What Ails Our Universities?

Way back in 1854, "Wood's despatch" as it was then called, Sir Charles Wood, the president of the then East India Company,suggested that primary schools must adopt vernacular languages, high school must adopt Anglovernacular language and on college level English medium for education. Vocational and women's education were also stressed upon.

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Drafted by Wood in 1854, the University of Bombay was established in 1857 after presentation of a petition from the Bombay Association to the then British colonial government in India. The University of Mumbai, renamed so in 1996, was modelled on similar universities in the United Kingdom, specifically the University of London. A great pedigree indeed.At about the same time, for meeting the demands for higher education in Madras Presidency, the then Governor of Madras, Lord John Elphinstone gave accent, paving the way for setting up the University of Madras.With the land given by Maharaja Maheshwar Singh Bahadur, the then Maharaja of Darbhanga, the Calcutta University, came up in the same year.

Established in 1875, as MadrasatulUloomMusalmanan-e-Hind in 1875, and later called the Aligarh Muslim University,catered to several movements besides academics.

Established in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Banaras Hindu Universitycame up as the largest residential university in Asia, with over 35,000 students. It boasts of some great leaders, thinkers and academicians that our generation has produced.


Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, founding father of modern Indiaand author of the constitution of India, DadabhaiNaoroji, the first Asian to sit in the British House of Commons, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the social and political leader during the Indian independence movement, JagdishBhagwati, the university Professor of economics at Columbia University, Homi Jahangir Bhabha, the nuclear physicist who played a major role in the development of India's atomic energy programme, DadasahebPhalke also known as "the father of Indian cinema” were all early alumni of Bombay University, who brought glory with their brilliance and dint of hard work to their alma mater, and made the University what it was known for. “Brilliant” to say the least. The other Universities were equally pedigreed in their alumni. They created history that we can all be proud of giving us some stalwarts, whose exploits, we still cherish.

Universities primarily were setup as education and knowledge hubs with a clear mandate to promote research in inter and intra departmental pursuits, anchored in the society’s needs. They were expected to inculcate analytical, rational, thinking, reasoning and mathematical skills in their wards. With a specific core sector skills, they would then be the best fit for employment markets.  Hence a typical university supported all departments from basic sciences to applied sciences, from life sciences to social sciences and every other discipline that would bind these into a cohesive knowledge body.  

As aspirations of its people grew and the need to be educated was acquiring a larger dimension, setting up Universities like the ones our predecessors did, also grew. However since appropriate funding was always on a deficit, the affiliation system came into being reducing the university at best, to an administrative body. Further, an approach that was based on neglect, lack of appreciation for academic needs, reducing budgets, lack of employment opportunities in some disciplines, exponential growth of some sectors, inability to keep pace with the changing technology, markets and political interferences led to several departments closing down and eventually giving rise to single discipline universities. Overarching research was a palpable casualty, with single discipline research becoming the norm. No university ever made good with a poorly endowed physics, chemistry and mathematics departments. Productization now became a casualty with the country hardly able to boast of any worthwhile product as its own.

Inter and Multi-disciplinary research, Post graduate programs, Productization efforts, collaborations, IPR’s, Patents filed have all suffered due to disaggregation of knowledge, vested interests and people with blinkered vision at the top. Consequently, intellectual pursuits, meaningful collaborations, freewheeling ideas, exchanges, have all suffered. Result is a steady fall in the World rankings, ratings and surveys.

A slow deterioration in values, in research, in teaching learning processes, and almost every aspect over the years, has brought the universities to the brink where even declaration of results is questioned, both in time and quality. The last mile – the student who is the most important axle peg in the giant wheel is made to suffer for no fault of his or her. Credibility of the universitieshas been a consequent casualty. 

Student movements have always given us great leaders and their journey invariably started from the Universities. In some way, politics, ideologies and academics have always entwined each other’s orbits, for their survival, obliterating the clear dividing line over the years.Nobody would probably dispute that academics must be left alone for purely academic pursuits and for creation of knowledge in the society. Great Universities evolved out of this presumption.

The Acts, Statutes and Ordinances that govern the administration of the University are all well edited and well documented masterpieces though several provisions have been questioned from time to time. An oft repeated criticism is that, in the need to administer and retain control, the autonomy to grow, expand and absorb change has been given a goby. The control of the administrative bodies by people other than academicians and well-meaning individuals in the society has been a serious bane.

Be that as it may, one of the most basic and bounden duty of a University is to conduct examinations which are seen to be fair and following the rule book, answer books assessed with a great amount of commitment and results declared in time so that the student who has everything to look forward to is not cheated out of his or her future. Even this activity seems to be suffering on the pressures and exigencies imposed on, by a want of good teachers and by the warped beliefs and priorities.

Changing systems, methodologies and technology have all put pressures on the systems to change. A few Universities made the grade. However the pace has been slow to make an overall impact on the global scene.

A basic beginning with Max Planck like institutes in India would have paved the way for better skilled and research based thinkers in India. According to its primary goal, the Max Planck Society supports fundamental research in the natural, life and social sciences, the arts and humanities in its 83 Max Planck Institutes that focus on excellence in research. While these institutes operate independently from, though in close cooperation with, the universities, they focus on innovative research which does not fit into the university structure due to their interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary nature or which require resources that cannot be met by the state universities.

On the other hand Fraunhofer like institutes would have promoted applied research and productization. This model allows industries to grow on the academic campus with a single goal of creating products for the society.

However we seem to have embarked on a journey of creating State, Central, Deemed, Private and many other variations of our universities which have only ended up as loose cannons. Is it time we laid stress back on fundamentals, basic research and applied research and build our systems to support our economy?

Universities are meant to be epitomes of wisdom. What wisdom and knowledge can be transferred if the wisdom deserts the administration, its leaders and basic functions and tenets on which a University functions? We need academic leaders who command and do not demand respect. A crisis of leadership cannot be camouflaged as emergencies and exigencies. Like Colin Powell, the retired General of the US army once said, “Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It's inevitable - if you're honourable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You'll avoid the tough decisions, you'll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you'll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally "nicely" regardless of their contributions, you'll simply ensure that the only people you'll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization”. This applies equally well to both academic and Industry leaders.

How many Universities, Institutions and Organisations will be sacrificed for want of decisive leadership and enabling ecosystems? Some superbly talented people in our Universities deserve better. The credibility of our Universities needs to be restored again. It is time, well-meaning people come together to make this happen. Can we all begin now?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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