New priests of learning
DARK CORRIDORS: To the new powers, the main culprit is perceived to be the consultative and deliberative process. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt | The Hindu

Mr. Pranab Mukherjee meets the Vice-Chancellors of the country’s 40 Central Universities today. The heads of these institutions will project their respective achievements and constraints. The high-powered gathering is of considerable significance: the President of India as Visitor is the fount of ultimate authority with respect to these Universities established by Acts of Parliament; the last such meeting took place in 2003. Since then a number of new universities, 24, have come into existence; another 16 new “Universities of Innovation,” born one fine day in 2009 are yet to get over postnatal hiccups. And perhaps most importantly, the bottom line has now shifted to transforming these almost overnight into “world class Universities.” That the new lamps of learning, as in Aladdin’s story, may be incapable of magical wish-fulfilment seems to be lost on the CEOs of higher education.

Transformation through innovation, newer structures of governance, fresh avenues of resource generation, harnessing newer technologies, greater transparency, interdisciplinary courses, better interface with industry, cooperation with other institutions, both domestic and foreign, are on the agenda for today’s meeting. Predictably, the key term in all this would be innovation in the structure of governance. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has in its cupboard the blueprint of a new uniform Act of Parliament, which when made into law would squeeze out the specific historical character of the different, well-established older Universities.

There clearly is an impatience now with the way in which the existing Acts and Statutes of Universities that allow for the routine administration and change in the pedagogy of teaching and learning, are hindering the Great Transformation of higher education. The main culprit is perceived to be the consultative and deliberative process which had hitherto allowed for the different ‘authorities’ of the University, notably the different Faculties consisting of the Professoriate of various departments, to originate and deliberate over academic ideas in their respective spheres. These are seen as stockades of vested interests, incapable of innovative academic thought. It is as if tenured teachers forever busy writing routine formulae on blackboards had turned their backs to society and the world of ideas at large. Encouraged by the not so gentle prodding of the HRD and the University Grants Commission, the Vice Chancellors of a number of Central Universities have fashioned a new messianic role for themselves, and as with other such leaders of the flock, woe befall those who do not genuflect before the new priests of learning . Those dragging their feet, so to speak, are characterised alternatively as mired in the “dreary desert sand of dead habit” (Tagore), or as belonging to a “left leaning teaching fraternity” (The Hindu,“Winds of change at Delhi University,” February 3, 2013) or both.

Yield no opinion

A new style of governance has come into being whereby Vice Chancellors wheel in the heavy artillery of “Emergency Powers” to usher in changes which are then rubber stamped post facto by the relevant statutory bodies. It is not simply a question of riding roughshod over democratic niceties: ultra democracy in matters academic is not always healthy for a grown up mind. Rather, much like the colonial dispensation, the natives (here, thinking and intellect-wielding academics) are consigned to a clerical role of translating and carrying out orders for the greater good. The new dispensation requires the reduction of the Professoriate to the role of junior functionaries in a top-heavy bureaucracy; instead of being an attribute of the life of the mind, thought now attaches itself to the power-wielding will of the supreme leader — in this case the new tribe of Vice Chancellors who brook no contrarian opinion — a contradiction in terms, for surely it is Universities, not khap panchayats and madrasas where differences of intellectual positions are furthered and thought through.

Of late a large and distinguished institution such as the University of Delhi has been possessed by the feverish spirit of top- heavy ill-thought change, with decreasing possibility of restoring this distinguished institution to health. It would be invidious to provide a laundry list, but a newfangled semester system which hurriedly grades differently endowed students (especially the first generation learners) without giving them time to land on their feet; the public marking of exam scripts by three examiners, each as with Doctor Aziz in Midnight’s Children poring over only one portion of the answer sheet, the forthcoming introduction of biometric cards for faculty, the revelation of newer academic programmes through newspaper handouts, the supplanting of structured consultation by a weekly Darbar — are some of the transformations that have not elicited much public discussion. They are unlikely to be brought up before the President; if at all as hiccups rather than a case of indigestion occasioned by gulping down a large amount of cud without proper rumination. If at all Winds of Change are wafting through the university campuses, they are reaching the rest of us through barred gates and security fences. To cite Tagore again, it is indeed the case that our “world has been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” What a let down from the expansive adventure of ideas that is a University.

(Shahid Amin is Professor of History, Delhi University, and Rajni Kothari Chair, Centre for Studies in Developing Societies, Delhi.)

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