The story of the University of Allahabad shows both the early promise of what Indian universities could have been and its tragic decline.
In the decades after Independence, the Allahabad University boasted of luminaries like Meghnad Saha and K.S. Krishnan in the Department of Physics, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Harivansh Rai Bachchan in the Department of English Literature and B.N. Prasad and Gorakh Prasad in the Department of Mathematics. And not one of them had obtained their doctoral or advanced academic degrees at the Allahabad University.
But today, the Allahabad University is an example of what a university should not be known for — the malaise of severe academic inbreeding. And it is not just the University of Allahabad, most older Indian universities — such as the Aligarh Muslim University, M.S. University of Baroda, Panjab University and Rajasthan University — suffer from it.
The scourge of academic inbreeding strikes when the faculty of a university mostly have degrees from that very university. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the decline of the Allahabad University through the 1960s and beyond also saw a marked change in the academic profiles of its faculty. Most of them had obtained their doctoral degrees from the same university and had no academic experience outside of it.
This academic inbreeding affects ranking, quality of research, variety in faculty, and stagnates ideas while creating a nepotistic ‘in-group’. It’s one of the reasons why Indian universities never make it to the top in global rankings.
The glorious ’60s
The tale of the decline of India’s universities is as tragic as it is alarming, and the reasons behind it almost always include the story of them succumbing to the lure of academic inbreeding.
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In the decades of the 1940s and the 1960s, there were several universities in India that had begun to display great promise. From the Aligarh Muslim University to the Rajasthan University. However and eventually almost all have fallen by the wayside. The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), during the time that Dr Zakir Husain was its Vice-Chancellor in the 1950s, saw a great flowering. It had, on its rolls, three of India’s most promising young mathematicians who were products of the Sorbonne and London University. The Department of History was also distinguished by similar characteristics.
The M.S. University of Baroda (MSU) had been given a great head start by Hansa Jivraj Mehta who, in the 1950s, recruited outstanding faculty from all corners of India and even abroad. The Mathematics Department of the MSU was headed in the 1960s by a distinguished young mathematician who had obtained his doctoral degree at Sorbonne, Professor U. N. Singh. He managed to attract young scholars from outside the university and the department’s research was noted internationally. Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who obtained his undergraduate degree from the MSU, has acknowledged the role his mathematical training at Baroda played in his life. Several other disciplines at the MSU stood out for their high standards and achievements such as the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Home Science. A large number of the academic staff at the MSU had studied at institutions outside the MSU.
In the 1960s, the Mathematics Department of the Panjab University at Chandigarh was easily one of the finest centres of research in India and comparable to very good institutions abroad. It was, at that point of time, being helmed by Professor R. P. Bambah distinguished mathematician who had studied at the University of Cambridge. A large part of its faculty had studied outside India. The Panjab University had similar stories in other disciplines as well.
The same story repeats itself in the 1960s in the Rajasthan University in Jaipur. The Department of History had outstanding scholars, as did several other departments. The university had attracted a bright young faculty in several disciplines.
It can be easily inferred that the 1960s held potential and good cheer for our institutions of higher education.
A slow poison
India’s universities have, however, failed to live up to the promise they offered so long ago. Their journey is marred by an all-round decline. One measure of this decline is the low rankings that our universities obtain consistently in almost all global lists. And one of the chief reasons for such low rankings is the rather indifferent quality of research output and teaching standards. The correlation between academic inbreeding and these poor standards is overwhelming. That inbreeding happens at brazen levels can be easily gauged by simply visiting the websites of these institutions to examine the academic lineages of the faculty. The websites tell a very disappointing story. A huge number of academic staff has been consistently recruited from within the rolls of these universities.
But academic activity is all about new ideas and fresh insights. If an institution recruits largely its own students who have been indoctrinated with the same ideas as all others, then fresh viewpoints are lost. The other problem is that junior faculty are generally overawed by their mentors, more so in India, and they do not display the boldness that is so vital to break out of older academic moulds. Also, during the time of recruitment, an institution, as has been consistently observed, tends to favour its own alumni regardless of merit for so many obvious reasons. This is slow poison and the sooner India wakes up to the issue at hand the better. I advocate no laws and regulations.
None of the leading institutions of the world indulge in such a practice. When I was a graduate student at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, it was an unwritten rule understood by all that every successful doctoral student shall have to seek jobs far and away from his or her alma mater. No one even remotely explored or discussed the possibility of seeking a job at the home university. I have a simple prescription for the well being of India’s universities. Identify and put in place good academic leaders of a calibre identical to that of Dr Zakir Husain or Hansa Jivraj Mehta and give them a little freedom and some time to set examples and minimise such academic inbreeding.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.
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