Liberating our universities

After three decades at the University of Hyderabad followed by his move to the Indian Institute of Science last month, Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju prescribes mega doses of 'democracy' to bring life back into our ailing University system.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.161 Published online 27 June 2009

Gautam R. Desiraju

It is no longer a matter of discussion that the Indian university system is discredited and disgraced. It is easy to dismiss our universities as bad. It is difficult to pin point the reasons. It is practically impossible to find solutions.

Universities abroad thrive for centuries on end. In India, they are barely able to hobble along after a few decades. In my early years as an academic, I used to wonder how universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna and Cracow have lasted for a millennium, while once stellar universities such as Delhi, Allahabad, Mysore, Calcutta, Andhra and Banaras could not remain academically viable for even fifty years.

After thirty years in the University of Hyderabad, an institution I joined in its nascent days, I think I am beginning to understand how and why.

Leader holds the key

Unlike the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, an Indian university is a personality-dependent organisation. Its prosperity and growth are closely linked to the competence, ethos and the morality of its chief executive. As long as this person is of impeccable character, the organisation prospers.

However, the administrative structuring of an Indian university is unable to withstand the ravages of an incompetent or dishonest leader. Each failed university in our country can be associated with just one bad vice-chancellor. The effects of such a person, it would seem, are irreversible and last long after he has demitted office.

The Government has rightly coupled its mission of higher education with the social and economic empowerment of classes that were traditionally excluded from these spheres. But the implementation of these agendas by corrupt and sub-standard people, who have little appreciation or concern for education in general, results in a deadly cocktail for disaster.

At this point, just about every young person who can, wants to rush abroad to get an education. He or she will take any chance, run any risk and face any consequence to avoid being educated in this country. The motto of my erstwhile university is 'education (is that which) liberates'. However, the real liberation, for our young people it seems, is to escape from the education on offer in our universities.

Appointing committees for vice-chancellors are typically made up of superannuated academics and administrators many of whom have not even visited the university in question. The suggestions of this committee are then sent to the President of India or the Governor of the relevant state who makes the final choice.

This feudal and anachronistic procedure, in which there is plenty of room for political manipulation, has no place in a modern, progressive society. In all successful universities of the world, the appointments of the executive authorities of the university are the sole responsibility of its own academic faculty—an internal matter, and accordingly a democratic and open matter. Only he who plays the game must make the rules. Committees of wise men in New Delhi often have little knowledge or appreciation for what is happening at the grass roots level in the education sector. They cannot be entrusted with this critical task of selecting vice-chancellors.

Working academics in the business of classroom teaching are the only ones who know the real problems of a society that is awakening both socially and economically. Good vice-chancellors need to know enough of academics to be able to identify talent. They need not necessarily be outstanding academics themselves. Good vice-chancellors also need to be savvy enough to attract private funding into their institutions, and not just live off Government subsidies.

None of these things is happening. Instead, a motley group of people with little comprehension of complex issues confronting them, head our universities. Their decisions are based on how it will affect their climb to the next step of the dizzying ladder that furthers them into administrative nothingness.

Commission must get it right

In such a scenario, the Government has been advised to scrap bodies like the University Grants Commission and the All-India Council of Technical Education, which have become autocratic oligarchies and laws unto themselves. In turn, it appears that a new super-body, a seven member Commission for Higher Education and Research (CHER) is being empowered to clean up the mess, with the Chairperson having powers similar to that of the Election Commissioner.

On paper this looks good, but in practice what guarantee do we have that the present rotten structure will not be replaced by another structure with seven Mughal emperors? The people who appoint the members of the CHER will, in all likelihood, be the same people who have been appointing our vice-chancellors, and the seven members will, in all likelihood, be chosen from amongst the present vice-chancellors. This is merely old wine in new bottles, not a route towards systemic change.

It is time to urgently embrace a bottom-up approach in which the stakeholders, that is the university academics, are the only ones taking important decisions. However, it is unrealistic and Utopian to expect that such a reality will emerge out of the present system that is so heavily top-down in its approach.

There is a real opportunity here in the setting up of the new body CHER. The Government should charge CHER with the primary mission of democratising our universities and removing the shackles of bondage that have reduced them to skeletons. We are used to a top-down approach and know of no other method of administration. We need, therefore, wise leaders who are not scared to devolve their powers to the teachers. In my view, this would be the only way to liberate our universities.

The author is in the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.