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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 39, September 12, 2009

The Yashpal Committee Report: A Review

Saturday 12 September 2009, by Bhim S. Dahiya

The key Recommendations of the Yashpal Committee Report is the following:

A holistic view of knowledge, as advocated above, would demand a regulatory system which treats the entire range of educational institutions in a holistic manner. All of higher education has to be treated as an integrated whole. Professional education cannot be detached from general education. It would be, therefore, imperative that all higher education, including engineering, medicine, agriculture and law, is brought within the purview of a single, all-encompassing Higher Education Authority.

Viewed analytically, the proposal is problematic, both logically as well as intentionally. That a “holistic view” “treats the entire range of educational institutions in a holistic manner” is a tautology of the worst type. Besides, didn’t we have this “holistic view” before all these All-India Councils were created? The UGC constituted that “integrated”, “single, all-encompassing Higher Education Authority”. Why does the Report ask for the abolition of that authority, the UGC, treating it as one of the Councils? Let us not confuse the issues! What we need to do is – to abolish all the Councils, not the UGC. Most malpractices the Report speaks of followed after the creation of these Councils, not after the creation of the UGC.

These so-called All India Councils have played havoc with higher education, undermining the authority of both the UGC and the universities, snatching certain vital powers, making them mute spectators to the spectacular growth of substandard institutes of technical and professional education. All this happened solely because of these Councils. The Report’s recommendation to create a Supreme Council, subsuming all Councils, including the UGC—which is not a Council —is ill-conceived, to say the least. The Report, in the first place, insults the UGC by clubbing it with these “unholistic” Councils. Besides, the Report, in asking for abolishing the UGC, demolishes the very mother of institutions that has nourished the entire flock of higher education institutions for over 50 years.

Before we take up the case of the UGC, it may be pointed out that there is a contradiction between the Report’s headline “Reforming the Regulatory System” and the proposed Supreme “Authority”, for a system and an authority are two different things, and this the scientist Yashpal should know better than anyone else. Whereas a system functions through different organs, an authority appropriates all powers to itself, leaving no room for any organ. A system works through steps and stages, whereas an authority acts arbitrarily. For God’s sake, let us not talk of Authority for Higher Education. Let us continue with the Commission.

As for the UGC, what is needed is, not its extinction, but its extension. On the analogy of the judiciary, as already suggested in my book, The University Autonomy in India, under this apex body at the Centre we need to have, like the High Courts, a UGC for each State, call them State University Grants Commissions. But who would do that, and who would allow that? As pointed out in my book, all these reforms are possible only if the universities, all universities, are made a Central subject, not a concurrent subject as it is at present. But is this constitutional amendment possible? If it is not possible, no reform is possible. It is as simple as that.

Here, I am reminded of a short story by Nathanial Hawthorne, a nineteenth-century American writer. The story is named “Earth’s Holocaust”, where the new settlers in seventeenth-century America make a bonfire of everything they had brought from Europe, wanting to make a new, pure beginning. A Hawthorne-like sceptic comes and asks them if they had also thrown their hearts into the bonfire. When they replied in the negative, he remarked: “Then all else would follow.” The point is that so long as the subject of higher education remains an affair of the state, even in the concurrent form, all the woes of higher education so elaborately mentioned by the Yashpal Committee Report would remain in place, and will keep flourishing, getting stronger by the day. I had said it ten years ago in my book on University Autonomy.

The “Objectives of the Commission for Higher Education”—to“prevent chaos”, “ensure autonomy”, “encourage individual uniqueness”, “eliminate the divide between state and central universities”, “enable the rural masses to interact with universities”, etc. – are laudable, indeed.

One would blindly endorse all these palatable platitudes, happily inhale these airy nothings, and dream about a still more glorious future that will follow from the “Authority” of the “Commission for Higher Education”. Here, I am reminded of a scene from Charles Dickens’ first novel called Pickwick Papers: Someone comes to visit Mr Pickwick who, on hearing the bell, comes out in the balcony, looks to the right, to the left, and to the skies, but does not look down on earth where the man is standing. The narrator’s comment is: “It is the quality of great minds not to see the obvious.” The honourable members of the Yashpal Committee share that greatness of mind with Mr Pickwick. They are so set to look to the skies that they seldom look to the ground beneath their feet. Perhaps, they are standing in the balcony, and have no ground (the earth) beneath their feet!

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Like most Education Reports we have had a beginning with Dr Radhakrishnan’s; the Yashpal Committee Report also is an impressive rhetorical piece of writing. Note, for instance, the following:

Universities need the autonomy to operate in a healthy competitive setting. The university leadership must be driven by the objects of the institution and draw only macro policies by the government. They need to set their own policies and thereby experiment with strategies on university governance. They need to be accountable to the various stakholders—the society, government, students, recruiters, alumni, etc. It needs a governance system which is engaged with the university and comprising people who understand the ethos of the institutions. The role of the VC is to attract the best of students, faculty and staff to the institution by making their institution very attractive to the talents.

Does it really say anything—specific, I mean? We have heard these words for over half-a-century, and have seen at the same time these institutions going downhill, with all the stakeholders making their valuable contribution. Incidentally, with so many stakeholders calling for accountability, where, in which space, rests the university autonomy? Whose autonomy, by the way? Merely saying, ‘administrative, academic, and financial’ means nothing much. We have to work out in detail bodies which would exercise that autonomy. It is not to be the autonomy of the university—which means different things to different people—certainly not the VC’s autonomy, which it generally comes to. Strangely, the most vital organ of the university, its faculty, does not figure anywhere when it comes to talking about the university and its VC. It is the departments, which means the faculty, who need to have the autonomy to make selections, design syllabi, work out teaching methodology, get direct funding for research and other academic activities.

Why should the government, if the universities are to function autonomously, issue macro policies? And how large is the macro sphere, and what are the micro matters, the small, perhaps insignificant, which the university should have the autonomy to determine? Why doesn’t the Report say a thing about the mode of appointment of Vice-Chancellors, their qualifications? The way the Report keeps repeating the words Vice-Chancellor, university, government etc., it is taken for granted that these species are as cogently clear in our minds as words like man, woman, monkey, mouse etc. Don’t we know that VC’s and governments are individuals and sets of individuals having varied conducts and commitments? Do we presume that as a matter of convention the VC’s would be scholars committed to nothing but scholarship, and the governments would be impartial and non-interfering?

The point is that rather than take shelter behind clichés, we must face the realities as they exist in our time, and define powers and functions, qualifications and characteristics, of each individual officer, more so the Vice-Chancellor, of different bodies, of relations between the government and the university. Why the macro policies from the government? The university structure, in its autonomous form, always includes Education and Finance Secretaries on all its bodies. Here is the concept of autonomy, that whatever the government position, it must find expression within that structure, and should not come to the university as a directive, neither about macro nor about micro matters related to the university. As for the worthy Vice-Chancellors, enough has already been said in my two books, namely, The University Autonomy in India and Higher Education in Haryana, as to how all sorts of species except the scholars are preferred for the post in the universities created and, of course, governed by the state – from a steno to a soldier, from a politician to a policeman, from a baboo to a businessman. Who would ensure proper appointments of VCs? No rhetoric or jargon can cover the bare bones, all of us know, of which the organism called university is made. Let us, therefore, talk about particulars and specificities rather than run away with abstractions and generalities!

Just one more instance of sheer jargon signifying nothing:

The role of a VC is to provide academic leadership, develop and execute the vision of the university including its growth and to ensure that the university is academically and financially healthy. This requires skills that reach beyond academic talent. The VC must enunciate a sound financial model for the university and undertake the fiduciary responsibility of the university. He/she also ensures that the regulatory requirements are met. He/she works with the Pro-VC and the Deans to manage the activities of the institutions.

Do we appoint Commissions and Committees to give us in the name of a Report such stuff, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? One waits for something specific in these pages penned by ‘sarkari scholars’, ready to be of use, men for all seasons, so long as they are made members of commissions and committees to assume more airs, to remain in the limelight. But, as ever, one only comes upon words, words, words, which would not yield any tangible meaning one can carry home for use. These artists or craftsmen of the cunning reports know how to produce pages after pages, concealing facts, creating new tunes out of old keys.

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The concluding portion of the Report carries fourteen commandments, but saying nothing about who and how those commandments are to be concretised.

These ‘Recommendations’ are worded in the style of commandments. Just as the Bible says, ‘Let there be light, and there was light’, so in our blessed country, the Report says, ‘Let there be self-regulatory universities, and there will be self-regulatory universities, assisted by hassle-free and transparent regulatory processes’. This ‘hassle-free and transparent’ assistance is to come from the CHE. Were not the UGC – and, of course, the once much-touted, but now much doubted Councils—created with the same lofty goals and purposes? In fact, every institution is created with utopian aspirations. But with the passage of time, impurities creep in, human nature being such— fallible and imperfect—the reason why human institutions are to be reformed every now and then. In less fortunate nations, they are overthrown and replaced through coups and rebellions. Fortunately, we have been better off, in that rather than adopt the violent ways, we have been following the reformist path. What the Yashpal Committee is suggesting—overthrowing the UGC and all the Councils—is the violent, not the reformist, path. Who would guarantee that the new Super Council would not become impure afterwards, as imperfect as the UGC seems to the worthy members of the Yashpal Committee? In fact, given its aspirations for grabbing all powers now shared by so many Councils, it may become even worse than its poor cousins.

Returning to the style of commandments, who would give the universities the self-regulatory status with the present Constitution of the country in place in which higher education is on the concurrent list, giving both Parliament and State Assemblies the right to enact laws about higher education. Only yesterday the State of Tamil Nadu decided to give individual colleges the status of unitary universities, a State version of deemed universities created by the Centre. The Yashpal Committee’s Recommendations, on the contrary, include (no xi) that the “practice of according status of deemed university be stopped forthwith”. Who would sort out these conflicts and contradictions between the centre and the states? Besides, the Central Government has already accorded the status of deemed universities not only to all IITs and IIMs but also to erstwhile RECs now called NITs. The Report, on the contrary, says that these “institutes of excellence (for some it is more of a myth than reality) are to be converted into full-fledged universities”. (no. vii). How the change will take place one can only wonder!

Chapter XI of my present book titled ‘Remedial Measures’ and the last chapter of my earlier book ‘Conclusion: Other Alternatives’ seem to be more practical than the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee Report, which is rather vague, full of generalities and abstractions. In fact, the UGC has been performing most of the duties described in the fourteen commandments. It is unfortunate that Dr Yashpal and Dr Manmohan Singh, both former Chairmen of the UGC, do not seem to hold a good opinion of the organisation. They got a chance to improve it then, and they have time to improve it now—if it needs improvement, that is. To say that it has served its purpose is not enough. For it is still needed to keep performing those functions. Reforms are, of course, always welcome. Let Yashpal and others make concrete suggestions if they wish well the higher education in this country. Mere verbiage of platitudes and pious words all Committees and Commissions have churned out is not enough. Rather than repeat all that I have already said in the two books mentioned earlier, I would rather recommend that those interested in the improvement of the system of higher education in this country may turn the pages of those books. The second, even though about higher education in one of the States of the Indian Union, reveals the state of higher education in the country, for the conditions, when we move from one State to another, do not change drastically; there may be a difference of degrees, but there is no difference of character.

If for no other reason, the Yashpal Committee Report must be rejected for its attempt to centralise the entire authority to determine the destiny of higher education in this country, concentrating all powers in the hands of a few favourities of the powers that be, for it is the powerful who decide the ‘eminence’ heading important bodies in the field of education as well as in other fields. We know how ‘eminence’ comes handy for appointing substandard and unqualified people to higher positions. We know them all, and we shall not like to have more of their kind. We shall rather call for democratisation of all educational bodies including the universities and the UGC. Besides, we shall like to replace the convenient qualification of ‘eminence’ by some more concrete and specific merit of the persons who should head these bodies.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Kurukshetra University, and Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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