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What ails public universities

What ails public universities
Highlights

Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments have suddenly but surely started focussing on universities. Both are seriously mulling over opening up of university education to the private sector. Notwithstanding the fears over the impending perils behind such a move, the two seem to be determined to permit private universities.

The universities are centres for an adventure of ideas and onward march of human civilisation. We can harvest the demographic dividend only if large sections of the society, irrespective of their economic capacity, have access to high quality university education. None can deny the role of private sector in this endeavour.

But, this cannot be at the cost of public-funded universities. Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh which are raring to allow private universities would do well first to streamline and strengthen the public universities lest private universities will starve public varsities of the cream of students and faculty. For this, both States should start with reforms at the top rung as a strong leadership is vital for academic bodies

Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments have suddenly but surely started focussing on universities. Both are seriously mulling over opening up of university education to the private sector. Notwithstanding the fears over the impending perils behind such a move, the two seem to be determined to permit private universities. This is in tune with the global trend of considering even education including higher education as a tradable service at the behest of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS).

However, looking at the larger picture, particularly in the Indian context, caution is needed on two critical counts. Foremost is the possibility that indiscriminate entry of private players into university education is detrimental to the interests of the society, given that an influx of private institutions can create a large number of teaching shops appropriating the education market on a massive scale.

A strong academically-regulated system has to be evolved and the process of throwing the doors open to private players has to be in a phased manner. Given the growing proximity between business and politics, it is really difficult to allow private universities case by case.

But certainly the policy of private universities should not be allowed to become a boon for lumpen or crony capital.

As the private universities automatically raise the cost of higher education manifold, the issues of access, equity and scrutiny gain importance. Despite the low standards, the products of higher education, especially universities, turn out to be the leaders of different streams of social, political and economic activity. Rising costs of higher education would take away a large number of socially and economically marginalised sections of society away from the ambit of higher education. Thus, this can create an internal apartheid as a large chunk of society will be eternally cut off from the leadership of society.

Therefore, there is an imperative need to ensure that private universities supplement rather than supplant the existing public stream of university education. There is also this danger of private universities taking away the cream of both teachers and students leaving the public universities to contend with the remaining (read it as lower rung) stuff. This would stonewall any possible prospect of reforming the financing of higher education in public stream.

The government-funded university education is riddled with myriad problems. The quality of state universities is seriously under question. Therefore, before embarking upon the move, the two governments should first focus on addressing and, perhaps, redressing the state of affairs that exist in the public universities.

Most of these institutions suffer from similar malaises with a marginal difference here and there. A vibrant and robust university system in public stream can even offset the possible risks associated with entry of private universities.

Even the experience of advanced capitalist nations suggests a strong presence of state universities in a system that is predominantly in the private sector. Thus there is an urgent need to revitalise the public stream of university education before initiating radical policy changes. This is essential to prevent the profit-oriented private sharks from capturing the lucrative higher education market.

But, what ails universities funded by government?

A strong academic leadership is vital for guiding the universities. A university does not mean few concrete buildings, lush green landscape and lifeless infrastructure. It stands for much more in nation-building. A university is a breeding ground of ideas, creative thought, and innovation that drive one to excellence. All this requires an inspiring academic leadership.

But, for decades now, there has been a rapid decay in the selection of leadership. People close to those in power are often appointed to head the universities. Political proximity rather than academic excellence determines one’s chances of becoming a vice-chancellor.

This is the precise reason why one finds professors busy garnering political support in corridors of power whenever the governments contemplate such appointments. Such careerism ruins the university system.

Not just the vice-chancellorship, even appointment of members to executive councils is political in nature. This is not to ignore exceptions or not to accuse anyone and everyone appointed to higher academic bodies of political manipulation. But, this degenerated practice is certainly not an exception but the order of the day. Universities are thus turned into political rehabilitation centres.

At least one would reconcile if politically well-connected but academically accomplished men and women are appointed to head the universities. Often this is not the case. The so-called academicians with hardly any impressive academic record are asked to preside over centres of intellect. How many vice-chancellors and former vice-chancellors have an outstanding record of publication in national or international journals of their respective streams of knowledge?

How many of them have patents to their credit? Such questions would obviously leave uncomfortable answers because the figures would be startling, preposterous and too demeaning, which indicate that academic degeneration starts from the top. A vice-chancellor with scant record of accomplished intellectual work can neither inspire fellow teachers, especially young recruits or students, nor can the individual seek academic work from the system with moral or intellectual authority.

The public universities seriously lack an academic eco-system to foster excellence and innovation. There is no reward for performance and no punishment for lack of it. Promotions are almost assured with routine academic qualifications. The system of refresher and orientation courses introduced to academically update teachers have turned out to be mandatory pre-requisites for rather automatic career advancement.

However, reforms like introduction of consultancy system helped to retain professional talent to an extent, but such initiatives are only academic islands. Most of the universities suffer from financial problems with government allocated resources not meeting the growing expenditure commitments. The internal revenue mobilisation capacity is pathetically limited.

Academic normalcy is yet another challenge. The governments banned student’s union elections to curb excessive politicisation of university campuses. But, lack of democratic atmosphere is strengthening all kinds of anti-academic tendencies and breeding anarchy of different kinds.

Due to political populism and parochialism in recruitment policy, universities are failing to attract globally competitive talent to teaching. Meanwhile, excessive bureaucratisation of administration has undermined academic resources before support services.

The examination system is also seriously undermined. Even the so-called accreditation system has also become an exercise in evasion with universities mastering the art of getting accreditations, too. The affiliation system has almost become a mechanical process without proper academic audit. The quality of teaching and learning needs to be scaled to meet the international standards of excellence. The university–industry linkage remains cosmetic as the industry and university live in segregated compartments lacking mutual respect. And the twain shall hardly meet.

The syllabi, teaching learning methodologies, evaluation procedures fail to compete with the ever changing market place. Thus universities live in a moral dilemma caught between the two objectives – generating ideas and imparting skills in the process quite often doing disservice to both. Economies are no longer built upon physical and natural resources. The economies in knowledge-based global societies are increasingly built upon human resources. The universities are centres for an adventure of ideas and onward march of human civilisation.

We can harvest the demographic dividend only if large sections of the society irrespective of their economic capacity have access to high quality university education. None can deny the role of private sector in this endeavour. But, this cannot be at the cost of public-funded universities.

By:Prof K Nageshwar
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