It is no news that for decades, Indian higher education has been under the hegemonic control of academics loyal to the red flag. And given the well-accepted premise in politics that dominant powers love status quo, the Left’s critique and vehement opposition to the proposed Higher Education Commission Bill and other reforms are hardly surprising. It only denotes the declining hegemony of the Left and the rising prominence of the Right.
While there is nothing wrong with adhering to a particular ideological orientation, but what is enraging is the blatant use of state agency to consolidate the Left’s hegemony in academia. This was done to create and sustain a massive cadre of ideologically driven academicians as propaganda machines in the system.
The free run of the Left, however, did not come from them possessing formal power but by the default operation of what Rajni Kothari famously described as ‘The Congress System’. This alluded to the remarkable openness and plurality put in place by the Congress party at its organisational levels, the raison d’être of which lay in the perception of sharing the spoils to avoid being disposed of power. And the Left was an undisputed gainer of the spoils it got in the higher education sector.
The doling out of rewards to the red card holders and the consequent rotting of the systems was done through a top-down approach with the ministry of human resources, the UGC, and numerous committees and commissions under the chairmanship of supposedly ’eminent’ Left-wingers.
Contemptuous of the non-Left academia, and fully dismissive of alternative opinions, these commissions, in most of the cases, never even bothered to visit institutions of higher learning across the country to understand the issues they were grappling with. The preferred modus operandi was to consult members from their own ideological persuasions (or cadres) who, interestingly, would also double up as trade-union leaders in their respective universities. Shorn of real voices, the reforms never came close to fruition albeit in the process both the standards as well as the ideals of higher education simply went for a toss.
It is natural, then, that any attempts towards resuscitating the system and that too by the Right-wing would only generate loud reactions. Of course, the current political dispensation is no different from its predecessors in its obsession with top-down reforms in the sector. In fact, some of the schemes like granting autonomy to institutions of higher learning without even understanding their peculiarities or consulting the stakeholders appear to be retrogressive and ideologically driven. Let me highlight a few realities of the Indian higher education sector.
All the undergraduate colleges in India suffer from a malaise of inherent looseness of procedures, operations and multiple windows of administration ranging from the MHRD to the UGC to governing bodies (comprising usually of nonacademic members). There seems to be no clarity on rules and regulations. No one knows who the real authorities are and who should teachers and students look up to. It is astonishing to note that a letter highlighting some of the alleged violations of norms written to the MHRD minister by the staff association of an elite and highly ranked college at the University of Delhi resulted in a show cause notice from the chairperson of the governing body of the college.
In many cases, guidelines issued by one agency often gets contradicted, even overridden, by the other. Between 2008 and 2018, the UGC came up with at least five notifications on the maintenance of academic standards in higher education, with each subsequent notification overriding its predecessor. The weakness of the guidelines meant that by the time institutions could adopt one, it got either withdrawn or overridden. In the last decade, Delhi University alone has seen at least three different curriculum framework changes. As usual, all of these were thrust on the colleges without even bothering to understand their willingness, capacities or even limitations in carrying them out.
Bereft of even the most basic facilities and infrastructural requirements, colleges across the country present a dismal picture. The lackadaisical and casual approach with which the teaching staff in the colleges are treated is a story in itself. A peep into the staff rooms of most colleges reveals that even the waiting rooms at railway platforms are much cleaner (thanks to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) and technologically better equipped.
Anyone working in the system can vouch for my claim that organising a seminar in a college is more tedious than making arrangements for a marriage at home. The recruitment and training of the non-teaching staff is yet another dimension of this sorry state of affairs in the colleges. At a time when managerialism has become the sine qua non of academic institutions all over the world, we are still stuck with the archaic babudom whose primary focus is to delay all attempts of innovation and enterprise. To expect young, bright and talented people to work and excel in such conditions is wishful thinking.
Leadership is key to propelling institutions towards eminence and the role of the head of colleges becomes immensely significant. The question here is not who should be in charge of a college, but what kind of people should be entrusted with such critical responsibilities. Do we need pure academicians to head colleges, or do we need pure administrators, or a combination of both? Given the enormity of tasks and complexities involved in dealing with young minds, the need of the hour may require a blend of academic, managerial as well as administrative skills. The person must be able to understand and work on roles, formal relationships, teams, rules, and policies while focusing on people and their needs, skills, and attitudes. Unfortunately, educational reforms by successive governments have been oblivious to these needs, and that is primarily because of the lack of assessments at institutional levels. What reforms in the higher education space need is a bottom-up approach.
Dr Chandrachur Singh, PhD Birmingham (UK) teaches at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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