Deemed unfit

We seem to be in for vibrant times in the academia. The growing realisation that India needs a lot more educated human resources than presently available, has prompted moves for a rapid expansion of the higher education sector. Traditionally, this has been dominated by the university system, with the University Grants Commission (UGC) at its apex. There are two types of universities, the more advantageous of the two being the Central universities, while their poorer cousins come under their respective states.

Although the universities are said to be autonomous bodies, the reality may be otherwise. The Central universities cannot afford to ignore missives from the HRD ministry or the UGC, while the state universities have to listen to the mandarins of the state secretariats. To this list is now being added a third and rapidly growing category of “deemed to be a university”.
In the portals of the UGC there is prominently displayed the following statement ascribed to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for onward march of the human race for still higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately then it is well with the Nation and the People…” The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary defines the university as “educational institution designed for instruction or examination of student in all or many of the more important branches of learning, conferring degrees in various faculties…” The “all” or “many” is emphasised by the word “universe” which is part of the word “university”.
A look at some of the famous and successful universities will show the above universal aspect. On the campus of such a university will be found scholars teaching and doing research in the arts and humanities as well as in science and technology. The Oxbridge college system is well known for successfully bringing together fellows from various subjects. Thus, when I was elected a Fellow of King’s College, London, I was fortunate in having for my neighbour no less a person than E.M. Forster. That I could exchange ideas on the origin of the universe on the one hand and humanism on the other, with the author of A Passage to India was a rare privilege indeed. My other haunt, the Collège de France has the motto: “We teach everything”. A student at such an establishment has much to gain from having a varied menu of subjects on the campus. Even if he does not study them all, even occasional lectures by distinguished scholars as part of the academic activity on the campus helps bring more maturity to his personality. A public lecture by Roger Penrose, whether on his views on how the brain works or whether the universe pulsates can expand the thinking horizon of a college student.
It is against this background that I have reservations as to whether the present rapid addition of colleges, institutions and national laboratories to the list of deemed to be universities is the right step. To the extent that these organisations can now give their own degrees, it will make the procedure easier for them, since the corresponding rules and their application in the universities is forbiddingly bureaucratic. But apart from the ability to grant degrees, has anything changed so far as the academic ambience of these institutions is concerned? This reservation is particularly directed against national labs and autonomous institutions in specialist fields, of the kind that are supported by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Atomic Energy, etc. If the original purpose was to raise the trained human resources significantly above the numbers presently covered, is it served by this addition of such highly specialised centres to the fold? For, even in a centre for excellence like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the typical student will be insulated from the universality of knowledge that was mentioned above.
There is another problem which has its origin in the way these research institutes were created. In the post-Independence India the initiative taken by Jawaharlal Nehru under the advice from eminent scientists Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and Homi Bhabha, led to the creation of these institutes. While this step added vigour to scientific research in the newly independent country, it did so at a serious cost to the existing university system. It not only established these institutes outside the university system, but it also attracted talent away from the universities. This was the beginning of a decline in the university standards to which other factors also contributed.
Today, it looks as if the existing universities are being abandoned as “lost cause”. Any changes for the better are being thought of as outside the existing university system. The deemed to be university is a solution under the same philosophy. When TIFR was thought of, the creator Homi Bhabha had envisaged the positive feedback the TIFR scientists would provide to the university system. The attempts by TIFR to establish contacts and teaching interaction with Mumbai University, and later with the Pune University, were of limited duration and could not continue. There can be a detailed post-mortem of such attempts, but the fact remains that one of the main reasons for TIFR to become a deemed to be university was the problems of coping with university rules.
Thus giving degree-granting authority to autonomous institutions like the TIFR or the CSIR labs will make only cosmetic change to the current situation, at best making it less of a headache for these institutions to complete the degree formalities. It will not meet the national need for a large number of trained human resources that India must produce in not too distant a future. Nor will we get graduates with an exposure to the humanities as well as sciences. To try to achieve this goal without involving the existing universities is being unfair to them. Granted that the typical university requires a sea change, can we not begin the procedure as a pilot experiment with, say, 20 universities?

Jayant V. Narlikar is a professor emiritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus, and a renowned astrophysicist

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