Monday, May 16, 2005

Interview of Deepak Nayyar


Do read this interview of Deepak Nayyar in the Hindu. Nayyar just stepped down from the Vice Chancellorship of Delhi University, India's premier public university. First, some excerpts from the interview:

  • When I took charge, I found that of every 100 rupees spent, 73 was on salaries and superannuation benefits. Of the remaining 27, 15-17 was used for electricity, medical reimbursement, etc. So you had 10 rupees of every 100 to meet all needs of maintenance. It is no wonder that physical assets languished. ... Capital expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure in universities is at best 3 per cent. Think of a firm, an economy which invests only 3 per cent and you'll see the problem.
  • We have too many structural rigidities in our system. The University of Delhi provides a telling example but most universities in India are caught in that warp. They are divided into departments and the walls between them are so high that the possibilities of interaction, intersection are few and far between. So a person with an MA is sociology would find it difficult to go on and study law or history, the kind of flexibility you have everywhere.

Nayyar gets away with presenting a long list of bad things at DU together with a bit of diagnostics, without getting pinned down on any of the specifics. For example, what does he mean when he says, "the education sector looks like the health sector did 20 years ago"? It is clear that he finds a lot to dislike about the health sector in its present state, and worries that it could happen to education also. But, what is it? Similarly, what does he mean when he follows it up with this dire warning: "those of us who work in public institutions, the sooner we realise this, the better". What should we do? At another place, he says, "I think we need to break our mindset". What is his contribution to this noble endeavour? It is not clear at all.

Now you understand why I found this interview deeply disappointing. Sure, there is some interesting information about the economics of running a large public university. But, there is very little sense of DU's history and of Nayyar's accomplishments as DU's chief. There is virtually nothing about what made Nayyar tick as an economist, what made him accept DU's Vice Chancellorship, what kind of vision he had for DU, what he has learnt during his tenure, what kind of reforms he would recommend (including how to get them done), what challenges he leaves behind for the next VC, grand themes and big questions in higher ed in India, role of private universities, etc, etc, etc. May be, all this is too much to expect from a responsible newpaper when it presents an interview of an important public servant and intellectual.

Towards the end of the interview, he says

There are many distinguished academics who would be excellent vice-chancellors. But they do not wish to become VCs or the system will not appoint them. And there are many who are simply not good enough and yet are appointed.
Did Nayyar do anything to change how the VC's position is viewed by the capable people? Does this interview make you feel that becoming a Vice Chancellor could be a great career move?

Siddharth, this is a crappy interview you have given us here. Perhaps you will do a story on DU and its decline with the same passion with which you did your recent op-ed about the decline of Modern Food Industries.

Update: (20 May 2005) I now believe I have given a wrong impression about Deepak Nayyar's tenure at DU. See my comment (No. 5) below. I realize now that I should not have taken my eye off the ball (Nayyar). While my rant about Siddharth Varadarajan is still valid, and is actually strengthened by what I know now, I realize that I should have avoided giving a false impression about Nayyar. My apologies.

6 Comments:

  1. Sunil said...

    Good point. How does one change the system though? What are your own ideas on that?

  2. Anand said...

    "The most logical solution to the problem [of fee] is for universities to charge students fees that they paid when they left school. It is logical, just and fair, because it measures your ability to pay."

    I thought this was an excellent (& new) suggestion by Deepak Nayyar.

  3. Abi said...

    Anand,

    Look at it this way: if some lowly faculty member or a student complains about how bad the system is, and throws up his hand, it is understandable. If a VC does the same thing, there is something seriously wrong. I wouldn't blame Nayyar for doing this, though. It is probably a systemic problem that he cannot really do anything about. It also explains why many capable, distinguished people are reluctant to become lame duck VCs.

    As for his 'idea', yeah, it is not a bad one, IMHO. But, the more crucial question is: did he manage to implement it?

    Take a look at this blog post, where Tim Burke of Swarthmore is talking about the new directions his university should be pursuing, and how it can do things that bigger department-oriented universities cannot do, and so on. Just imagine the vitality of a place when faculty members talk enthusiastically about the future of their universities. Now, contrast it with all the public hand-wringing by the CEO of the premier university in India.

    In an earlier post, Patrix and Niti talked about private universities. I have been mulling this and related possibilities for sometime; hopefully, they will crystallize into something concrete and useful soon. When that happens, I will certainly post it here.

    So, Sunil, you (and I) will have to wait for a while!

    Cheers!

  4. Anand said...

    Thanks Abi. I wasn't saying that Nayyar did exceedingly well or anything of that sort! From the newspaper reports I get the feeling that he was relatively better than most VCs of Indian universities. Also a VC (of a large instituion like DU) cannot implement substantial changes easily. What one can try to do is to put forward bold suggestions and then try to bring about a consensus on those. Regarding the fee structure, Nayyar says that they are "close to doing it". I'm sure there's going to be stiff opposition.

  5. Abi said...

    Sigh!

    Before writing about any topic even remotely connected with higher ed, I should have checked with *the* authority on the subject: Satya's excellent blog, Education in India.

    Take a look at Satya's posts here and here. They go beyond, far beyond, what I have here. Read them, and Nayyar comes across as an entirely different person, indeed.

    Satya gives you a link to a wonderful piece done by the good folks at the Business Standard, who interviewed Nayyar in a relaxed atmosphere over lunch. Read it now; it is delicious.

    After reading that piece, come back and read the Hindu interview. Don't you think Siddharth has done a worse job (though it is difficult to imagine) than Srinivasan Jain doing an interview of Sushma Swaraj?

  6. Anonymous said...

    Hmmm... I followed the link to your "guru's" blog on education and came across a rather different assessment of the SAME interview of Prof Deepak Nayar in the Hindu... I guess I should trust Satya (who knows his subject) rather than you!

    Dhritiman



    May 19, 2005
    "Education will become a business, just like health began to become a business 20 years ago", says Prof. Deepak Nayyar

    In an interview to The Hindu (May 16, 2005), Prof. Deepak Nayyar (former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University - he retired in May 2005) says the Indian university system is in urgent need of structural reform and makes what I think is an extremely important point.

    The education sector looks like the health sector did 20 years ago. If we don't wake up, we are going to get education as a business in much the same way as you got health as a business. It will come. And those of us who work in public institutions, the sooner we realise this, the better.

    When he says "If we don't wake up,.... ," I'm not sure if Prof. Nayyar feels this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it is quite a good thing and in any case inevitable. When the Government is unable to find the funds to meet the demand, especially in important sectors like health, education, housing, food etc.., there is no alternative but to tap private funds to meet the demand. But we must simultaneously regulate not just the private sector, but the public sector as well, to ensure that both the public and private players are held to high standards. We already do this in other sectors like the financial and corporate sectors, the telecom sector, the hotels and so on and we need to do the same for the education sector too.

    In the interview, Prof. Nayyar explains why our universities are not financially viable today.

    Are the current levels of investment in our universities adequate?

    I think the resources allocated to higher education are simply not adequate to meet the needs of our times.

    As an economist, can you put a percentage figure on that?

    On average, funding is only at about one-third of what we need to provide. But let me give you a striking example which epitomises the sad story. When I took charge, I found that of every 100 rupees spent, 73 was on salaries and superannuation benefits. Of the remaining 27, 15-17 was used for electricity, medical reimbursement, etc. So you had 10 rupees of every 100 to meet all needs of maintenance. It is no wonder that physical assets languished. This is just an example but it is the story of universities everywhere in India. Look at the library budget. It was Rs.6 crore, of which Rs.4 crore was salaries. Add superannuation and you'll find you're not buying any books! Capital expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure in universities is at best 3 per cent. Think of a firm, an economy which invests only 3 per cent and you'll see the problem.

    Do higher fees provide a way out of this problem?

    There is an incentive compatibility problem. In Delhi, university fees have remained Rs.15 a month for undergraduates and Rs.18 for postgraduates for almost 50 years. But this is not what a student pays. Colleges over the years have raised fees. Typically you pay Rs.300-1000 a month depending on which college you're at. Much of this has come not in the form of fees but disguised as library development charge, campus development fund etc. Why? Because the UGC formula for computing grants is to estimate total expenditure, deduct total income and give the rest as grant-in-aid. Fees for capital expenditure do not get adjusted. The UGC method of allocating resources creates no incentive to raise fees. Fees, of course, have to be raised but two conditions are essential. First, when universities raise fees, the entire increase for, say, five years should accrue to the institution. Later a sharing formula can come. Second, you have to make sure there are scholarships to support those who cannot afford the restructured fees.

    In our universities, you have this paradox of affluent students paying next to nothing and a large number of students from poor backgrounds who find even low fees burdensome. You had once suggested college students should pay what they paid as fees in high school. This way the poor could study free, and the rich pay no more than what they were paying in class XII anyway.

    The most logical solution to the problem is for universities to charge students fees that they paid when they left school. It is logical, just and fair, because it measures your ability to pay. But this has not been readily accepted because of concerns that this may not be consistent with law. Somebody may go to court saying `why should I pay more for the same educational opportunities?' Yet, I do believe it is possible to bring about a consensus on restructuring fees. I suppose had I been here a year longer, I would have done it. We are close to it. There is recognition on the part of everybody that what we have as university fees is anachronistic. A student will pay Rs.30 for a coffee at Barista, Rs.150 for a movie ticket at a multiplex, Rs.10 to park a car every day, and yet pay the university only Rs.15-18 a month! We need to index link what we charge as fees.

    This raises another important issue. Can we make higher education financially self-sustainable, by charging realistic fees, while at the same time providing scholarships (subsidies) for all those who can't afford to pay the realistic fees? That is fodder for another day, another post.

    Prof. Nayyar also touches upon other interesting issues in his interview with The Hindu - go read it here. On the occassion of his retirement as Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, Business Standard interviewed Prof. Nayyar and talked to him about the various reforms that he has been able to bring about in Delhi University.