When the fledgling Indian government drafted its higher education policy after Independence, it formed two separate tiers for teaching and research: colleges and universities in one, exclusive research establishments in the other. The intention was of the noblest, to deploy our best talent exclusively to create an indigenous knowledge pool; in particular, to provide research input for the nation’s development.
Sixty years down the line, the outcome has patently failed those heady expectations. In spite of many brilliant researchers and some notable results (which we have done little to implement), our research institutes are not collectively recognized as a global knowledge consortium; nor is their contribution to the nation’s practical needs as intensive as we might have wished. A major (not the sole) reason for this failure is that most of our best research talent relocates abroad. This is largely owing to conditions on the other side of the divide, in the universities.
Let us look dispassionately at the state of India’s universities. Many would defy all acceptable academic norms. Others might scrape through on the strength of a few departments. But a good number, in spite of funding constraints, crippling bureaucracy and political interference, manage to train students at the bachelor’s or master’s level at a standard that allows those students to hold their own, and often to excel, in the world’s leading institutions thereafter. The brain drain undoubtedly marks a failure of our education system; but it also marks a self-subverting success testifying to our inherent strength. And contrary to impression, this success is not restricted to a few institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology.
Our crippling deficiency is that the merits of the undergraduate and master’s programmes are not sustained at research level. The distinctive mark of a good university is a continuum of intensive research activity. It percolates to the undergraduate level, conditioning even freshmen to the full scope of their discipline. This our universities have largely failed to ensure, and the research institutes have not filled the breach. For our talented youth, the best research option is almost invariably to go abroad; and by the same token, there is little research incentive for them to return.
It is not easy to break this vicious cycle, nor has there been much attempt to do so. The university, and even more the college, is still seen as a teaching-shop. University Grants Commission norms stipulate 14 hours’ classes per week for a full professor — excluding tutorials, seminars, research supervision and administrative duties. Eleventh Plan assistance to state-run universities has averaged three to four crore per annum, often less. The wonder is not that our universities do not produce more quality research; it is that they produce any at all, that 20 universities rank among India’s top 50 sources of research output.
The invariable response of our educational planners has been a species of wasteful evasion: make no attempt to improve the existing universities, but set up new ones with the funds, freedom and status we stubbornly deny the rest. When those new centres disappoint in course of time, another stratum is added at the top while the base continues to crumble.
This shows above all in the selective bounty bestowed on an arbitrary set of Central universities with full Union funding. In earlier times, this bounty was no more than marginal. A quantum change began in the new century. It became an article of official faith, hence official hype, that Central universities constituted an academically superior, hence rightfully privileged, class. If they did not fit the bill, all you needed to do was throw money at them. If a state lacked a Central university, it should be granted one; if it qualified for special political favour, more than one.
Now for the ground realities. India has 43 Central universities, mopping up 65 per cent of the UGC budget. Fourteen of them are in course of protracted formation. How many of the other 29 would feature on a list of India’s best universities? Of the UGC’s nine ‘Universities with Potential for Excellence’, only three are Central. (Delhi University, missing from the list, perhaps did not apply.) Two (Jadavpur and Calcutta) are state-funded universities in West Bengal, as are four (Calcutta, Jadavpur, Burdwan and Kalyani) of the 44 ‘performing’ universities (only seven of them Central) identified by the department of science and technology. The only state outscoring Bengal is Tamil Nadu, with two and nine institutions in the two categories. Maharashtra has two and three respectively, all other states fewer or none. These facts challenge the uninformed and suicidal tendency of the Bengali intelligentsia to denigrate its own academic resources. Of seven technological universities considered for quasi-IIT (IIEST) status, two were from Bengal, one of them, Besu, the sole recipient to date. And Calcutta is the only Indian university among 10 ‘academic hubs’ designated by the United Nations last year.
Many Central universities were designedly set up in educationally deprived areas. Of the 14 new ones, some are in remote districts lacking good schools. They have no local catchment, and few scholars from metropolitan or even state-level institutions opt to join them, though the salaries are among the highest in the land. This is matched by lavish grants for infrastructure. In the just-concluded Eleventh Plan, many Central universities received Rs 100 crore or more as building grants alone. Individual colleges in Delhi received Rs 50 crore. By contrast, the entire University of Calcutta obtained some Rs 23 crore, and Jadavpur Rs 27 crore although, as indicated above, they are among India’s best-rated universities.
There is a difference of at least 25 per cent between emoluments at Central and state universities, leaving aside the yawning gap in perquisites. The gap in infrastructure and research support can approach the incalculable. To be sure, state universities obtain their basic funds for salaries and upkeep from the state governments. But the latter simply do not have the resources to match the Union government’s bounty. As for development funds, especially Plan grants, it is incomprehensible even in principle why there should be such grossly differing allocations. In fact, the Central universities themselves are grouped in subcastes with different levels of funding and privilege.
Our universities are being divided by statute into two categories, the affluent (or opulent) and the deprived, often bankrupt. The division has the most tenuous basis in academic merit and good administration — and yet more depressingly, is having little success in fostering these virtues in the favoured institutions. We are witnessing a bizarre twofold hierarchy of universities, virtually at odds with each other: one defined by funding, the other by academic performance. Continuing on these lines, we will end up, sooner rather than later, with a class of universities enjoying lavish funds but little academic credibility, and another class that, besides the perennially mediocre or substandard, will include the former high-performing state universities, now impoverished and demoralized.
Of course there will be happy exceptions where generous funding inseminates high potential. The outstanding examples are the two premier universities in Delhi. With a merit base spread across India, capable of using lavish bounty to good purpose, Delhi has emerged as India’s pre-eminent academic centre in a way that might disturb generations of academic ghosts in Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai. But one would be hard put to name five other Central universities at par with the best state universities even today, after decades of discriminatory funding.
Yet the bulk of funds is showered on this random handful of institutions virtually because they exist, or even before they exist. The rationale lies in a great bureaucratic axiom morphed into a public myth: “If we’re spending all this money on them, they must be good.” The Eleventh Plan promised a Central university to every state without one. Five years down the line, not one of these campuses is fully functional. In extreme cases, even the site has not been decided on. A large part of the UGC Plan allocation remains unspent. Had it been diverted to cash-starved state-run universities, it would have been absorbed as parched soil soaks up water. We are witnessing an exalted parallel to the policy whereby food stocks rot in warehouses rather than be distributed to the poor.
This dual dispensation cannot last for ever. When and how might it change?
The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University