The JNU fee hike controversy has helped spark a lively debate on two key issues related to higher education in India: Is there any discernible difference between public-funded universities and private universities? And, does Indian society derive value from our knowledge institutions?
The JNU debate can’t just be restricted to which university charges more fees or how much fees should be charged.
The answer to the second question is easier, and is resoundingly in the negative. Otherwise, public universities would not be as hard put to maintain their financial equilibrium as they are today. And society, at large, would have come forth to support these universities in many ways.
The answer to the first question, however, is more complex.
In many ways, public-funded institutions quite often seem to be clones of each other. They teach the same things in the same dreary ways without much regard for societal appreciation and value.
Madan Mohan Malviya’s ideas overlooked
In my long association with Delhi University, I can recall just one instance of significant social support. This happened during my tenure as the Vice Chancellor when I accidentally came across an alumna’s long-neglected largesse to DU. She had donated to her alma mater a valuable piece of real estate. For several years, Delhi University made no use of that donation. As far as I can recall, the university had not even accorded the sort of acknowledgement to the donor that would be in keeping with the value of the endowment.
To my mind, this drives home the point that India’s academic institutions are largely to blame when society does not get too enthused about their welfare. Their contributions to social and cultural innovation is minimal, so society doesn’t see value in fighting for these universities either.
The vision of the Banaras Hindu University, as mooted by Madan Mohan Malviya, was rooted in the idea of India’s well-being. Hence, this vision was sufficient to motivate the numerous princes and wealthy merchants of India to fund the enterprise. But it is a pity that the ideas of Malviya were not taken to the next level by his own institution and by other higher education institutions. This would have entailed the university systems of India to begin to put knowledge to effective use for the welfare of society and of the nation.
No appetite for reforms
Perhaps Indian universities could take a leaf out of some global institutions’ books or even from the great traditions of our own past. Take the case of the mathematics department of Harvard University. Under its undergraduate programme of applied mathematics, students can learn the applications of mathematics to music or history or physics and accordingly tailor their undergraduate degree programme to that very specialisation. It is quite natural then that students from such a degree programme will make interesting contributions to civil society through such learning.
More importantly, such approaches lead to start-ups and other economically-beneficial activities in addition to innovations and inventions.
In a similar vein, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), each year, offers a unique prize open to its students known as the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award. The 2017 winners of the award worked on low-cost solar concentrating windows and other sustainable solar solutions. The runners-up of this prize developed mobile air quality sensor network, integrated system for wastewater treatment, sustainable electronics, among others.
Just a year (later) after the institution of this award at Caltech, we at Delhi University introduced an even more evolved programme for such activities in innovation and invention. This activity had many interesting features and was aimed at undergraduates. It brought enormously fruitful results. Startups, patents and research papers had begun to spring forth from our students.
Alas, between the combined wisdom of the HRD Ministry and the UGC, this productive activity was effectively overturned along with many other reforms that had been instituted at Delhi University.
Public and private universities in the same boat
When civil society begins to see value and take interest in universities, grants, endowments and other forms of support start pouring in. This, in turn, leads to the blossoming of more such activities. In due course, a whole knowledge-based ecosystem springs forth with enormous economic activity in attendance.
Many such universities, some of which are mentioned above, have directly and indirectly engendered trillions of dollar worth of economic growth around their geographical locations. Consider the case of Google. What gave it enormous growth and value was its search engine based on a mathematical idea that came from the halls of Stanford University.
Unfortunately, the situation in India is rather discouraging. Most universities have not exerted themselves too much in the context of innovation and entrepreneurship.
In the current mode, for universities funded by state governments, it is a bit of a catch-22 like situation. State governments do not provide enough funding for these universities to break their moulds through some genuine reform. These universities are then forced to depend on raising funds for paying their staff by running the time-tested and dreary degree programmes that have limited value. One would hope that private universities would bring some fresh air.
Barring a few exceptions, most private universities are in the same boat. In the long run, such institutions will fail to be truly innovative. The resources required to run a genuinely good university are not limited to the money raised from tuition fees. Take the case of Harvard University. Revenue earned from its exorbitant tuition fees in 2018 accounted for only 22 per cent of its total revenues.
Perhaps, some genuine pathways for reforms of the kind tried out at Delhi University not so long ago may lead to the desired changes in the Indian higher education landscape.
The author is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.