Policy cannot be a response to crisis. It has to anticipate and avert it. In Pental's view, Indian policy makers do not move unless pushed. So the Green Revolution was a reaction to the food crisis and 'ship-to-mouth' humiliation inflicted on the country by USA's Johnson administration. Similarly, economic reforms of 1992 happened when the country's dollar reserves had dwindled to a few weeks of imports and we had to suffer the mortification of halving to pledge gold. And the latest flurry of policy activity has occurred when the country is teetering on a fiscal precipice.
There are four critical differences between universities of the western world and ours. The first is that they do all they can, when they recruit young faculty, to make way for excellence. We do everything to block its entry. We start discouraging talent early, but a few bright youngsters manage to come up despite our best efforts. They are the ones who face the greatest resistance from our institutions at the time of selection for vacancies. The norms and standards that western institutions apply for selecting young faculty focus on individualised assessment of potential. Senior people and administrators who make decisions make sure that the aspirants are assessed on the basis of what they have published, the quality of research they have done, and how passionate they seem about the pursuit of knowledge and teaching.
In our case, the initial criteria applied are purely mechanical. Any hint of trans-disciplinary interest means that the candidate loses the chance to be interviewed. And those who somehow escape this fate are ultimately sized up at the time of interview in terms of the lobbies they might belong to. Someone rare enough to be independent of personal as well as intellectual lobbies is the first to be eliminated. In the semi-final act of short listing, those lacking support from the dominant lobbies get weeded out. Then, in the ultimate moment, hard bargaining takes place and the institution’s future gets sealed. If there is someone with an unusual background or achievement, you can depend on the selection committee to find a technical ground to reject him or her. The only way he or she might get appointed is if a determined Vice-Chancellor forces the person in. Democratic procedures and correctness have become incompatible with respect for quality. Our universities feel comfortable with the labyrinth of eligibility norms that the University Grants Commission has nurtured with relentless energy to issue circulars over the decades. Selection committees debate over the finest of technicalities to justify the selection of the average, allowing anyone with sheen to get stuck and lost in the maze of criteria.
The second major difference between our universities and the western ones relates to the concept of teaching. We calculate teaching in terms of periods taken. The Radhakrishnan Commission had bemoaned the fact that our colleges work like higher secondary schools. More than six decades after the commission gave its report, life in our undergraduate colleges is just the same. The UGC demands 18 periods of teaching per week from an assistant professor. “Isn’t that reasonable?,” one might ask. Of course, it is, if you ignore what the word “teaching” means. The practice of calculating teachers’ daily work by counting the number of periods they stand beside the blackboard exposes the hollowness of our system and the concept of education. It also shows how little we have progressed since colonial days when accountability was tied to crude measures. How far Britain has moved away from the procedures it introduced in India long ago became apparent to me a year ago when I was invited to serve on a course evaluation committee in a British institute. After examining the course content, the recommended readings and the description of each lecture session taken through the year, the committee met groups of students from the previous three years. We also read the detailed feedback each student is required to give at the end of each course.
Our discussion with students and — separately — with their teachers was frank and detailed. We learnt how students assessed their teachers in terms of preparedness for each class, personal interest in the subject, the pedagogic strategies used to arouse interest, and not just regularity — which was, in fact, taken for granted. In India, we worry about attendance records to keep the student under pressure to attend classes that may be altogether devoid of intellectual stimulation. Despite attendance norms being stringent, there are classes without much attendance. There are also numerous cases of attendancewithout classes. An obsolete system of examination helps teachers who miss classes and make no effort to relate to students. There are many who take the number of periods required, but their classes have no soul or spark.
The third critical difference between life in an Indian university and a university in the West arises out of the concept of knowledge embedded in the system. The crude measures our regulatory bodies such as the UGC apply in the name of accountability mask the epistemic sterility of the curriculum, the pedagogic process and examination. In the West, curriculum and pedagogy both follow the teacher’s own research interests. Even smaller universities with limited resources attempt to cultivate a research environment. Topics of research reflect the university’s concern for the social and natural world surrounding it. Research is seen as an inquiry to solve problems as well as to induct the young into a community of inquires. Keeping a record of hours spent on direct teaching becomes irrelevant in such a system, even in the case of undergraduate students. To keep their research interests alive and popular, senior professors engage with young undergraduates who bring fresh questions and perspectives to ongoing inquiries. In India, you stop teaching undergraduate classes as soon as you attain professorial status. Teaching and research are seen as two separate activities. While teaching is perceived as institutional work, research is viewed as a personal agenda for moving forward in one’s career. Not surprisingly, infrastructure and administrative procedures that might facilitate research do not exist. Obstacles do, and the teacher who makes the mistake of initiating a research project has to struggle all the way to its completion and the ritual of report submission to the funding agency. No one among colleagues or in the administration cares to know the findings, let alone their implications. Teaching goes on following the grooves of preset syllabi, like the needle boring into an old gramophone record.
The fourth critical difference lies in the library. In the West, even in the most ordinary universities, the library forms the centre of life, both for teachers and students. Librarians enjoy a high status as their contribution to academic life cuts across academic disciplines. They work closely with teachers and students in the various tasks involved in procurement of books and journals, keeping the library quiet and friendly, and ensuring speedy access. Our case is the opposite. The library exists on the margins of the classroom. In many universities, undergraduate students are not allowed to use the university library. Subscription to journals and magazines has dwindled over the years, and maintenance of past volumes is now seen as an obsolete practice because e-storage is available. We forget that the library is not merely a service; it is also a physical space whose ethos induces the young to learn the meaning of belonging to a community of scholars. Our reading rooms carry an unkempt, hapless look, with clanking ceiling fans and dog-eared books waiting to be removed. Book acquisition has been saturated with petty corruption and a crowd of spurious publishers has thrived on the outskirts of the academia.
These four critical differences are, of course, symptomatic of deeper problems entrenched in structures that govern higher education in India. Those who perceive all problems in financial terms miss the barren landscape of our campuses. Inadequacy of funds is, of course, worrisome, but it cannot explain the extent to which malice, jealousy and cussedness define the fabric of academic life in our country. There is a vast chasm that separates the Indian academia from society. Let alone the masses, even the urban middle class cares little for what goes on inside classrooms and laboratories.
The citizenry does not see higher education as an intellectual resource. Nor do political leaders. The only commonly understood purpose that the system of higher education serves is to alleviate — and keep under tolerable levels of discomfort — what the British economist, Ronald Dore, has called the ‘Diploma Disease’ in his 1976 classic on education in developing economies. Dore has explained why a country like ours will continue to lag behind the West in knowledge and technique so long as we keep using mark-sheets and certificates to screen the young for further education and employment. His insight that the valid goal of widening the pool of talent is defeated by bureaucratisation of selection continues to be pertinent across the colonised world.
(The writer is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)
August 9, 2012
The impact of institutional decay
If the new government at the Centre wishes to improve the state of education, institutional recovery will have to be its topmost priority. Other reforms can wait. Universities and undergraduate colleges determine the quality of teachers at all levels from kindergarten upwards
‘Politics of waiting’
The gap between our universities and those in Europe and North America began to narrow in some cases by the 1980s, but the 1990s reversed the trend. Established policies were ignored, and a new ideology took over. Even as the industrial policy shifted away from quota-permit-inspection raj, the system of education used precisely these means to regulate the burgeoning private-commercial sector. This attempt met with failure and corruption in all areas of professional higher education, including engineering, medicine and teacher training.
Institutional decay is a common, national story, but its details differ from State to State. Not one of our 700 universities figures in the list of institutions adjudged the best in the world. This list includes not just the American, European, Australian and Japanese universities, but also some in China, South Africa and even Malaysia. India’s absence in global educational rankings is usually seen as a national embarrassment, but that is hardly the point. What ought to concern us is the impact that institutional decay has on the young. An Ambedkar, a Ramanujan or a Jagadish Chandra Bose hidden in a young mind today would need an American or a European university to identify and nurture it. Let us imagine that such a young person returns to India after completing a doctoral degree. The first thing he or she would have to worry about is getting through the National Eligibility Test (NET) organised twice a year by the University Grants Commission (UGC). This notorious test cannot be negotiated without a lot of cramming. Qualifying in it is an essential condition to get the job of a lecturer (now renamed as assistant professor). Even if the young person we are contemplating manages to qualify in the NET, the challenge of getting a teaching position still remains. In all likelihood, he or she will get an ad hoc position, with a fixed salary and no rights or dignity. Ad hoc teachers cannot freely present their views in staff meetings as their contract is to be renewed every four or six months. They usually teach a lot more than permanent staff, yet they cannot borrow books from a library without a hefty security deposit. An ad hoc appointment can last for years, and it can make the most positive young mind cynical. The “politics of waiting” analysed by Craig Jeffrey in his book on educated unemployment in India is actually quite damaging, both to individuals and to society.
Deprived of dignity
You can find any number of young men and women across the country who have been teaching for years in vulnerable positions known by various names like “temporary,” “contractual,” “ad hoc” or “guest.” They keep waiting for permanent vacancies to be advertised, but in many parts of India, such advertisements are now a thing of the past. In any case, getting a permanent or tenure post in an Indian university now implies managing a highly complex constellation of favourable factors. These include patronage, contacts, a desirable social background and luck. To these, the UGC has added a maze of quantifiable points. This remarkable device offers the same score whether you publish your work in bogus journals or genuine ones. The same applies when it comes to participation in seminars. Despite all the song and dance of transparency and accountability, the basic processes of selection and appointment are usually quite earthly. It is no wonder then that courts are dragged into giving a stay on appointments so frequently. The difficulties and delays faced in the process of selection and appointments have destroyed the careers of tens of thousands of capable young people. Hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges have also been wrecked in the process.
In both higher and school education, the trend to downsize permanent staff started in the early 1990s. Economic reforms formed the background of this trend. Long before the Fifth Pay Commission explicitly ordered a reduction in posts, the process of recruitment of teachers had either been stopped or drastically modified in many States. Apparently, contractual hiring of teachers and reduction of support staff were perceived as a convenient means of meeting the fiscal crisis in many States. Once the number of low-paid, vulnerable teachers grew, they became politically useful for rival political parties and union leaders. Both these processes were quite visible across northern India. In Madhya Pradesh, lecturers have not been recruited since 1993. New courses of various types have been launched, and they are being taught by guest or ad hoc teachers. States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh have followed this trend. In a puzzling case, Delhi University decided to juxtapose its launch of a new four-year undergraduate course with a tacit ban on permanent appointments. The number of ad hoc teachers in Delhi now stands at the astonishing figure of 4,000. At the school level too, Delhi now boasts of 20,000 guest or contract teachers. But Madhya Pradesh has gone farther than any other State to downgrade its teacher workforce. School staff recruited before the 1990s were declared a “dying cadre,” and a new spectrum of low-paid contract teachers replaced it. Political change aroused hope among this new vulnerable cadre, but the policy did not change. Madhya Pradesh was once respected for its robust public system of higher and school education; it now tops national rankings for rape.
Education signifies cultural wealth. This wealth consists of thoughtful minds and an ethos shaped by an exchange of ideas, the reading of books and creative activities. The happiness of teachers forms the centre of such an ethos. By denigrating the teacher, India has damaged what capacity its system of education had for producing and conserving cultural wealth. Decay of libraries has contributed to this process. Schools in our country seldom have libraries, but many provincial colleges once boasted of rich, usable libraries. I recall visiting Allahabad’s famous Ewing Christian College as part of an inspection team and discovering to my horror that its famous library had been partitioned. The old collection was locked up; the part accessible to students mostly had guidebooks. Public libraries have also suffered neglect.
The once-prestigious Delhi Public Library is now a shadow of its past glory, with nearly half of its permanent posts lying vacant. Perhaps libraries no more qualify to be a priority in Indian universities and colleges. Adroit planners have endorsed its neglect and shifted the focus to e-resources. These resources are, of course, important, but they cannot substitute the ethos a library creates. In countries ahead of us in education, the maintenance of the library as a special place is regarded as key to inducting the young into a community of knowledge.
If the new government at the Centre wishes to improve the state of education, institutional recovery will have to be its topmost priority. Other reforms can wait. Universities and undergraduate colleges determine the quality of teachers at all levels from kindergarten upwards. No matter where we look, non-appointment has become a culture. Enrolment has increased while institutional capacity has diminished. Even in the richer southern States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, commercial and political interests have injured the quality of education. If money has indeed been saved by letting vacancies accumulate or by filling them cheaply and by cutting down support staff, this kind of saving has incurred a big price. What has India gained by doing this kind of saving? It has weakened the already limited capacity the system had for serving children. Had Dr. Radhakrishnan — whose name we invoke to honour the profession of teaching — been alive, he would have been startled to see how the nation has treated its teachers.
(Prof. Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT.)
September 15, 2014