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

’Innovation Universities’

Saturday 12 September 2009, by Amiya Dev

The Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India is planning to set up fourteen national universities of ‘world-class’ standard, and has circulated a [draft] concept note to that effect bearing the above title.

This seems to be revised from an earlier note called ‘Brain Gain’, implying retrieval of some of the better brains that have gone overseas, and thereby rationalising to a degree the still vexed question of ‘brain drain’. The moot idea in that document was to entrust the entire academic responsibilities in the proposed universities to eminent NRI scientists and scholars, giving them an absolutely free hand to inculcate world quality. This has been dropped. Now RI Indian academics too can vie with not NRIs alone, but experts from anywhere in the world. Besides, more attention has been paid now to such nitty-gritty matters as the selection of the Vice-Chancellors and the need for a special regulatory body to which the universities will be eventually responsible—eventually, but not everyday, for a lot of stress has been put in the current document on academic freedom. The teachers will be free to design and conduct their own courses under faculty supervision, the faculty bodies will be free to develop their interdisciplinary modules, and the research groups will be free to initiate their research thrusts—all in order that new knowledge is continually produced turning India into one of the arbiters of world knowledge economy. Not that there will be no audit, there will be, both academic and financial, but not by such familiar authorities as the UGC-NAAC and CAG, but by peer groups of international standing.

The doors to these universities will be open only to meritorious students, from both home and abroad, though not compromising the constitutional provision for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. All said and done, innovation, and innovation alone will be the motto of these universities.

The blue-print for such universities has obviously come from overseas with, however, some concession to our democratic set-up. It has been also hoped that with them going, some impact will be made on the present universities, both State and Central. All this is well meant, but there is no cognition in this document of the quality drive that has been around for some time.

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No one contests the deterioration of the Indian university system, but its causes have been many, not merely the apathy in the teaching-learning process for the lack of incentive and the straitjacket of rules. In fact, large-scale deterioration began when major research was taken out of the universities’ hands by setting up research councils and central research institutes under them, reducing the erstwhile houses of knowledge—as much producer as vendor—to mere degree-givers. It was then perhaps that the first ‘brain drain’ began, and one doesn’t have to scratch deep in order to discover the scars (the near-pathetic jubilation in some select universities some years ago with big research looming on the horizon, when a G-7 country was about to sign a protocol with India for product-oriented work in demarcated areas, is hard to forget).

We know that deterioration furthers deterio-ration, yet reform has been on the agenda for decades now, and only cynics will say it has not borne any fruits, even though the odds had been on the rise against them. By definition reform comes from below, and here we are trying to force it from above. If materialised, these fourteen world-class universities will be like a shining head tucked on to a lethargic body. And who knows if in the spirit of an old Indian tale, the body will not gradually take over the head, fitting it to its own tamas? That will indeed be like a bad dream.

Why not, instead, accelerate with more imagination and wider application, the current reform in our universities so that, not overnight, but gradually they become knowledge producers themselves and not merely go on vending knowledge borrowed from elsewhere. Humility may do better in the long run than unbounded ambition. ‘World-class’? Only the highest common factor of world universities may be truly ‘world class’. We surely have more need now of the lowest common multiples.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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