The debate about colleges holding timely online exams versus delaying them until after the coronavirus lockdown ends is being conducted without any historical knowledge.
It is almost a myopic debate between the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the vice chancellors (VC). At the heart of this debate are two problem areas – the traditional insistence on completing syllabus instead of pruning it and the quality of Indian VCs of late.
Prune the syllabus
As an illustration, I recall, from my student days at Delhi University during the period 1972-73, an occasion when the university had to be shut for more than three months at a stretch due to student disturbances. Yet the university did not extend the session but managed to conduct its examinations without too much delay. My exams were over by 12 May. It was decided to prune the non-essential parts of the syllabi in wise ways.
Even the next session commenced on time. This was due to a very wise pruning of the teaching material, not an obsession with making sure every single thing in the syllabi is taught in complete detail.
The history of higher education in India is replete with innovative solutions for such issues. In addition to the instance of Delhi University, the example of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1985-86 and of the Allahabad University in 1981-82 come to the fore. Both these institutions had dealt with such a problem in creative yet simple ways.
At the Allahabad University the academic session was running three years behind schedule. It’s then VC U. N. Singh (my late father) decided to provide greater autonomy to the teachers that helped the university correct its academic calendar. The BHU had also faced a similar problem when Dr. R. P. Rastogi was the VC. Rastogi too initiated similar steps to restore the normalcy of the academic calendar.
Quality of VCs
Such decisions to tricky problems depend a lot on the quality of university VCs. It all comes down to the business of recruiting vice chancellors and the UGC has not displayed much wisdom.
The UGC lays too much emphasis on highly technical criteria that are extremely detrimental towards attracting talented and wise individuals to serve as vice chancellors. On the other hand it pays no heed to qualitative attributes such as placing a premium on possessing some knowledge of the history of higher education.
It insists that to be eligible for the post of VC, an individual should possess ten years of standing as a full and formal professor. What the UGC has failed to notice or has willfully ignored is that some of the truly great vice chancellors in India’s history would not have been eligible to be considered for the position had this always been the case. In this galaxy of distinguished names, we identify Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Maurice Gwyer and Hansa Jivraj Mehta. They did not have a doctoral degree and had never held the formal title of professor. In fact they were not academics in the formal meaning of the term. Yet they are easily amongst the truly great VCs that India has had.
This does not mean that good VCs are not to be found amidst formal academics. In India, I can cite the example of none other than Dr. Zakir Husain who proved to be an outstanding VC at the Aligarh Muslim University and Dr. Amar Nath Jha who steered Allahabad University so adroitly during the years that spanned British rule and beyond.
Another outstanding example that comes to mind is that of Robert Goheen at Princeton University in the 1960s. Goheen was a 37-year-old assistant professor on a contractual appointment at Princeton when he was appointed its president in 1957. He proved to be one of the most successful presidents of Princeton University.
Reform needs longer stays for VCs
There is another unfortunate practice that has become almost the norm in India during the past few decades. It is but rare for a VC to be re-appointed beyond one term. Once again, it has not struck the powers that be that the truly great achievements of the names that I have mentioned above happened over an extended period of time. Hansa Mehta served for 9 years. Maurice Gwyer served for 12 years. Amar Nath Jha served for 16 years and Robert Goheen served for 17 years. Only then were they able to build great institutions. Unfortunately, the practice in India is such that a VC is barely allowed to complete a single term.
In fact, during the last five years, there has been a very disturbing trend that has begun to manifest itself. It so happens that VCs of five central universities viz. Allahabad University, Central University of Uttarakhand, Central University of South Bihar, Central University of Odisha and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, appointed by the current government have resigned before the completion of their tenures.
This does not augur well for higher education in India, particularly in the light of my assertion that for a university to fare well, as history tells us, a good VC must stay for more than a single term.
The coronavirus lockdown has put a lot of pressure on universities, impacting their activities, both on administrative as well as academic fronts. Completing courses, conducting exams and starting a new academic session are the biggest challenges. Perhaps, a well-structured academic administration would have helped them sail through the crisis with minimum difficulty.
Academic administrators would do well to take this pandemic as an opportunity to identify the systemic problems that hamper decision-making in these difficult times and otherwise.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.