From where I sit - Autonomy, but at a cost

September 16, 2010

The idea of what a university should be is changing in India. This clearly emerges in the concept note for the 2010 Universities for Innovation Bill. This seeks to facilitate the creation of a university that will "focus on an area ... and build an ecosystem of research and teaching around different related disciplines and fields of study which are relevant thereto, searching for solutions that are globally valid and in the process develop education at undergraduate and higher levels".

If the legislative lingo is unpacked, it simply means this: unlike existing universities with their plurality of disciplines and diversity of research interests, an innovative university's departments and schools will focus on one relevant theme. Public health, environmental sustainability and the challenges of urbanisation are some of the themes that figure in the concept note. The institutions' proposed governance model is also novel. Greater freedom has been promised than is today enjoyed by any Indian university, with autonomy over appointments, fees, research and funding.

Why, then, does this model not inspire enthusiasm among old university hands? First, there is suspicion about the sincerity of the Ministry of Human Resource Development on granting academic autonomy. No legislation has been mooted to extend the same autonomy to India's existing 42 centrally funded universities. So, is it possible that this architecture of governance has been suggested by the private players and foreign universities that have expressed interest in being promoters of the innovation universities?

Second, if good staff are the backbone of any institution of excellence, where will academics for these universities come from? In many disciplines, there is a severe faculty shortage.

In the opinion of Deepak Pental, vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, India first needs to create a programme to sponsor a few hundred PhDs to work in laboratories abroad to tackle technical and engineering education in the new universities.

This is what China did decades ago. As recounted by Delhi physics professor Shobhit Mahajan, it chose the best of the best through a national test. During his years as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he said, the Chinese students in his graduate class were brilliant, far ahead of those who had topped their undergraduate classes at Harvard and Princeton universities.

Above all, there is a sense that faculty at innovation universities will be expected to translate research and new ideas immediately into practical applications, which is impossible. This does not mean that universities are ivory towers or unresponsive to practical concerns.

As Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, said in an address to Rhodes scholars at the institution in November 2009, the reason why law was taught in the typical medieval university was because kings required educated administrators and lawyers. Equally, history, philosophy and other disciplines - whose worth cannot be measured in utilitarian terms - were and are an integral part of the best universities, and funding must be provided to them without constraining their scope.

That India is now thinking of seeding universities that, by definition, will only promote research that feeds into a specific theme is a departure. The paradox of this proposed departure - where autonomy is guaranteed while freedom of enquiry stands compromised - has simply escaped the ministry mandarins.

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