Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ramachandra Guha - India's education: Death by a thousand cuts // Upinder Singh - Decline by degrees // Shahid Amin & Shobhit Mahajan - Higher education, higher meddling

NB: The agenda of any government is best seen in its attitude to the mind. That of the Modi government may be described as a thrust towards the compulsory unification of ideas. Ideology does not run coterminously with parties and governments, and often cuts across partisan frontiers - the already decrepit standards in higher education were dealt a fatal blow by the authoritarian 'reforms' of the DU Vice Chancellor, who remains exempt from any standard of accountability for the costs (both educational and financial) of his infamous FYUP. But the decline has accelerated under the Modi government. Indians (regardless of political inclination) who retain respect for the mind need to think carefully about what this 'Parivar' is doing to education. Is it healthy for the entire spectrum of thought to be subjugated to the RSS agenda? Do we want Nazi concepts like 'Jewish physics' and 'Aryan physics' to enter Indian academia? Can all history be reduced to an endless war with Islam and glorification of selected phases of the past? Do we have nothing else to think and talk about? Do we want an intellectual climate similar to that obtaining in Pakistan - see what the respected physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has to say on this, and examine the agendas for hate prevailing in history textbooks in both India and Pakistan. 

Is this what we want? 

Even to the well-argued articles below, our hate-trolls react in the only way they know - ad hominem abuse. One commenter describes Ramachandra Guha as "having earned his livelihood for so long at the expense of tax payers, Guha now finds himself bereft of political benefactors.."; and calls him a part of the "left liberal Marxist mafia" and a 'pseudo historian'. The comments on Upinder Singh's article include one calling it "an article from a leftist Nehruvian socialist University, by a socialist History professor." These accusations are so foolishly off the mark that they are laughable, but the persons making them are blissful in their ignorance. They exemplify the state of mind that the 'Parivar' wishes to impose on us. Should not the migration of lacs of Indian students to foreign universities make us think? It is not just the future of Indian democracy that is at stake today - it is the very capacity of the younger generation to develop their capacity to use their minds in the pursuit of wisdom. Political inclination may motivate some of us to keep our mouths shut, but if we fail to resist this poisonous campaign, we will be responsible for reducing Indian education to a polytechnic for training armies of clerical monkeys. DS 
When, a year ago, Smriti Irani was first chosen as the Union minister for human resource development, I did not share in the general scepticism about her appointment. I had seen HRD ministers in UPA governments, with a string of foreign degrees themselves, display a conspicuous lack of interest in their portfolio. Irani seemed energetic and articulate; perhaps keenness and interest would trump lack of formal academic qualifications.

My optimism was misplaced. A year later, Irani is by far the most controversial cabinet minister, and with good reason. Stories of her arrogance and rudeness are legion. Her own senior officials have sought transfers to other ministries because they have found it impossible to work with her. Even more distressing has been her treatment of distinguished academicians such as the directors of the IITs. She has come across as bullying and overbearing, and as interfering in decisions that lie within their domains of expertise.

Irani’s lack of respect for intellectual excellence has also been manifest in some key appointments she has made. Early in her term, she appointed a certain Y. Sudershan Rao chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Rao’s name was unknown to the community of professional historians; not surprising since he has not published one peer-reviewed paper in his life. While his scholarly pedigree is obscure, Rao has been a longstanding fellow traveller of the RSS. Since taking office, he has assured us that the Vedas are “the best evidence” for reconstructing the past, and that the Mahabharata is the “anchor for the history of Bharat”.

The HRD minister’s anti-intellectual instincts are also manifest in another of her appointments, this to the chancellorship of the Maulana Azad Urdu University in Hyderabad. University chancellors are either those holding constitutional posts (such as governors and presidents) or senior scholars of distinction. For instance, the great sociologist André Béteille has been chancellor of the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong. The last chancellor of the Maulana Azad University was Syeda Hameed, herself a biographer of Azad and an eminent literary scholar. After the NDA came to power, she was replaced by Zafar Sareshwala, whose contributions to scholarship are even harder to identify than Rao’s. Sareshwala is better known as a dealer in luxury cars, and as being very close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When his appointment was announced, one senior scholar told the Hindustan Times that “now it seems you just need the right political clout to head reputed institutions”.

Over the years, the quality of university education in India has been steadily undermined by political and bureaucratic interference. This has been especially marked in universities under the control of state governments. Forty years ago, Calcutta University, Bombay University, and Baroda’s M.S. University still had some excellent departments. This is no longer so. So long as the CPM was in power, all major academic appointments in West Bengal were in the hands of party bosses. The Shiv Sena played the same role in Mumbai, and the BJP in Gujarat. The universities were further damaged by parochial “sons of the soil” policies, whereby scholars from outside the state were discouraged from applying for jobs.

While state universities have visibly deteriorated, some Central universities have maintained reasonable academic standards. Delhi University has good departments of history, sociology and economics. Some of our finest film-makers are alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia’s department of mass communications. Both Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University have top quality scientists, as well as social scientists on their faculty. These departments and universities would be even better were it not for the dead hand of bureaucratic interference. For some years now, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has steadily encroached on the autonomy of Central universities. A UGC chairman appointed under the UPA introduced a “points-based” promotion scheme that all universities had to adhere to. This gave more weight to organising student extracurricular activities and attending seminars than publishing papers in refereed journals.

One hoped that, when Irani took office, she would work to make our best universities more autonomous in their choice of curricula, students and faculty. For, the world over, it is only when scholars are in charge of scholarship that real intellectual progress takes place. Instead, the new HRD minister has sought to further centralise an already over-centralised system of higher education. Rather than let the best departments in the best universities design their own academic curriculum, the UGC now wants them to adopt a single uniform curriculum, this designed not by scholars but by incompetent (and occasionally malevolent) babus.

Worse may follow. A diabolical scheme is afloat to have a single, centralised cadre of university faculty, whose members can be transferred from place to place at a moment’s notice. If implemented, this will seriously damage existing research programmes, which crucially depend on the long-term involvement of the same set of faculty members.

While uniformity is congenial to bureaucrats, it is deeply antithetical to intellectual work. Scholarship and research depend on innovation and creativity from within. Most academic disciplines change rapidly. New discoveries, new methods, new theories, should all lead to changes in teaching and research. But how can this happen if every change in curriculum, every new addition to the reading list, has to be vetted by an array of babus sitting in the UGC’s gloomy office in central Delhi?

The scheme to allow the transfer of professors, on the other hand, is most likely the work of political apparatchiks. Suppose an outstanding physics professor in Delhi University (and there are some) signs, in his capacity as a citizen, a petition chastising the government for its failure to adequately protect minority rights. This may, if the current scheme is implemented, lead to him being transferred to the Central University of Mizoram (which, given how many recalcitrant governors have been sent here, appears to be the NDA’s preferred purgatory).

For some 40 years now, I have closely studied the Indian university system. I have seen some of India’s best scholars battle cuts in funding, pressure from bureaucrats, populism, parochialism and worse, while bravely continuing to teach well and produce books and papers based on original research. University teachers in India suffer from hurdles and handicaps foreign to their counterparts in Europe and North America — and even Singapore and China. Past governments and ministers have been indifferent or interfering. But the present government and minister exceed them all in their outright contempt for scholars and scholarship.
Ramachandra Guha has taught at Yale, Stanford, the London School of Economics and the Indian Institute of Science.

Our universities are changing. Never has the pace of change been this fast, nor the protests this loud. On the rare occasion that the media take notice, the discussion usually focusses on whether or not due procedure has been followed. Given our authoritarian power structures, it is as important to ask whether adequate thought has gone into the initiation of the changes.

Teachers of the University of Delhi are especially familiar with changes; the recent spate began with the introduction of the semester system in undergraduate teaching in 2011. Although there are certain serious logistical issues involved, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching in a semester mode. What is problematic is when the introduction of the system is done in a manner in which little attention is paid to the content of semester courses. Unfortunately, these courses were created by snipping the existing annual courses in half, sometimes badly. Why? There was no time to reflect on curricular or pedagogic issues.

An impact across India: More recently, we saw even more radical changes with the introduction of the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in the University of Delhi. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a four-year BA programme. A great deal hinges on the quality of the courses that form the programme. Of course, questions can be asked about whether a single university in the country can move to a four-year system and the implications of an additional year’s education in a country where many students find it difficult to pay even the highly subsidised fees. Anyhow, the programme was introduced in 2013, again without adequate time to think seriously about curricular or pedagogic issues. And then, in the summer of 2014, it was just as suddenly withdrawn.

The University of Delhi is still reeling under the impact of all these changes, but what is now on the cards is something even more worrying; something that will affect not one but all Indian universities. A communiqué from the University Grants Commission (UGC) dated November 14, 2014, gives certain directives that were apparently discussed at a retreat of the vice chancellors of Central universities on September 12 and 13, 2014; these were subsequently approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The directives require that all universities follow a Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) from 2015 onwards. We are told that the aim is to provide choice to students within an institution as well as “seamless mobility across institutions” in India and abroad by adopting a “cafeteria approach”. These guidelines are apparently supposed to apply to all undergraduate and postgraduate level degree, diploma and certificate programmes being run by Central, State and deemed universities in India. Once again: such sweeping change, so little thought.

Affecting autonomy: There would have been no problem if the new system only involved giving students grades instead of marks. However, it gives an all-India scale of conversion of marks into grades which does not take into account the fact that there are radical differences between the “standard” in different colleges and universities. But even this is only a small part of a larger package that has very serious implications for the autonomy of universities and the quality of university education across the country.

All universities are to have a uniform structure of syllabi. There will be “core” courses, “compulsory foundation” courses, and “elective foundation courses” that “are value-based and are aimed at man-making education”. This seems to be the FYUP in a new three-year, all-India garb. In the new system, in at least half of the core courses, the assessment will be based on examinations in which external examiners will set and mark the papers. The new system will also have an impact on PhD programmes. Theses must be evaluated by external as well as internal examiners. In the University of Delhi, while undergraduate examination papers are currently marked by teachers from across the university, postgraduate assessment is done within the departments. In the History Department, we currently have three external examiners for PhD theses. The new diktat is set to change all this.

No say in courses: It gets worse. It is now clear that the new system also aims at introducing uniform syllabi across universities in the country. The website of the UGC displays model undergraduate syllabi for various subjects, from which only minimal deviation will be permitted. It does not specify where these syllabi have come from. The History syllabus on the UGC website happens to be the syllabus of the University of Delhi, with a mishmash of elements drawn from the old FYUP syllabus. This is the “chosen one” which will presumably be imposed on universities all over the country.

This is not in the least bit flattering. In normal times, the process of syllabus revision in our University has involved wide-ranging consultation and discussion among all the teachers involved. It takes time — sometimes too much — but it is worth it. For example, the MA History syllabus was revised a few years ago, and the History Department has recently initiated a revision of its BA syllabi, because teachers are convinced that these syllabi need to be changed and improved. Now it seems that we need not bother. Our old courses, with which we are dissatisfied, will continue and will be imposed not only on us, but on other universities in the country. In the best universities in the world, postgraduate courses represent cutting-edge approaches and research, and are tailored to the research expertise of its teachers. The uniqueness of the profiles of departments and universities rests, to a great extent, on this. But this will no longer be possible, will not be allowed, in our universities. We teachers will no longer have a role in designing the courses that we teach.

The changes that are envisaged in the new system are much more far-reaching in scope and scale than the recently jettisoned FYUP. But in both cases, we see an attempt to bring about radical change in a hasty manner without adequate thought about the rationale and logistics, and even less time devoted to what matters the most — the actual content of courses. Many universities have already fallen in line and have embraced the Choice Based Credit System, and others will no doubt follow suit. Instead of uniform excellence, the result will be uniform mediocrity and a lowering of the academic standards of our best institutions. Given the enormous logistical problems involved in introducing too much change too fast, it could also involve a break down of our university system.

European parallel: A few months ago, while in IIT Gandhinagar (Ahmedabad), I met a Portuguese professor. In the course of our conversation, he told me that ever since the initiation of the Bologna Process, academic standards had declined and teaching was becoming increasingly meaningless. He talked about the lack of recognition given to solid academic work, teachers scrambling to collect “points” for promotion, and random students walking in and out of his classes. I recognised with shock the very changes that successive governments have been trying to introduce in our own universities. The university as cafeteria came alive. Were we simply dealing with a case of copycat “reforms”? In that professor’s expression of demoralisation, I recognised the feeling of despair that many Indian university teachers who have served their institutions for many decades currently feel. Some of the talented younger teachers are moving to private universities, but this is not an option that many senior teachers, with strong ties of commitment to their institutions, would like to consider.

There is much that is wrong and rigid about our universities, much that needs to be improved, and it is very difficult to bring about meaningful change. So it is easy to present those who are initiating the recent changes as impatient visionaries trying to reform a decrepit system. And it is easy to dismiss the protesters as a group of disgruntled old fogeys who don’t want to keep pace with the times. A cynical view that has been doing the rounds for some time in university circles is that the so-called “reforms” are a part of a government strategy to destroy the Central universities so that private universities can flourish. One may not buy this argument, but there is just too much evidence to show that nobody in the higher echelons of power is thinking seriously about the quality of higher education. Otherwise, it should have been obvious that what is important is not the canteen (suitably Indianising the potent metaphor) but the food that it serves.

The fate of our universities is too important to be left to the whims of individual mandarins, ministers or vice chancellors. It is time that an Education Commission consisting of experienced and respected academics and educationists was set up to take stock of the state of our universities and to seriously deliberate on what needs to be done to improve the quality of education that they impart. But is anyone listening and does anyone care?
(Upinder Singh is Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi.)

Shahid Amin , Shobhit Mahajan - Higher education, higher meddling
Garib ki joru sab ki bhaujai (A poor man’s wife is fair game). If anything captures the goings-on in the HRD ministry since the reign of Kapil Sibal, it is this saucy peasant proverb from the cow belt. Irrespective of the shade of the successive Central governments, the HRD minister and functionaries display a propensity, Alice in wonderland-like, for exercising power unbridled by reason and reasonableness. This has come to the fore most recently in the refusal of Anil Kakodkar, the respected nuclear scientist, to play ball with the minister in arbitrarily overruling an earlier consensus and interviewing no less than 36 candidates for the post of IIT director in a single day. “IITs are centres of excellence. They should be left alone,” Kakodkar has responded in defence of having left the important task of choosing heads of these premier institutions to the minister and her epigones.

Six years ago, a UPA minister unrolled a plan to create 14 world-class universities (“universities of innovation”) “unencumbered by history or culture of the past” — something that no world-class institution would dare boast. The underlying idea is to build islands of excellence by relying on “the highly skilled Indian diaspora”. Now, fast on the heels of a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s diktat making it mandatory for all research scientists in its employ to put in 12 hours of gyan-daan in educational institutions outside their research labs, comes the news that US President Barack Obama has accepted the GIAN proposal mooted by the Modi government. As with other “smart” acronyms, when unravelled it yields the cumbersome phrase: Global Initiative of Academic Network. Under this programme, top-notch scientists will teach in Indian institutions from between two weeks to 20 days. This is clearly an India-specific movement of global academic talent, following on the heels of Sibal’s still-born scheme to invite premier universities from the UK, Europe and the US to set up off-shore subsidiaries in our country.

The normal flow of international and inter-university academic talent is, however, for such outstanding academicians to hold regular joint-appointments for a semester each in two universities. Ronald Dworkin, the late professor of jurisprudence (the US and the UK) and the brilliant social historian Carlo Ginzburg (Italy and the US) are leading examples from the social sciences. We lost one of our most innovative sociologists, Veena Das, the author most recently of Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty — an ethnographic study of the urban poor, the “aam admi voter” of north Delhi — to the US, as “under the rules” Delhi University could not allow its faculty such intellectual freedom to benefit from and contribute to knowledge globally in a sustained way. 

The new fortnightly GIAN idea of the Modi government, by contrast, envisages a veritable “fly-by-night” rapidfire igniting of Indian students’ minds. More significantly, there has been no discussion. In fact, an earlier HRD minister was opposed to the idea of enabling India-based academics (Veena Das worked under the legendary sociologist M.N. Srinivas during the golden days of the Delhi School of Economics) to hold joint appointments in “foreign” universities. For its part, the US government allows Indian academics to teach semester- or year-length courses

in American universities under a visa regime meant to facilitate “skill development”, requiring a time-bound return to the home country for putting the skill gained to domestic use. The visiting Indian academic, one would have thought, gets paid because she contributes value to the particular US university, which invites her, so to speak, for her “skill-imparting” qualities!

The present government is equally keen on pressing the high visibility insta-cook button, while stirring the slow bubbling gruel of higher education with the ladle of ill-thought, top-heavy recipes. A one-size-fits-all uniform course content across the country is to be matched by a single Central Universities Act riding roughshod over historical specificities; students could now move effortlessly, with scant regard for compatibility, from one university to another, as teachers could be shunted out, the intrepid Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka way, wherever and how so many times the Indian state deems it fit for them to serve the educational requirements of the nation, and in whichever part of the India that is Bharat it deems fit.

It is interesting that the question of institutional autonomy catches public attention when, as in the case of the Kakodkar story, it concerns flagship institutions such as IITs. By implication, for the rest of us wallowing in the mud of public universities, there seems scant possibility of more than a few stunted lotuses blooming. Equally, due to the structure of almost magisterial authority allowed under the colonial dispensation to vice chancellors, the professoriate in these institutions fails signally in its fiduciary obligation to uphold academic and moral norms. Not for nothing were the fellows and professors of Oxford University able to out vote their VC’s attempt to award an honorary degree to a controversial politician from the subcontinent. And some paid a price for it, as when Richard Gombrich, the renowned Indologist, was denied the chair at Oxford that S. Radhakrishnan had once held, as he had successfully opposed the honouring of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by Oxford University, citing his inglorious role in triggering the 1971 war.

For their part, desi institutions such as Delhi University cannot quite effect Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic suggestion — if dissatisfied with the existing lot, “elect another people”. For the usual vishwa vidyalayas, the parameters are given: a national intake of students from unequally diverse backgrounds and a sudden doubling of enrolment and influx of first-generation students. And most crucially, a system that gives the faculty no say whatsoever in choosing its own colleagues. No amount of quick-fixes can help our public universities meet the new challenges as long as the cavalier and top-heavy system of faculty recruitment is allowed to continue.
Shaid Amin is a retired professor of history and Shobhit Mahajan is professor of physics, Delhi University.

Position Paper on Higher Education: Academics for Creative Reform