The government’s list of ‘Institutes of Eminence’ (IoEs) was awaited for the simple reason that finding a place in it would help an educational institution avoid the clutches of a dreaded regulator. Regulators are meant to ensure that we have a socially desirable outcome but in the case of higher education in India, the opposite seems to have happened. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has, over more than half a century, micromanaged this space, leading to a large number of publicly funded universities, producing low-level ‘knowledge’, which have shattered the aspirations of our youth.
Aware of the public anger at the functioning of the UGC, two governments in the past decade have tried to revamp the regulatory environment for higher education. The latest offering is in the form of a proposed Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The intention is to leave the HECI to focus on quality while leaving funding of public institutions to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).
Engagement with ideas
This arrangement has raised the issue of the possibility of bias, leading to concerns that the government may use its discretion to reward institutions according to its ideological predilections. While this is an ever-present hazard in a democracy, one cannot in principle object to an institutional arrangement whereby an elected government exercises its right to allocate funds. One can only pressure it to be impartial and accountable in its actions. In higher education, one would imagine that this accountability would be manifested in enabling the pursuit of excellence.
It is not as if excellence is difficult to identify, even if it may be impossible to measure. In the world of ideas, excellence lies in the ability to participate as an equal in the global knowledge commons. The emphasis here must be on engagement; it is not necessary that institutions should produce knowledge in every field or that its members abide by every idea and protocol in the fields chosen. Whether the criterion of equal engagement is met by the majority of our universities is a moot question. This could be a high-priority issue for the proposed HECI.
However, even as we wonder if the HECI is going to be more than just old wine in a new bottle, we have an inkling of where it could go wrong. The government has chosen a total of six institutions — three public and three private — for the IOE status. The public institutions are: the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru; and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) at Delhi and Mumbai. The private ones are: the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani; the Jio Institute; and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. The list suffers from a serious lack of credibility as the most obvious question that arises is: Where are the universities?
Ignoring the universities
Universities by definition embody knowledge across a wide range of disciplines. While the early European universities started as academies of the arts, they soon had medicine and astronomy as areas that they pursued with vigour. The emphasis was on depth of knowledge across a broad horizon. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost this breadth and come to revel in a landscape dominated by engineering schools. These engineering schools, notably the IITs, have done us proud but cannot be equated with the great universities of the world for the simple reason that they are focussed on a narrow domain.
Also, if the idea behind preparing a list of the IoEs is giving them greater autonomy and enhanced financial support, it must be acknowledged that until very recently, the IITs were not meddled with; neither were they starved of resources. The IISc’s scope is of course broader than that of the IITs but it does not embrace the social sciences and the humanities, the presence of which would be considered necessary for an institution to be considered a university.
Assuming that an IoE list is needed, the absence of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) from the present list striking. If, as I mentioned earlier, the possibility offered by a university for engagement with global ideas is accepted as a criterion, the JNU would count as among India’s eminent educational institutions. One need not agree with any of the political ideas emanating from the university to recognise that if there is one Indian institution that engages a student as an equal in the global commons, it is the JNU. Its research work in various disciplines, ranging from history to economics, is top-quality. Its faculty have brought many of the world’s leading ideas to Indian students and also come close to building a new school of thought. It is not as if similar efforts have not occurred elsewhere in India but JNU has perhaps sustained its reputation as a university for longer.
It would require a scientist assess the contribution made by the JNU to the sciences but it may be noted that it has had schools of Computer Science and the Life Sciences for many decades, right from the time when they were just nascent disciplines in the country.
The choice of the three private institutions that made the cut is as surprising as the exclusion of JNU. While BITS Pilani made significant contribution to the country at a time when it desperately needed engineers, it still doesn’t have the breadth of disciplines to be considered a university.
However, the presence of the two other institutions on the list leaves one nonplussed. One of them, we are told, has been conferred the status solely on grounds of its promise, a dubious position to take as it has little to show but for the financial heft that will surely undergird it. The other is known largely for its practice of charging capitation fees. Eminence is not usually understood in terms of money.
So where does this leave us? Even before the HECI is a reality, we can get an overview of what to expect when such a limited approach to education guides the hand of the state. While there may be no political partisanship involved in the matter of finding eminence only in engineering schools, the choices do reflect short-sightedness when the social sciences and the humanities are completely ignored.
It is indeed conceivable that the politicians who govern us have little time to bother with the constitution of committees. But then, we do maintain a machinery of government, at considerable expense, to advise the Cabinet. In this episode of drawing up a list of IoEs, we are able to see what will determine whether the HECI can make a difference. Its membership will matter more than the institutional architecture governing higher education in India.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of Ashoka University and Senior Fellow of IIM, Kozhikode. Views expressed are personal.
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