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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Higher Education In India: Need For Internal Governance | Gull Mohammad Wani

Friday 9 July 2021


’ When I give food to poor they call me a saint, when
I ask them why they are poor, they call me a communist’ —Helder Camara

The university system in India as we experienced it suffers from multiple ailments. It was so before the pandemic and even the economic recession. The crisis is partly systemic and largely the result of crisis of leadership. The public universities have turned into intellectual deserts and university teachers are no special crop who can stand up and be counted. Second, there was a time when universities used to house many public intellectuals within its faculty who had the power of intellect to challenge oppressive structures of society and invasive character of the state by promoting the cause of human freedom and knowledge. The campus is devoid of that fire power. Third, there is very little introspection amongst different stakeholders on what went wrong and how to make the much needed course correction. A Prominent academic says "combination of half-backed schemes, anti-intellectualism, institutional rot and privileging ideology over pedagogy is putting universities at risk". Be that as it may the aftermath of Covid 19 is surely going to impact the institution and concept of university in myriad ways.

The university as an institution and an extension of society is never immune from changes occurring due to transformational revolutions, pandemics or wars .Analysts concur that in the aftermath of the Covid-19 India will have slow growth, rising inequality and a shrinking middle class. Azim Premji university study indicates that 230 million Indians have fallen into poverty. The centre for Monitoring Indian Economy has put the unemployment rate at 14.5 percent as of end of May 2021.For the first time in a generation young people in India are looking at a bleaker future. I have heard many of my students cynically telling that we may have to depend on parental income and assets to survive in life. Further in India public universities suffer more due to lack of infrastructure and good teachers, political interference and very poor structures of internal governance. The new private universities e.g, ’Asoka university’ are elitist and hence lack diversity but do possess world class infrastructure, faculty and academic programmes. A passage from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of two Cities written during the French Revolution characterizes the state of higher education in India. Dickens writes: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was an age of wisdom; it was an age of foolishness. It was an epoch of belief, it was an epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, and it was the winter of despair we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to heaven; we were all going direct the other way". Some of the issues likely to prove useful in transforming the higher education system need discussion and space in the institutional decision-making processes.

Understanding the Policy Environment

We need to understand the policy environment in and around us and see how and where higher education is placed in the priority list of the state. We cannot afford to be complacent and lax in our approach. Four core principles of creativity, innovation, diversity and autonomy, basic to higher education must necessarily factor in our discussion with reference to public sector universities in India . Higher education even in hey days of liberalism suffered interference rather than guidance, politics rather than policy by the state. In contemporary times an invasive market as an ally of neo-liberal state is leading to an unequal society. The public universities like other Indian institutes of Technology or All India Institute of Medical Sciences came into being to meet the needs of people who had undergone prolonged colonial/feudal exploitation. These institutes largely met the expectations of people in good and bad times. The demand for world class universities in contemporary times is an aspiration particularly of the affluent. The challenge for the public universities and more particularly Regional public universities is twofold. To liberate themselves from pressures of parochial thinking and second to reach out to those who are left out by the new liberal political economy and by the pandemic. We also need to think beyond Humboldtian community of scholars who pursue knowledge for the sake of it and live out in ivory towers not knowing what s going on in their own backyard. Swami Agnavesh (who died recently) left academics at the age of twenty seven .He always used to say "your tribe wastes time interpreting the world. The thing to do is to change it". A recent survey conducted by Gallup international found very low reading habits of people in Pakistan. It claimed that 75 percent of respondents said that ’they don’t read books at all. The 25 percent would read course books ,religious literature and magazines’ .This must be equally true of India as well. I know people in our university system who write more but read less to catch up with the much abused ranking system of universities. Students in our higher education system are increasingly showing low interest in going or sitting in libraries as if internet has replaced all sources of knowledge. The more information available to us need not be confused with development of a knowledge society. Does it mean we are ’uneducated educated’. It can also mean that we suffer the incapacity to think. These and many other questions need to be answered.

Jugaad Innovation

We are increasing witnessing a pandemic of joblessness particularly among young and first and second wave of the pandemic has only accentuated it( figures and facts differently reported) . In Jammu and Kashmir government being the only employer the youth are increasing vulnerable to myriad problems. We are increasingly becoming a lonely society. Our youth feel disconnected from fellow citizens, political leaders/administrators and political system. They are detached from their own work and institutions where they are enrolled.Covid-19 has according to WHO disrupted mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide while there is more demand for them. In the midst of slogan shouting " Mera Desh Mahan" a small African country like Kenya has donated tea and coffee to India. The point to be made is that our universities shall have to create hope for the hopeless. The jobs/work whether from public or private sector will not pour from blue sky over night . The universities and teachers in charge of running programmes viz, Management, Commerce, Law, Sciences etc shall have to build up a whole Jugaad innovation ecosystem to bring out flexible solutions to problems of complexity and scarcity. A powerful book titled "Jugaard innovation: A Frugal and Flexible Approach to Innovation for the 21st Century" written by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja are building a strong case for homespun and simple solutions to our problems. Sam Pitroda in his introduction to the book suggests that Jugaad reflects Indian tradition of ingenuity in the face of challenge. The Jugaad represents a bottom-up innovation model .The universities can contribute to Jugaad movement focusing on ’Generation Y’ to start their own businesses and companies and become what authors call as "a do-it-yourself (DIY) generation". Through teaching and training in our institutions we can create hope in sectors viz tourism, hospitality ,education, health care etc. Jugaad means promoting a growth mind-set and discarding fixed mind-set . More ideas can be developed and tested on ground to mitigate sufferings of people. The western R&D model is there but remember that 55 crore population below age of 25 need to be provided with opportunities in a country like India where 50 crore population still don’t have access to reliable electricity. But there is need for academic freedom in our institutions of higher learning to think out of box and game the system.

Academic freedom

In order to make universities actively involved in the complex task of nation-building, the leadership issues within universities assume critical significance. An institution is as good and as strong as the person manning it. It is unfortunate that vice Chancellor positions are not always and everywhere filled up on merit and academic considerations. The Ideological preferences of state managers and ideological opportunism of some academics is creating havoc in the existing higher education system in India. In Karnataka a person who had given money for Vice chancellor position failed to get it and committed suicide. He had incurred heavy losses (Hindu, April 7, 2021). Another professor who had bribed a middleman and failed to become vice Chancellor was placed under suspension for using corrupt practices. There is also a court case about a person appointed as vice Chancellor of a university in Karnataka not on the recommendation of search committee but on the directions of Chief Minister (The New Indian Express, April, 9, 2021). Kothari commission had emphasized that "no nation can rise above the level of its teachers". To quote historian Arnold Toynbee ’of twenty-one notable civilizations , nineteen perished not from conquest from outside but from decay within’. This makes us to understand the reasons for failure of systems in countries viz, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore to produce world-class universities. All these are rich countries but poor in the process of innovation and institution-building. The Arts programme run by National University of Singapore in collaboration with Yale university has failed. The reasons are the illiberal culture of these societies and lack of freedom to have romance with ideas. There is no dialogic space and no contestation. It is essential for each one of us to underline that universities are both critic and conscience of societies. We just cannot turn them into monasteries and then declare their premature death. High quality universities value academic freedom.

(Author: Prof Wani is teaching political science at Kashmir university.)

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