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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Neglected Function of Indian Universities

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Ashok Celly

Universities are supposed to perform three major functions: teaching, research and extension. While the debate in our country, both in the academia and the media, has centred round the first two functions, the third is hardly talked about. Which is a great pity, for extension—carrying the benefits of research and learning to the people—is an equally vital function that a university must perform particularly in the context of a country like India. The social role of a university in the Indian context can hardly be overemphasised, for university education here remains a privilege restricted to a tiny minority. That is where the business of extension comes in. By transmitting the benefits of research and learning to the community, universities would not only enhance the professional skills of its members but also make them better citizens. It is true that the internet, and even the print media, are performing this role to an extent, but they can hardly be expected to have the in-depth understanding one associates with the academia.

The function of extension can take different forms. One of these is organising lectures for the public on issues of general interest followed by interactive sessions. For example, the 80 odd colleges that Delhi University has could organise such lectures towards the end of March when the academic session ends and classes disperse. They could be of special benefit to the people living in surrounding areas. It is true that Delhi University does organise lectures of this sort but it happens at the university level and they are public lectures in name only, for the involvement of the community is negligible. Given its federal character, there is no reason why its constituent colleges should not be involved in this vital matter. Also, the colleges would thus earn some social esteem and no longer be viewed as institutions peddling intellectual goods of dubious value.

Again agricultural, engineering and management universities/institutes could play an extremely useful role by sharing the results of their investigations in their respective areas with farmers, engineers and entrepreneurs. An effective and ongoing interface with the practitioners/activists could have remarkable results. Such social sensitivity could not only boost economic development but also avert human tragedies like the farmers’ suicides which have assumed alarming proportions in States like Maharashtra.

ABOVE all, our universities could do something substantial and enduring by publishing books both of scholarly and general interest. And, sad to say, it is here they have failed most miserably. Incredible as it might sound, no Indian university has anything remotely comparable to publishing programmes/ventures of some of the Western universities like Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Harvard University Press and so on. Oxford University Press has a significant presence even in India and publishes important titles on aspects of Indian culture and society. Our universities could profitably emulate them and start their own publishing programmes albeit on a modest scale restricting them to some specific areas rather than spreading their net wide. It must in all fairness be mentioned here that Delhi University did start its own publishing programme a few years back and it did a reasonably good job. However, it had to close shop because it couldn’t keep pace with the changing technology. This should serve as a warning to universities who intend to set up their own press.

One might turn round and say there is no dearth of private publishing houses in this country. So where is the need for the university to enter into this unknown territory? It is no doubt true that there is a very large number of publishers in the market and good ones at that—Sage, Orient Longman, Macmillan and so on. But private publishers are primarily, if not exclusively, governed by the profit motive. In other words, they publish what sells. So there is the danger of significant areas of human interest being left out, especially when they have little market value—philosophy, history of art, ecology, poetry, folklore etc. A university press, funded as it would be by the public exchequer, will not be hampered by such considerations and can take a larger, more enlightened view.

Also, academics generally speaking are temperamentally not suited to deal with the hardheaded businessmen. But a substantial number of them over a period of time develop ideas/theories in their special fields which they would like to share with their peers and even with a wider public. Our universities need to nurture such people—academics who have something original to say on culture, polity or economy. Hence the need for a university press. It would be tragic if such aspiring academics perish at the altar of market forces. At the same time adequate care must be taken to ensure quality is not sacrificed to protectionism.

The author retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He recently authored a book entitled Towards a New Paradigm in Higher Education.

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