharashtra is yet to adopt it. Mumbai University, as one the three oldest universities in India, has the system of Departments organised around subjects. For instance, Sanskrit, Economics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Civics and Politics. A Director or a Head leads each Department.
The present system of subject-centric departments has obvious advantages. First, it enables teaching of a subject in depth, thereby contributing to its vigorous growth. Also, it is a system that has stood the test of time, being in practice for about 150. Secondly, it enables members in the department to specialise in different sub-disciplines within a department. Finally, subject-wise organised departments are small in size and, as such, easier to manage.
However, departments have proved themselves unable to face the challenge of the knowledge explosion and the demand for interdisciplinary studies. In the 1950s, someone teaching international politics was deemed an expert in all that pertained to the external relations of a nation-state. It is no longer so today. There is national security, foreign policies of different nations, international economic relations and international organisations among others. But even these sub-disciplines are outdated. Very often a new subject crops up calling for immediate attention and specialisation.
Further, these subjects crisscross the boundaries of the traditional departments. Thus for instance, where do you place a subject like Climate Change? More than one department could legitimately make a claim for it —Geography, International Relations, Law. Or it often happens that a department dodges its responsibility to add on a subject. This is the case with a vital subject like Intellectual Property Rights.
However, with the knowledge explosion, subjects starting off as a topic in a subject could later turn into an important subject by itself. This showed up the limitations of department system. It is difficult to develop interdisciplinary teaching or research studies in the present system. In the 1980s, the politics department developed a course on Political Sociology. Around the same time the Sociology Department also went in for a course on Sociology of Politics. But there was no coordination whatsoever on either developing course content or teaching of the course.
The situation on the research front is worse. In more than one case, students who had done their MSc in defence studies were denied admission to do research for their Ph D in political Science on the specious ground of incompatibility of subjects, though the topics related to national security. If it were a school system, the School of Social Sciences would have enabled the student to work on it as defense studies and politics are subjects under social science. On the other hand, during my visit to Cambridge University, I found that the Department of International Relations-Social Science reaching out to welcome students with a physics-pure science background to enrol for a degree in international relations.
Hence, it is encouraging to know that Mumbai University is planning to introduce the concept of broad-based schools in place of the present system of subject-oriented departments. Mainly it will help break barriers created by departments organised discipline-wise and enable interdisciplinary studies. Hitherto self-contained departments would become units of a school, forcing them to enlarge their vision to become flexible in their teaching and research.
The School system within a University will place sultanates of the present Departments under a dean. Since many social sciences departments would be under one dean, policymaking on teaching, introduction of new courses guiding of research would become easier, providing flexibility. However, Deans should be well-qualified persons with doctoral degree and research experience. The present pattern of college teachers without a Ph D or guiding experience sitting in judgment on research would no longer be acceptable.
The School system cannot, however, be introduced in isolation from other related reforms. It will demand logical extension of flexibility in allowing students to choose the course they wish to study on the basis of the credit system. In the present department system, students need to take courses from within departments. In the 1950s it was still possible for a student to take four out of eight papers from another department. But in the 1980s, in the name of economy, this was scrapped. However, there are departments such as African Studies or Central Eurasian Studies that are permitted to offer a group of four papers. Since students do not want to study four papers in an uncertain job market, these departments could get some takers if they allowed one paper to be picked.
The broad-based school system would work well if students are offered courses from any department or any school, the only condition being that to claim specialisation in one discipline, a student needs to obtain the requisite minimum credits in it. In other words a student should be able to take a course in English language, another course in physics, a third in statistics, yet get a degree with specialisation in, say, economics or international relations.
However, unfortunately governments have always been pushed into accepting innovation only when there is a dire need to trim costs. It would be disastrous for higher education if the government tries to push the school system in universities only as an economy measure and expect professors within a school to teach any subject, from agricultural economics to monetary economics, irrespective of specialisation. This kind of thinking has been built into the minds of decision-makers since an IAS officer heading the agriculture department for three years moves with ease to Finance or Education.
PM Kamath is former professor of political science, Mumbai University