Column: Universities need to be fit for use

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: Jan 28 2010, 02:33am hrs
I accepted the invitation to write on the subject of deemed universities hesitantly, for I have great sympathy with the twin objectives of improving the efficiency of higher education systems and improving enrolment rates, particularly for poorer sections of the Indian population. Systems take time to respond, and as an outsider one is unsure of the details. But anyway, tightening the regulation with respect to undeserving deemed universities is a welcome step. This is particularly so since the roadmap was unclear.

Just before the beginning of the academic year, all the deemed universities were put through an inspection by the UGC, supposedly at the behest of the MHRD, which presumably did not have the powers to do this itself. It turns out that some of the worst universities were deemed universities. But some of the best ones also belong to the same category. An IGIDR, a TISS and many others were under some pressure when all deemed universities were being inspected, with probably about a thousand inspectors going around, and not all of them being quite equipped to take on the best and the brightest in the land. This was being done by the UGC, which meant that flak was being piled upon historical baggage, given that most teachers dont think of this august body as one of the worlds most efficient bodies, even if its integrity has seldom been questioned.

A more discriminatory approach would probably serve regulatory needs better, since this is a process question of some importance. Designing a system that ensures autonomy and accountability is at one level a question of understanding educational objectives as well as the technology of knowledge generation and transmission. At another level, this is a question of understanding the nuts and bolts of systems that reward performance and punish laggards. This has to be done without sitting on teachers while they are reading, teaching or researching. So, factory-line methods are irrelevant.

I resisted an audit committee for a major educational institute and instead went for a finance committee because I know that work on the board of a major Indian MNC is different from governing a university. Given the fact that reporting is very detailed and inspection is periodic, the grain could have been separated from the chaff before putting the chaff through the laundry. But that is a matter of detail and the men advising MHRD are persons of great experience and so we may expect things to become clearer in the future.

The issue is of some urgency as we expand state-run systems into larger networks involving those who will go where no one has gone before. At work, there would now be the NGOs, foreigners and many well-meaning science and health and educational social service groups that the country is blissfully endowed with. And a more nuanced governance and regulatory system is essential.

The first point to appreciate is that autonomy and accountability has to be at all levels. In our systemsapart from some exceptions like the JNU structureonly the teachers, students and karamcharis are held accountable. The same cannot be said of the vice-chancellors, registrars and the educational bureaucracy at UGC. Once is all right, but in the future they should explain why a deemed university is inspected out of turn. This is of some consequence in the design of new systems that will regulate foreign universities and private participation in higher education.

I was a bit amused when it was suggested that Nobel Prize winners would seek out vice-chancellors for India, considering that first-rate academics are promised top jobs but never arrive on account of other commitments. We need a culture of transparency and excellence to attract and employ the best. The first thing to do is to start at home. Action against bad deemed universities is good for starters. Putting the reasons for doing so under the public scanner is better. Like Oliver Twist, we will ask for more.

One aspect I am unclear about is how to build a firewall to ensure autonomy for good deemed universities, or to protect any university from high-level political interference. A defeated politician was appointed the lifetime chancellor in a state university. In one of the best art schools in India, a student whose exam was vandalised is yet to get his degree and his dean is still under suspension. Governor Jamir tried an experiment on transparency in selecting university vice-chancellors in Maharashtra but he is gone from there. Nobody even noticed what he left, let alone trying to replicate the system by some alert educational authorities he tried to introduce. An alert public opinion and a transparent bureaucracy have to provide the beginning.

The author is a former Union minister