BU trifurcation vital to maintain quality

The decision of the Karnataka government to trifurcate the existing Bangalore University (BU) was long overdue and undoubtedly a welcome measure. The university was burdened with more than 600 colleges tied to it and was perpetually running late in its examination schedule. Bright and deserving students often missed their deadlines to apply for higher studies.

Considered the biggest university in Asia, BU was reduced the annual rigmarole of granting affiliations to undeserved colleges and conducting examinations. Between these two activities, there was little time or scope for the university to do what a university is supposed to do: To focus on academic excellence, pursue innovative practices and attract talent from outside in the form of tie ups with institutions of higher research. These issues are not exclusive to BU or to other universities in the state, but hold good equally for higher education elsewhere in the country.

In the last one decade, the number of registered students in institutions of higher education in the country as a whole has more than doubled, and about 15 per cent of the relevant age group enrol themselves for higher education. This may be low in comparison to developed countries where it is roughly 24 per cent, but still respectable compared to the situation before 2005. But the quality of the education remains abysmally low, except probably in a few select institutions. Obviously, such poor standards affect students hailing from backward classes, rural areas and poor backgrounds.

Given the fact that proportionately a much larger percentage of Dalit and Adivasi students tend to enrol themselves for humanities and social sciences, the question of excellence gains a more serious social implication. Instead of empowering them with skills and competence, they have to rest content with mere degrees.

While our state-run universities are suffering from mediocrity, neo liberalism has ushered in private investment in higher education leading to mushrooming of private universities sponsored by major corporate houses in recent years. They are out of reach for a large majority of students, not merely on account of the expenditure involved, but because of the dominance of English and the kind of instrumental culture that pervades their campus. State-funded universities, which had supported this section of people hitherto, can alone provide a realistic alternative to privatisation of higher education.  Hence, trifurcation is most welcome.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that institutions have their own history, and any kind of reform that we wish to envisage has to be worked out in and through this lens. For instance, during the initial years of its establishment, BU ran four-year honours courses in Botany, Chemistry, Economics, English, Geology, Kannada, Mathematics and Zoology which were offered only at the university. These courses were very popular and produced many brilliant scholars. Honours passed students were admitted to post graduate courses on priority and BA/BSc graduates, who marginally missed admission to the PG courses were given an opportunity to join the final year honours course and seek admission to PG courses, thereafter.

Diversity of programme options

Since 1964, Bangalore University has grown both in size and strength to include a large number of affiliated colleges and several postgraduate centres with a rich diversity of programme options. However, with the increase in the number of colleges seeking affiliation, BU abandoned these much acclaimed honours programmes and, perhaps to maintain uniformity, stuck to its three-year degree course format.

With syllabus revision becoming slow, top heavy and a cumbersome, there was little scope for innovation and creativity in curriculum development and subsequently in the learning process. Sometimes, the university tended to look at its affiliated institutions in a patronising way, as a superior would towards an inferior. Such relationships are counter-productive and smack of bureaucratic redtapism which are detrimental to the working of institutions of higher learning.

In this context, it is important to explore what would constitute an enabling and appropriate education for the large majority of students who have no alternative but to knock at the doors of the state-run universities. In this context, it is pertinent to ask: whether it is worthwhile to support the initiatives of existing colleges to expand into new areas and adapt an open-ended policy to new players? Should we not encourage private players to invest much more in research and R&D ventures? Further, to what extent can we simplify and rationalise educational support to deserving students through financial institutions?

The much talked about ‘trifurcation’ is not a new phenomenon in the context of Karnataka. This operation has been successfully carried out earlier with respect to engineering, medicine and recent division of agriculture universities. What is important, however, is to comprehensively assess the impact of such divisions, to see if they results in improving the academic standards or lead to a mere replication of existing structures.

If the latter is the only purpose, then it will carry no lofty meaning except easing  the existing burden. The newly carved out universities should identify their specific USPs and try to excel in their respective fields. One way of achieving this would be develop strong and creative ties with institutions of advanced studies and other research institutions.
Fortunately, there are no dearth for such institutions in and around Bengaluru like NIAS, IISc, IIM-B, NLSIU, ISEC, Raman Institute, Indian Institute of Astrophysics to name a few. Only then will it trigger meaningful partnership between centre, state and marginal communities on the issues of higher education.

(The writer is Professor and Director, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru)

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