Autonomy of central varsities to be history soon

The reported decision  of the Human Resource Development Ministry to set up a working group of vice chancellors to get the guidelines framed for introducing common admissions and curriculum,  student and faculty mobility, and also to allow  credit transfer facility to students in the existing central universities, appears, on the face of it, a retrograde step.

The very purpose with which the central universities were envisioned in the 1970s gets lost with the kind of changes which the HRD ministry is now contemplating. The Central government in its wisdom then, felt that few quality universities at some select places will serve as bench mark and as examples to the already existing state universities which can emulate them in matters of academic excellence. Large amounts of funds were liberally granted to the central universities to make them as  islands of excellence in matters of infrastructure, for hiring distinguished faculty and for selecting quality students by holding rigorous admission tests at the national level.

The early central universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Hyderabad, the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong etc had enviable facilities in the early decades of their establishment. Many of these central universities with their reasonably good infrastructure and academic performance, attracted many a young distinguished faculty, who otherwise must have left for greener pastures abroad.

Though by 1990s, the phase of funds crunch did set in, there was a steady growth of the number of the central universities. It was felt that there should be at least one central university in each  State. In Assam, for example, to cater to such clamour from the people in both Brahmaputra Valley in the north and the Barak Valley in the south, two central universities, one at Tezpur and another at Silchar were inaugurated on a single day.

With the establishment of 14 new universities in one go in 2009, there is now practically no State where there is no central university. Even the residual State of Andhra Pradesh, after the recent formation of Telangana, is promised a central university that is to come up in Anantapur and that will take the  total number of such Universities to 40.

The central universities, over these decades, have come to be known for their academic excellence, for the quality of research and publications, for their high profile faculty, for the linkages they have with industry and for their outreach. Most of them have been making significant contributions  in matters of academic output. There were instances when young Indian scholars working with reputed Nobel laureates at several western universities were attracted to some of the central universities as they were equipped  with top quality laboratories and well developed libraries.

Some central universities as unitary Universities have added extensive hostel facilities, providing accommodation for each student admitted thus making it completely residential in nature. Another positive aspect of the central universities has been the favourable ratio between the teacher and the taught. The intake of the students was always kept as optimum and therefore a healthy student – teacher ratio   was maintained. Some universities accredited by the UGC were able to provide, with the funds they garnered, fellowships to every student admitted. It is also a fact that a comparatively a large number of UGC and CSIR sponsored JRF and SRF fellowship holders are from the central universities.

The general trend in most of the central universities has been that the ratio of students between the natives of the state concerned and from other states exists at   80:20. This reasonably fair ratio will be tilted if common admissions are held as there is every likelihood that students from rural India graduated with mother tongue as  medium would naturally be kept out of the portals of the central universities.

Mobility of faculty
The provision for mobility of faculty is sure to be wrought with undesirable consequences. The consistent continuity of the faculty concerned at one university becomes imperative for the kind of research work that he or she undertakes and collaborates. This becomes all the more crucial in the laboratory related research work. When a professor ‘migrates’ to another university either on his own or as a consequence of another person seeking his place, we can imagine the consequent results.

There will be among the faculty, constant  lobbying to move for ‘better universities’ vitiating the academic atmosphere. Also allowing the students to freely  shift from one university to another along with the credit transfer system will only open up the Pandora box making confusion more confounded. It is sure to let loose every undesirable element in the placid academic waters of the universities.

The individual departments in most of the central universities have the freedom  to frame the courses they decide to teach and have the autonomy to conduct exams and assess the students’ performance.  Such academic freedom that the central universities today enjoy and the positive atmosphere they possess in the furtherance of teaching and research, is sure to be undermined by the decision of the MHRD to introduce common curriculum  and inter- university mobility of students  as well as faculty, besides the proposed  national system of credit transfer.

These central universities which have been doing commendable work as centres  of excellence, should be allowed to continue their work unhindered with the kind of academic freedom they now enjoy. Let them not be reduced to dumb uniformity and stifle their hard won identity in matters of teaching and research .

(The writer is retired professor,University of Hyderabad)

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