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THE PRICE OF PRIVILEGE IN HIGHER EDUCATION
How is it that there is so little new growth with so much decline in the inherited system in higher education? asks Sukanta Chaudhuri
Why has our Central university sector, especially its more recent entrants, underperformed as a whole? The reasons can be summarized as location and tradition. A university cannot be built overnight, nor can it flourish except in close integration with a community. (This does not imply parochialism; rather, that the host community Excellence in advance actively welcomes and interacts with the wider universe opened up by a univers-ity worth its name.) Across India, there is a network of universities (chiefly with state government support), and a more intensive one of colleges reaching into the hinterland, that have achieved this integration over decades, perhaps a century or more. Instead of supporting them with adequate funds or addressing their (often grave and sordid) problems, the nation s government has effectively turned its back on them. The schemes for their advancement add up to little, not to mention the obstacle course to avail of them. The Twelfth Plan is reported to have introduced some items of basic support to state-run universities. While welcoming the move, one hopes this palliative will not be the pretext to deny more substantial benefits. The ironic truth is that, though the funds envisaged for greenfield Central universities are lavish by Indian standards, they are quite inadequate to set up a truly superior infrastructure and resource base from scratch. Even if these institutions acquire an exceptional faculty (which on present showing seems unlikely), they could not achieve more than the better state universities have already done. But had the same funds been sanctioned to the latter (of course after due assessment), they could have built higher on the base already in place, acquired the extra resource boost needed to create a truly outstanding institution. That would have been a far better use of funds, with a nationwide spread effect. Instead, we are offered a sprinkling of isolated centres under direct control of the Union government. Some of these islands exist only on the map, but they bear impressive names. A common buzzword is centre of excellence . Unlike Potential for Excellence or Centre of Advanced Study , a centre of excellence is not a recognized academic category with specific benchmarks. It can mean anything and nothing. Moreover, the phrase is increasingly used not in recognition of work done, but in pious hope of work that might be done, sometimes in newly set up institutions. If those hopes are belied, there is no way to stem the bounty. Following Parkinson s law, the only acceptable solution is to pour in more money, or still more, into new institutions. The other, patently absurd label is world-class . You cannot set up a world-class university by fiat: it has to acquire that status by long endeavour. At most, you can offer infrastructure and resources at the level of the great international universities, built up over decades and centuries. The cost, in so far as it could be quantified, would be astronomical. It is insane to envisage such a sum for any greenfield university in India, even by pauperizing the rest. Any conceivable funding level would at best be middling by international standards. Some extant Indian universities have already attained that level over time. A word seems in order about two formally international institutions. One, South Asian University, started operations two years ago. The India government is meeting its entire capital cost of 300 million dollars, plus 100 acres in South Delhi. Its juniormost lecturer receives as much as senior professors at a Central university, besides benefits that cannot possibly match rumours but are clearly exceptional. The other, Nalanda International University, appears not to have a website, so there is no way of checking reports of its gestational expenses. The Wikipedia entry quotes an estimate of a billion dollars to set up the campus and improve the environs. That is equivalent to one-third of India s higher education budget. Of course, the bill will be shared by taxpayers of many nations. India s initial pledge was Rs.1,000 crore, not to mention 446 acres of land. It seems appropriate to make the highest demands of these institutions, advantaged beyond the dreams of most Indian academics. Unless they achieve dramatically more than
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Presidency cannot set about the crucial task of defining itself in relation to its home community. That demoralization affects both recruitment and performance. is in abeyance for lack of funds. One would like to see the state of West Bengal. Presidency faces the daunting prospect of validating a seal of excellence bestowed on it in advance. coupled with so much decline and frustration in the inherited system? Detailed allocations for the Twelfth Plan will be taken up shortly. are embittered by the iniquitous contrast with our lot back home. press the Union government for a more equitable deal for state-run universities. Its mentor group has rendered signal service by bidding openly. students acquire a training that ensures later success at the world s best universities. Exchange programmes. under its energetic leader. in spite of their litany of a stepmotherly Centre. This need not have obviated a simultaneous process of policy planning. as yet. the only carrot held out to state-funded faculty. heading internationally recognized centres. the one institution exempted from the general fate but. As indicated above. their further potential aborted. Even purely academic visits to Delhi. the mentor group s report can only be the first step. for which the grounds are already laid in non-geographical terms. supplicating to Delhi babudom for meagre grants sanctioned long ago. and sustain it as a matter of course.com/1120405/jsp/opinion/story_15313792. We are dismantling a working. joint teaching and research programmes. Meanwhile. The task will be made harder by a policy vacuum and overall academic demoralization across the state. a blueprint for making Bengal India s knowledge hub an eminently feasible prospect. so that there is no point in adapting and no resources to do so. Such was the record of the last 34 years.telegraphindia. They are naturally demoralized when by bureaucratic fiat and media prejudice. It would not strike them as a pretext for drum-beating. in turn. For Presidency. perhaps even joint degrees are set up with universities abroad. but piecemeal and on sufferance. visit such a university. they will not justify their existence.com Ads by Google Like 74 Tweet 5 1 2 of 3 4/9/2012 11:28 AM . we are seeing indeterminate moves at reproducing the all-India imbalance at state level. for several universities across India both Central and state-run have long reached this level. as earlier of the British raj. Faculty from those centres. doubly compromised by empty coffers: there is little or no money for anyone at all. Successful teachers at a state-run campus are constantly asked. there is so little new growth after several years.) Instead. By this criterion. while immense sums are diverted elsewhere on hypothetical grounds. to erect a new one at astronomically greater cost. rewarding and comradely in themselves. for the first time ever. Even the career advancement scheme. It is not owing to an unwillingness to adapt but a sense of redundancy. their operations halted pending a structural reform still not complete. How is it that. structure. These institutional links are supported (and often initiated) by wide personal interaction between faculty. There is anger and frustration on many of India s most productive campuses. Bengal s universities have been in virtual paralysis. starting with the pre-election freeze from February 2011. This is the time to end the party and view matters in the sober light of day. already met by many humbler institutions: what we might term international recognition . without formal recognition by the establishment and sometimes in the teeth of opposition. Teachers produce research at par with international standards. their achievement is ignored. Let it not be like those actual constructions at State largesse that benefit none but the contractors. Why don t you join a Central university? They are thereby led to campaign for Central status (as a group at Jadavpur are currently doing) as the only way to protect their interests. with so many ideas tossed to and fro. on lecture tours or longer fellowships. We might reserve judgment on the state s intentions. The reported plans to translate textbooks and hold common entrance tests do not address such ambitions. visiting and interacting with the faculty at leading centres abroad.jsp Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University (to name two of our most privileged and productive campuses). other institutions may have attained such standards. of an untested design that simply may not materialize. Until the general vacuum is removed. hardly touched this issue. It remains to be seen whether the present government agrees to tolerate excellence with good grace wherever it occurs. And we should not have to wait unduly to draw that benefit. I am appalled to see outstanding colleagues at Jadavpur. if creaky and rusted. with vastly more funds than ever before. virtually not in being. for international standards in higher education in Bengal. (The previous rulers. CONCLUDED The author is Professor Emeritus. and their funds and powers grow more and more elusive. Jadavpur University MarutiSuzukiErtiga. The silence bodes ill even for Presidency University. Current state policy on higher education eludes the seeker: the relevant committee report is not available on the internet. This may seem familiar and unexciting. The Centre s should be ripe for assessment by now. Let us think of a more practical benchmark.The price of privilege in higher education http://www.