Ever wondered why we don’t have a Joseph Stiglitz or a John Nash? The easy answer would be to say that we don’t have a culture of enquiry. The more difficult answer is to admit that our university system is in a shambles and that we don’t care about that.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
If minister Kapil Sibal has his way, we may see the government take the first steps in the long road to reviving higher education in India. While it is too early to say if the proposed National Council for Higher Education and Research will be effective, one cannot fault the direction of the proposed reforms.
The recent strike by teachers at the premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) highlighted a crucial problem in the sector: lack of autonomy. In the case of IITs, it is the problem of being chained to the financial heel of the government. Professors cannot get more pay than bureaucrats. In state universities, the problems are fundamental. Vice-chancellors (VCs) are often no more than henchmen for chief ministers, and the universities they preside over no more than degree mills.
Under the changes being considered, VCs will be recommended by a collegium of academicians to the government, which will then appoint them. Matters have come to such a pass that this may seem small and insignificant. In the short run that may be true: The level of politicization in universities is phenomenal. As a result, in the short run, VCs appointed on their academic credentials may not be able to effect revolutionary changes.
In the medium run, however, one can expect them to deliver. This would include matters such as fairness in university appointments, academic accountability of faculties on the basis of their research output and teaching, and a general revitalization of the university environment. This will, however, require much more than just freeing appointments from political pressure.
The fact is that quality higher education is an expensive proposition. Attracting talent to universities in an economy where salaries in the private sector are much higher needs something else. Mere salary increase mandates by pay commissions won’t do. What is required is the freedom to set salaries in accordance with talent. This will, ultimately, require autonomy from all encumbrances such as requiring cumbersome approvals for curriculum change, faculty reservations, low tuition fee and a whole host of other fetters.
It may be premature to say that Sibal is or is not interested in such changes. But after the easy reforms of the kind that he has in mind, he is sure to hit serious political roadblocks. But that is still afar.
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