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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

Proposed Reform in Higher Education by Yash Pal Report: A Critique

Saturday 26 September 2009, by Prasenjit Biswas

The Professor Yash Pal Report (YPR) makes right noises about many of the inherently self-defeating practices, ideas and notions that have been the ‘ruling ideas’ of India’s higher education sector for the last four decades. The Report significantly persuades the existing university system and its ensemble of policy-makers, bureaucrats and teachers etc. to go for self-corrective measures that would redeem them from many a closure. As we go through the report, its frank and straightforward espousal of several unpalatable truths about Universities, IITs and IIMs engage the reader in a therapeutic introspection. Much of this introspection is also inspiring and enticing, as it takes one to a realm of hope, the hope of recovering the idea of University from the labyrinth of the insider’s subversion. A careful reflection on every section of this first-of-its-kind Report shall unravel a depth of intellectual and practical resources that are presented to the nation in a spirited optimism of will and pessimism of intellect. In reconceptualising the idea of University, the YPR states:

You would notice that we are placing supreme importance on the character of universities. They must create new knowledge. Besides making people capable of creating wealth they have a deep role in the overall thinking of society and the world as a whole. This job cannot be performed in secluded corners of information and knowledge. (…) But narrow expertise alone does not make educated human beings for tomorrow. Indeed, speaking more seriously, one could almost say that most serious problems of the world today arise from the fact that we are dominated by striations of expertise with deep chasms in between. (p. 5, emphasis mine)

This itself is a reaffirmation of the Nehruvian vision of university as ‘centres of humanism’. The report broadens this idea when it speaks of a holistic educational framework and substantial reduction of bureaucratic control. Seemingly, the Report raises serious concerns about the existing mechanisms of repressing both the seekers and givers of knowledge by disciplining them. The Report further takes a turn away from ‘dead uniformities’ that many of the present rules impose on universities, especially too many inspection and control by an overarching bureaucracy. The burden of University bureaucracy and its mis/interpretation of statutes, rules etc. act as a source of permanent ruination of any sense of justice that the universities are supposed to deliver to everyone. In sharp contrast to such a deeply ingrained culture of distortion in the normative framework of the universities, the YPR reminds us of the grounding values of higher education as a whole, which are autonomy and freedom of mind. It says:

The principle of moral and intellectual autonomy from political authority and economic power is ingrained in the very idea of the university. This autonomy ensures freedom in research and training and it is expected that the governments and the society would respect this fundamental principle. Teaching and research have to be inseparable, because the task of the university is not only to impart knowledge to young people but also to give them opportunities to create their own knowledge. Active and constant engagement with the young minds and hearts of the society also implies that the universities are to serve the society as a whole, and in order to achieve this, considerable investment in continuing education is essential. (p. 9)

This represents the deeper malaise of overpowering intellectual freedom by the disciplinarian and personified authorities of the University system, who in turn are subjected to political and economic powers of the state and the corporate. The situation is such that the universities provide a soft site of marketing of ideas and knowledge products along with the space for legitimising reasons of the State. All these grow within the University at the cost of the very purpose for which it has been created. The YPR, for the first time in the history of post-colonial India, clearly spells out the ways and means of removing these burdens of bureaucracy, state and corporate. The Report substantially recovers the lost space of autonomy of universities by emphasising the specific sites of advantages and disadvantages of the higher education scene, namely, socio-historical and cultural specificity and local conditions. Wherever a University/ Institution moved away from this primary locale of knowledge, the report prescribes a return to its ‘roots’ from the higher levels of knowledge enterprise without lowering itself. (pp. 12-3) The Report indicates the impending task of a live interface between the local and the global, the success of which can be observed in the role of the university in devising new ways of understanding and action in relation to real world problems. This is the kind of post-deconstructive realism that the Report evinces in. The Report suggests a self-conscious breaking of the walls of narrow isolationist practice of learning, research and specialisation. It gives a paradigm statement toward such an objective when it says:

We can then look forward to the day when IITs and IIMs would be producing scholars in literature, linguistics and politics along with engineering and management wizards who would have substantial motivation for engagement with the local community, and the opportunity to use and enhance learning by solving real-life problems in their immediate environment. (p. 15)

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The utopic contour of such an expectation is translated by the Report in practically realisable terms. The YPR recommended that the present state of erosion of democratic space1 needs to be stalled by refraining from issuing diktats and by engaging oneself in listening to ‘other’ voices. In fact, this aspect of the Report can be read as a silent recognition to responsible dissent within the system. A culture of consensus in every critical decision resulting into a seamless uniformity is critiqued in every recommendation of YPR.

Once again, the Report for the first time asserts the role of sufficient use of local data so that ‘knowledge covered in the syllabus come alive as experience’. (p. 18) This is one of the crucial steps towards translating the vision of a holistic knowledge system that requires an integrative mechanism between disciplines, which can be achieved, as per the YPR, by learning from the real-life situations as well as by learning across disciplines. The syllabus should therefore be cross-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary, instead of merely being disciplinary. For the first time, the YPR affirms the role of foundational and basic disciplines that open up the minds of pupils to an art of synthesising and creativity, in sharp contrast to what has been a practice of selective mingling of disciplines on a narrow pragmatic basis. Rather, the YPR advocates a line of exposing students to ‘work’ and its ‘performance’ in a playful mode: being free from narrow constraints of the discipline, the student directly learns from various kinds of works and workers in order to return to both academics and society. Earlier reports laid stress on performative aspect of work and study to lead the students to the ultimate goal of honing skills for a job, while the YPR makes it clear that skills divorced from theoretical grounding would only lead to a mechanical ineptitude. It suggests redesigning of the curriculum by relating theory and practice and developing a line of thinking that suggests a return of professional education within the University system. For this, the University system must create enough space by developing the interfaces between various disciplinary frames and skill based institutes that would help removing isolation of professional education as well as steep inequities between rural-urban sectors. Setting up of a National Skill Development Council is appreciated by the Report and it further suggested lowering of entry barriers to students trained from professional and vocational institutions for facilitating upgradation of their skills at any stage of their career.

Apart from this large integrative and holistic paradigm of higher education, the YPR advocates a lot of institutional freedom and removal of top-down control. It takes a bottom-up line of educational thinking that could be put to use by a single and multipurpose seven-member National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) under an Act of Parliament. The YPR designs two steps for achieving this: subsuming all the bodies such as the UGC, ICMR, BCI etc. under one regulator and then reorganising the University system bottom-up by allowing the good quality affiliated colleges to become University in its own right. Other bottom-up measures include the freedom to design curricula to address various needs such as keeping the community abreast of the cutting edge, many-sided inter- and trans-disciplinary linkages with social and cultural environment. For reforming the whole system of higher education, the Report evolves a novel path of constituting only one regulatory body for the entire higher education that acts as a think-tank with the power of intervention for facilitating a self-correcting mechanism. The purpose of this kind of indirect regulatory role is to ensure the fullest autonomy of everybody within the system. The YPR spells out details of how both the regulator and the institution in particular is going to evolve the right perspective on any educational concern. The YPR states:

Co-ordination among agencies which have different views of knowledge and education and which tend to treat knowledge within narrow confines is extremely difficult, if not impossible. It would, therefore be necessary to have a single apex body in the field of higher education which treats all knowledge areas in an integrated manner and works towards convergences which overarching regulatory powers. Only such a body would ensure that there is a live and close interaction among cothinkers and co-workers and there is no dilution of any idea, which it has to suffer if made to traverse a bureaucratic maze. (p. 53)

In other words, the highest regulatory body would exercise its power by way of sharing and deliberating together with co-thinkers and co-workers. This is the exact opposite of the current top-down style of functioning of authoritative bodies that run diktats and decide unilaterally by a select coterie of experts. The YPR makes a radical shift from the current state of exercise of power that tramples differences of opinion by invoking arbitrary positional authority which gets sanctified under some Act of the legislature. Diktats from the MHRD or UGC rules the roost now as such orders and directives carry the weight of the system. The YPR lightens such bureaucratic feats that institutions suffer from. It states:

The National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) would perform its regulatory function without interfering with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It would not take recourse to inspection-based approval method. From the current inspection-approval method, it would move to a verification and authentication system. As a matter of fact, we envisage universities and institutions to put out self-declarations mandatorily in the public domain for scrutiny. Universities are to be seen as self-regulatory bodies and the Commission is to be seen as a catalytic agency which is more interested in creating more and more space for the individuality of each university and protecting their autonomy. (pp. 57-8)

This aspect of ‘individuality’ of the institutions in terms of transparency and self-regulation would enable the Indian University to become more ‘authentic’ about itself, as it would play out its specific characteristics in the public domain. This is also a long-term vision for transforming universities into self-sustaining citadels of knowledge. This is what the YPR terms as ‘recovering the idea of University’, which essentially is directed at recovering the lost space of autonomy and creativity in both the areas of academics and administration. In academics, the YPR suggests the creation of ‘virtual departments’ that develop emerging thematic concerns of various disciplines and departments. (p. 59) At the level of administration an evolution toward self-regulatory and transparent mechanism that would ensure bottom-up participation of the faculty has been the mainstay of its recommendations.

In Lieu of a Conclusion:

The first thing that one notices in this ambitious plan for “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education” is an agenda for institutional autonomy, accountability, transparency and a suitable mechanism of delivery and reach out to all possible beneficiaries. This directionality to ideal goals of higher education could have been better contextualised by way of suggesting means and ways of democratisation of various decision-making bodies within the University/ Institution. Although the Report speaks of the minimisation of the freedom of the VCs vis-a-vis faculty members (p. 61), it does not spell out how this internal curtailment of freedom can be overcome. One concern that arises from the current scenario is the non-representation of elected representatives of teachers, students and non-teaching staff members etc. in the Board or Executive Council of a University/Institution. Most often, the Vice-Chancellor, even bypassing the Acts and statutes of the University indiscriminately decide on all crucial matters thereby reducing every other shade of opinion into a non-entity. That the Vice-Chancellors create their own bureaucratic mechanism to stifle academic freedom is one area of concern that the YPR does not speak of in so many words. The Report emphasises on the criterion for evaluation of teachers by the students, which is a highly debatable proposition. The thrust of the Report on self-regulation and the talk of ‘formal procedures’ against teachers in case a teacher whose ‘feedback report remains poor in successive years’ (p. 44) are absolute contradictions. It gives the impression that the teachers can be subjected to hire and fire in the service conditions and the concerned authorities in the University are empowered to do so. This may in a moment establish an area of tyranny within the self-reforming, self-regulating body of the University, as it strengthens penal provisions, which universities, as liberal and humane institutions, are by definition opposed to. In a country deeply divided in ideological, religious, casteist, tribal and other such divisive categories, any assessment would have these hidden parameters that can mar academic neutrality.

The YPR is also silent about the democratic rights of teachers and students, which is considered as an essential component of any idea of autonomy. Internal democracy in an academic institution is possibly the most important contributing factor towards protection of its autonomy against external interference. It would have been possible to connect academic excellence with the level of internal democracy in an institution, as this stands out as the most crucial parameter of autonomy in an institutional setting where the Vice-Chancellor’s/Director’s word most often becomes the last word on any subject. The Report seemingly disconnects the need for a representational democratic practice in running the affairs of an institution from its academic, financial and research objectives.

This disconnect calls for a little more introspection on some of the disparaging practices of the University system today. One example that comes to my mind is the disproportionate allocation of funds for construction of buildings, roads and communication hubs in comparison to purchase of books, journals and grant of scholarships. This is a recent phenomenon that most of our Central universities/institutions are busy in new constructions and projects for beautification as they have already become the haven of contractors and builders. The YPR could have laid emphasis on a separation of the regular duties of academic and administrative authorities from such engineering activities so that the tendency of financial mismanagement does not arise at all in public funded institutions. Many of the Universities and IITs and IIMs are busy sprucing up campuses to give them a five-star look, while academics and research wise, they do not make an equally outstanding mark.

Compounding such malaises is the random commercialisation of University services, starting from transport to health to photocopying facilities. The YPR could have suggested some checks and balances on such commercialisation. The YPR retains a neoliberal streak in it as its autonomy talk is not complemented by an idea of expanding the academic and administrative freedoms in the University in all possible ways. Minus this little loophole, the YPR promises to plug many a loophole that subvert and damage our institutions today beyond any hope of redemption. Although the Report is politically correct in bringing out the new ways of reconnecting the University with society, it falls short of addressing the crucial link between education and the political status quo.

Footnote

1. YPR observes the use of the University’s official machinery to prevent peaceful debates between rival social forces that damages the institutional space for research and dialogue to a large extent. (p.16)

The author is a Reader, Department of Philosophy, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

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