Look back in newness

Look back in newness


A remarkable Latin idiom haunts our government’s current initiatives to overhaul the higher education space in India: de novo. It is this idiom that hails the prospective student and the entrepreneur alike, tantalisingly hinting at what might be alluring in new and improved India. One of the policy directives that spells out quite clearly the idea and scope of the de novo in India is the modified draft of University Grants Commission (UGC) Regulations of 2010, which maps the way ahead for the institutions that are ‘deemed-to-be’ universities in the light of the recommendations suggested by the Review Committee (and the subsequent Task Force comprising the same members) constituted by the Ministry of Human Resources Development in order to ‘safeguard the interests of the students enrolled in deemed-to-be-universities.’

The phrase de novo is carefully conceived: its legal connotation appears in the context of a new trial as if it has not been heard before, or, as if no decision has been previously rendered or transmitted.  It marks rupture; from past practices, so that a fresh beginning can be made. In financial terminology, numbers reported by newly-founded companies are qualified as ‘de novo’ to distinguish them from older companies; for example, ‘growth de novo’ means the growth of newly-started companies.

Practical pillars

The idea of opportunity-based-reforms in higher education now stands on five practical pillars, based upon which de novo institutions are supposed to mark a rupture from existing practices of pedagogy, research and administration. The first is the idea of expansion. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended a massive 1,500 universities around the nation by 2015. Excellence follows next: regular restructuring of curricula, continuous internal assessment, transition to a course credit system, synergising research and teaching, right resource allocation and reward system, infrastructure and updated governance methods are to promote enhanced quality in higher education. Ushering in a climate of accountability is third: teacher, student and peer evaluation, continuous training of faculty, web-portals to increase transparency and interaction.

But generating finance through and within higher educational institutions is key to shaping the new narrative of the nation: the government may help build up an initial corpus fund, but sooner or later public-private partnership, or corporate funding, is crucial. Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, in his note of dissent to the Yashpal Committee Report on Education of 2009, compares Tata Motors’ profit-making to the new concept of the university: ‘...its interest in producing a good small car could be because it is interested in making profits. Likewise, in education. If a profit-making company wants to start a university, there is no reason why we should not allow this.’ Finally, much of the innovation in higher education depends on creating a networked India where universities, libraries, laboratories, hospitals and agricultural institutes will share data and resources across the nation.

All these are extremely important considerations, especially if de novo and autonomous institutions are to make a lateral entry in the higher education sphere. But the practical and implemental scope of the institutions is not enough in itself; they must be tested on the principles upon which such knowledge and innovation rely. What exactly are the unique and emerging areas of knowledge in de novo institutions which the MHRD supposes are not being pursued by conventional or existing institutions?


The concept of deemed-to-be-universities was introduced under Section 3 of the University Grants Commission Act of 1956, for ‘financially sound’ institutions generally in existence for 10 years or more, engaged in ‘innovative’ teaching programmes and research of ‘a very high academic standard’. The idea of the de novo university departs from this timeline, as institutions which impart education in emerging areas with promise of excellence can be considered for a provisional status of ‘deemed-to-be’ universities under this category. Significantly, also, it was proposed in 2009 that educational institutions in India that could till date only be set up by trusts, societies or companies, could now be launched by non-profit companies, like industry associations, under Section 25 of the Companies Act, and get recognition from the University Grants Commission.

This is bringing major Indian industrial houses into the educational arena with far greater alacrity. In an interview to CNBC in mid-2010, Sunil Mittal spoke of the proposed Bharti University, its philanthropic ideals and future foreign collaborations in the sort of ambiguous terminology that has become symptomatic of higher-education-high-speak that the government is fomenting: ‘For us education will never be a business and therefore whatever we do will have to be done through grants and contribution from the group and friends. And I don't know whether foreign universities would want to come in for the philanthropy part of it. But we will bring them in at our cost and price...’

Even if this sounds (appropriately) like fuzzy logic, there is actually a clear sense of direction in plans for the Bharti, Reliance, Azim Premji (and other) Universities in the pipeline, all in the race to sculpt a new India. The Task Force recommendations to the draft UFC Regulations highlight a necessity for these de novo institutions to tailor their thrust to the strategic needs of the country. Managing and mapping of educational sites for growth and strategy is integral to the government’s vision for higher education — and that mapping can happen by achieving a certain consensual homogeneity on policy issues through directives in these new universities. This is also evident in the way the government has drafted the related ‘The Universities for Innovation Bill 2010’ and the Bill to enable the Private-Public Partnership in education.

In the case of de novo and innovation universities, it is implied that any new knowledge created from research that leads to an intellectual property will have to be reported to the government, to retain its title and be considered for the deemed-to-be status.

The Centre

The Centre may refuse the title on the grounds of public interest or exceptional circumstances, or national security. The Central government will protect, maintain and utilise the publicly-funded intellectual property, and can give directions for prohibiting or restricting the publication of information to any person or entity which it considers necessary in the interest of the country. The income or royalties arising out of publicly-funded intellectual property may be shared by the de novo or innovation universities with the intellectual property creator in accordance with the provision.

Clearly, all newness within the de novo is to be tailor-made so that they dovetail with the nation’s current strategic interests. Counter-measures or criticality in innovation will be discouraged. The much-toted idea of autonomy in universities will thus be reined in politically and administratively. Strategy determines newness. This is the first rupture from the way the universities have been conceived heretofore in India.

Curiously enough, there is an attempt to club the nation’s strategic interests with a hazy, feel-good, overarching vision in which de novo universities must preserve ‘our’ cultural heritage, values and ethics — again a clear directive in the UGC regulation of 2010.
Bangalore’s Azim Premji University’s website outlines this dual agenda by outlining a ‘strategic vision’ and an ‘educational philosophy’: ‘This is possible only when learning is deeply based in our values, competencies and context resonates with other like minded people and organisations globally’ (sic). Lovely Professional University, which claims to be ‘India’s largest university with 25,000 students on one campus’ in Jalandhar, Punjab, says ‘Education at LPU is a holistic one, aimed at developing the intellectual, moral and physical capacities of the students... through elevating the level of thinking and attitude of its students by inculcating in them the values of inventiveness, entrepreneurship and service to society... On account of the strong conceptual foundations, capacity to work and exposure to real-life work conditions, there is a strong demand for LPU students amongst employers — multi-nationals and other prestigious organisations.’

The idea of the de novo university obviously turns on a fascinating notion of newness, in which a forward-striding strategy for a national homogeneity on globalised developmental tracks is harnessed to a sentimental call for the preservation of ‘our’ cultural heritage.

Together, they are in danger, we suggest, of contradicting both the values embedded in our Constitution as well as in our everyday community life and goals: they propel a move for individual zeal marked by ethical self-introspection on the one hand, and a homogenised set of societal values based on paternalism and sentimentalism on the other. In marrying global-positioning strategy with a nostalgic excavation of inherited cultural baggage, these nascent universities may well foster a culture of conservation and conformity, with an absence of criticality that has been the benchmark of our best higher-educational-institutions to date.

For critical thinking appears to have no home in the de novo vocabulary, understandably enough if all its energy is channelled into meeting a predefined homogeneous set of strategic interests for our nation as envisioned by our very purposeful bureaucracy and political class.

(The writers teach in the Department of English at the University of Delhi)

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