The Public University: Challenges of Change

The public university is now on a collision course with several things that are byproducts of neo-liberal economy and changing demographics
Representational Image
Representational ImagePxhere [Creative Commons]

This is the opportune time to review a book dealing with rise and fall of the public university in India. The book titled, “Remodeling the Universities: Meeting Challenges of the 21 century” by eminent academic Srinivas K Saidapur, who earlier served as vice Chancellor Karnataka University Dharwad , has been published by Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi.

At the outset I need to point out that the book has dealt with some key issues but many important concerns have been left out perhaps for the next edition to be brought out by the author. The book begins with a brief introduction to the history of Indian university system, and the author gives the reader a sort of perspective to understand its growth in India.

The author refers to India’s native ideas about education to make the reader conscious about rich legacy post-colonial state has inherited at the time of independence. The ideas concerning Gurukul system and growth of education at the ruins of Nalanda and Takshalla provide a sort of a bridge to connect the reader with the past so that they understand the future of higher education.

The author finds fault with colonial scheme of education by attaching selfish and cultural motives to it. This sort of criticism against English education has become staple diet of people as if all our problems flow from colonial intervention. Not many people appreciate that even after seventy five years of independence we haven’t been able to offer credible and acceptable alternatives at multiple levels to our students and parents. India was fortunate to have universities as early as 1857 (Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras) which were premised neither on the western prototype of a university nor even were they the alleviation of “Gurukula-Vihara-Madrassa” tradition.

The British were in one sense an unconscious tool of history as the first generation of freedom fighters, teachers and administrators in India were products of these universities. India as a society has historically been quite receptive to different ideas and ideologies without giving up its native strength. we all remember Gandhi’s famous words “ I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”.

The introductory chapter deals with issues post-1990 neo-liberal turn in Indian economy when state in India made decisive shift towards privatisation of public assets. The author claims that it is high time to study and analyse the rise and fall of universities in India in light of complex problems arising due to globalisation and changing demographic picture of the country.

The public university is now on a collision course with several things that are byproducts of neo-liberal economy and changing demographics. The public universities according to eminent sociologist Andre Beteille failed to fuse teaching and research to produce communities of scholars and scientists but turned into graduate producing institutions. These graduates holding PhD degrees roam around and even apply for fourth class jobs in a jobless economy.

The closure /stagnation of public sector and growth of the ‘private’ where set of skills are needed for any job, universities are experiencing desertification although imparting only skills is not the goal of the university. The public university has been afflicted with other problems also. Prof Apoorvanand of Delhi University metaphorically compared them to a “stagnant pond and an expanding desert”.

This at a time in history of nation-building when demands for quality education are growing and new middle class emerging after 1990 has already expressed disenchantment with the public university. The entry of private players in higher education and of late expected arrival of foreign universities on Indian soil has thrown the whole thing into flux. Navigating the challenges to public university in a hugely poor and unequal society is a matter which can’t be left to the wisdom of management gurus only who are at the service of corporate driven neo-liberal state. The old adage that don’t throw the baby out along with bathwater needs to be kept in consideration.

The author has given sufficient treatment to an important matter viz “Leadership and Governance” which in recent times has become the yardstick with state, market, and civil society to judge working of the public university. The role of universities in producing better human resources has been discussed by the author as also the appointment of faculty and digital libraries.

All this is fine but all this is not going to be helpful at this point of time when the very concept and institution of public university is in deep mess. We need to look for the proverbial elephant in the room and debate not who but what killed the golden hen i.e., public university, which singularly produced the human resources employed by post independent state, to transform India from a colonial into a modern welfare state.

Looking from the perspective of Public policy it seems that the Indian state has an ambiguous position and suffers from policy confusion on matters fundamental to survival of the public university. Forget about internal governance in these universities the dream project of “Institutions of Eminence” too is not yielding desired results. The union government promised to grant autonomy and funding support of Rs 1000 crore to each public-funded institution over a period of five years to elevate these into institutions of eminence. These were given autonomy to hire foreign faculty, hire personnel from industry, admit foreign students, enter into academic collaboration abroad and have complete financial autonomy.

There are only three public funded and three private funded universities placed in this category. In real practice these institutions have limited financial autonomy. The scope of existing Public Management System, Comptroller and Auditor General of India and Government-e-Marketplace Portal, according to inside reports , are acting as hindrance to these institutions in following global best practices and to ensure “Ease of Education”. As far as foreign faculty and students are concerned issues related to visa, registration, opening a bank account, residence, political clearance, complex taxation laws, low pay packages and weak social security are impinging upon autonomy of these institutions of eminence.

About public universities the problems are increasing so much so that all reports/bills in different states of Indian union following NEP,20 are surreptitiously advocating incremental disinvestment of these institutions. There are of course issues for which the state has to take the blame but there are problem areas where naked vested interest within public universities has ruined these temples of learning. These were treated like any other public sector undertaking only to provide employment to the people. The question at the end of the day is who will buy or board the old ambassador car?

The most important factor in the success of higher education as already mentioned according to MHRD is the quality faculty. While this objective is laudable it is not understandable as to why the recruitment of faculty has virtually come to a standstill and how central universities can be trusted in the process of recruitment of faculty while state level universities cannot? The “Task Force on Faculty Shortage Design of Performance Appraisal System” in its report noted that: the present shortage of 3.8 lakhs teachers or faculty members in its higher education system of India comes to over 50 percent which is critical. It is likely to grow to 13 lakhs in the next 8-10 years (UGC 2011:X).

The situation is getting worse as the student strength has increased and recruitment of teachers has declined. Assuming the recruitment process commences, the question is how to get the best in the system so that university helps in socio-economic transformation at a time when demographic changes are occurring and issues of employability have become important.

In a recent article in Indian Express (September 20, 2022) Rohit Kansal and Dipankar Sen Gupta from Jammu and Kashmir find fault with institutional weaknesses and strongly argue for change in the mode of appointments so that universities in their own interest appoint the best possible candidates”.

True that challenges of change in the mode of economy, knowledge and technology have increased responsibility upon universities to deliver.

The key to myriad problems lies in appointing the best in the universities. The misuse of autonomy by the universities has rendered them dysfunctional. However, the mode of appointment needs to be re-examined with care and with due regard to merit. We need to ensure that cure is not worse than the disease.

The book also provides due coverage to the issue of appointment of Vice Chancellors as part of good governance agenda. This issue has already invited great deal of attention and what happens is that the more the things change the more they remain the same.

My own experiences as an academic is that public universities particularly at state level need to evolve the mechanism of collective leadership within as part of institutional response to deliver quality teaching and research.

A collegium of senior Faculty with credible record of public service and sufficiently educated in viz, public policy, political economy, educational administration, knowledge economy, technological change etc., need to aid and advise the Vice Chancellor on regular basis so that the university is remodeled to suit challenges of twenty first century.

Professor Gull Wani is Kashmir based Political Scientist

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK

Related Stories

No stories found.
Greater Kashmir