Monday, May 30, 2005

Deepak Nayyar on universities

[ Via Uma at Indian Writing ] : Deepak Nayyar, who stepped down recently from the Vice Chancellorship of Delhi University, has an Indian Express op-ed titled "Universities in the sick bay". This article is good in parts, and is certainly better than what we got from the Hindu's interview and the Business Standard's interview; see also my earlier post, and the comments therein. Let us look at some of the points in Nayyar's op-ed:

In the next 25 years [1975 - 2000], two things went wrong. The first was the mistaken belief that research should be moved out of universities, as we attempted to create stand-alone research institutions pampered with resources. In the process, we forgot an essential principle -- that there can be no good research without teaching and no good teaching without research. For there are synergies between teaching and research which enrich each other. And it is universities that are the natural home of research.

In other words, money was siphoned off from the university system (interestingly, Nayyar rejects the notion of a fixed education pie when he talks about primary vs. higher education, while he seems to embrace it when it comes to money meant for supporting research). Where did the money go? In science and engineering, it went primarily to the extensive system of research labs run by different government departments such as defence, atomic energy and space. However, the primary target of the critics of Indian higher ed policy is the civilian Department of Scientific and Industrial Research that runs the CSIR labs (the others cannot be targeted, because of their association with specific national missions and mandates). If I read Nayyar correctly, the social sciences also seem to have their own versions of 'pampered' research institutions. What are these institutions? I don't know. Perhaps some of you may give pointers in the comments.

The second thing that went wrong was that, essentially, what happened to the Republic of India happened to our universities. This was inevitable. Universities are not stand-alone islands. Nor are they immune from the law of averages. They simply mirror society. Our universities witnessed the same erosion of work ethic, the same dilution of values and morality, the same chipping away at norms, that was experienced by polity and society.

This is just plain red herring; I mean, aren't there many other public institutions and organizations (well-run public sector companies, for example) that break free from the 'law of averages' and that don't 'simply mirror society'? In any case, we are talking about a higher education system which, by definition, is unrepresentative. So, what 'law of averages' or 'society-mirroring' is Nayyar talking about? Is this some kind of a code phrase for something he cannot afford to utter openly? If you are in the know, do please enlighten the rest of us!

There is serious cause for concern as the gap between our universities and the best in the world outside has widened. Some symptoms are striking. First, curricula, which have remained almost unchanged for decades, have not kept pace with the times, let alone extend the frontiers of knowledge. Second, the milieu is not conducive to learning or creativity, for it is caught in a 9.30-1.30 syndrome. Third, the boundaries between disciplines have become dividing walls that constitute barriers to entry, as also exit, while knowledge is developing at the intersection of disciplines. Fourth, the academic calendar is no longer sacrosanct, for classes or for examinations, and there are slippages in schedules; so much so that, at places, results are declared with a time-lag of 12 months. Fifth, the infrastructure is not simply inadequate, it is on verge of collapse. Sixth, as in most public institutions, there is almost no accountability, because there are no rewards for performance and no penalties for non-performance.

This paragraph and the next (where he talks about the poor finances of universities) are the best in the entire article. They lay the problems out in plain language. Though the diagnosis seems like we have seen it before, coming from a 'real doctor', it has an added credibility. Alas, this is also where the good stuff stops. Take a look at the last few sentences:

... We must, therefore, do everything we can to combat the inertia and cynicism that characterises our public institutions. ... What it needed is good leadership and cohesive teamwork, combined with a determination on the part of university communities to work together for a common cause. There is, after all, something to the old adage that even God helps those who help themselves.

These words are indeed strange, almost surreal. Sure, good leadership and cohesive teamwork and all that jazz will help. How will all that come about? It would have been wonderful if Nayyar, who occupied arguably the hottest seat in India's higher ed system for nearly five years, had provided some concrete, actionable policies and plans. Is there any way in which he can be persuaded to do that?