My associations with Presidency are from the days when it was Presidency College and hadn’t become a university. I was a student from 1970 to 1973 and taught there from 1979 to 1983 in the department of economics. Hence, my statements are specific to the department.
Let me be more accurate about the teaching bit. Presidency College was a government college and appointments to all departments were through the West Bengal College Service Commission. However, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has a special assistance scheme for Centres of Advanced Study to push advanced teaching and research. The commission funds it for five years. Thereafter, state governments have to take over the funding.
In 1979, Presidency College had an Advanced Centre for Economics. I joined that, not the department of economics. (Subsequently, since the state government wasn’t interested, the Centre was wound up). Though technically, appointments were routed through different channels, de facto, everyone at the centre also taught.
Any good educational institution has a trait. Institutions have their ups and downs. But if it is a good institution, quality of teaching never drops below a minimum threshold. The quality of teaching in the economics department was superlative. Reflective of my biases, in economics, I think the core of quality teaching is economic theory. If there is a solid grounding in economic theory, everything else can follow.
At that time, we had teachers like Mihir Rakshit, Tapas Majumdar and Dipak Banerjee, among the best in the country, teaching theory. Having studied economics, one can go on to do various things in life. Some people stick to academia or quasi-academic pursuits.
In this category, there is a high percentage of Bengalis, “successful” by any criteria. Many of them studied under-graduate economics in Presidency. (I used the expression Bengalis, but Bimal Jalan and Isher Judge Ahluwalia are also products of Presidency College). Class sizes were small, with not more than 30 students. Therefore, students received more personal attention than in institutions with class sizes of 100.
A correlation is now assumed between research and teaching. That is, to be a good teacher, you have to be a good researcher with a publication record. This is inbuilt into the UGC system now. I don’t think this is a perfect correlation. A person with a good publication record isn’t necessarily a good teacher. A person who is a good teacher, especially at the post-graduate level, must know about the current state of research, but doesn’t necessarily have to undertake research.
Historically, Presidency College didn’t focus much on research. (It wasn’t just the state government; I don’t think Presidency College was that interested in the Advanced Centre either). Therefore, you had people like Bhabatosh Datta and UN Ghoshal, who were primarily great teachers and remembered for that. (By the way, both did write. Both were before my time. They were my teachers’ teachers, so to speak.) Thus, irrespective of how many papers Dipak Banerjee or Tapas Majumdar ever published, generations of students owe them their understanding of economics.
Those now in Presidency University may get annoyed. But I think Presidency College has gone into a relative decline, at least in economics. Quality of teaching has dropped below the minimum threshold and it shows up in assorted rankings of colleges. It is possible to rightly blame state government policies for this. However, those who were teachers in the economics department also paid scant attention to succession planning. Appointments are often bunched together. Ipso facto, so are retirements. Many who were in the department had been there for decades. They should have anticipated the subsequent problem, but didn’t. My nostalgia is mixed with a tinge of regret.
(Bibek Debroy is an economist and NITI Aayog member. The views expressed are personal)