India’s not-for-profit universities must not kowtow to industry

India’s newest universities are showing immense promise but may find it hard to stay independent from the corporate world, says Ganeshdatta Poddar

April 23, 2020

Founded by industrialists and princely states in the 19th century, India’s first private universities played an important role in national life before and after independence, with many becoming key public institutions.

But the private colleges created after 1947, which focused mainly on professional education, struggled to acquire the same prestige. Moreover, they have also found it hard to keep up with newer public institutions, such as the highly selective Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management.

But a new set of philanthropic educational institutions are faring much better. As the vice-chancellor of one of them – Pankai Chandra from Ahmedabad University, in Gujarat – observed, these institutions are very different from their predecessors in their recruitment, courses and support for students. They seem to be in sync with the aspirations of modern India and geared towards meeting the needs of industry.

Their inspiration comes from an unlikely socialist source – Gandhi. His guiding principle of “trusteeship” – that industrial leaders should pour their wealth into trusts to aid public welfare – is often cited as the guiding principle of capitalist founders willing to invest in higher education.

New institutions such as O. P. Jindal Global University and Ashoka University, near New Delhi, and Shiv Nadar University, in Uttar Pradesh, have succeeded, in part, because they have encouraged an experimentation to academic courses, where educators can learn from their mistakes. Not beholden to a public sphere subject to manipulation by vested interests, they look set to create open and fair campuses free from patronage of entrenched social interests that infiltrate our provincial universities.

Having promotion and hiring processes that recognise and reward sincerity, good work and productivity is also key. Although these structures are humane and compassionate, they weed out the laggards who rely mainly on obstructionism and rhetoric to legitimise their presence on campus.

Most importantly, their potential to foster a culture of vigorous debate and discussion, as well as constructive dissent, means that their campuses are less likely to be hijacked by those sympathetic to political parties in the way that has crippled some of our leading public universities.

While they have immense promise, their journey towards achieving their many laudable goals may be fraught with difficulties.

My institution – a private liberal arts college founded in 2007 as Flame – the Foundation for Liberal and Management Education, which became a university in 2015 – faces these challenges too. After the excitement of the visionary leadership of its founders, it must now avoid some of the pitfalls that come from having a board and governing body so steeped in industry.

These successful business leaders can understandably find it hard to accept that a university is a different social animal to any other institution. It cannot be run like any other business entity. They may be reluctant to let go of their hold over power and their influence on the internal functioning of an institution – mostly having clandestine mechanisms of surveillance and control. They may prefer to entrust leadership to academics who, instead of feeling accountable to the academic community of the institution, feel beholden to the board and act at their behest.

Worse still, they may act in a way that undermines the position of academic leaders, which will sooner or later put off talented academics from arriving and bring disrepute to the institution.

Universities started with philanthropic initiatives may, over time, prefer courses that produce graduates with a high market value and neglect programmes aimed at promoting independent thinking; a healthy combination of the two is required. A techno-managerial approach that tries to quantify teaching, learning and evaluation may appeal to certain business heads but it is an approach that will almost certainly kill the joy of learning.

The success of these institutions hinges on establishing cordiality and trust between philanthropists and academia. Are our great industrialists willing to let go of their hold over their philanthropic institutions and entrust their day-to-day running to the academic community? Will they look for a community of pliant academics who can be lured into executing an agenda set by them?

The latter will sadly destroy the academic atmosphere in our institutions and undermine what can be a driving force for social good and educational reform across India.

To withstand these pressures our teachers must show credibility, integrity and independence. Although inspired by industry, these institutions must not lose sight of the steadfast Gandhian honour that underpins them.

Ganeshdatta Poddar teaches political science and Spanish at Flame University, in Pune, India.

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