Do we need more varsities?

ONE FOR EVERY REASON

Former chief minister Siddaramaiah had, while presenting the 2018-19 budget in February, said the government is thinking of setting up a sports university in PPP (public-private partnership) mode; during a visit to Shravanabelagola, he had promised to establish a Prakrit language university there; and a new university for tribals was also reported to be in the offing. His Home minister had his own announcement to make — a university to train the police in crime detection. Raichur is all set to get a new university as the government has already appointed a Special Officer to do the groundwork. Bangalore University has been trifurcated to “ease the affiliation and examination problem”.

There are already as many as 28 state universities (excluding several private universities, deemed-to-be universities and one central university) for promoting knowledge systems ranging from Janapada to technology and health through Kannada, Music and Sanskrit. Expansion of higher and professional education to meet the rising demand of people is but natural.

Karnataka’s current GER (gross enrolment ratio) is quite satisfactory at 26% and the government’s efforts to enhance it to 30% soon is laudable. At least, this was one of the justifications advanced by the former higher education minister when he was defending the recent Bills in the assembly that provided for establishing two more private universities.

There appears to be confusion among policy-makers on the character and concept of a modern university. A university is an exalted autonomous institution manifesting a multi-faculty (Arts, Humanities, Science, Law and Medicine, etc), multi-cultural, multi-lingual, even a multi-national, milieu to promote inquiry, scholarship and intellectual prowess. In essence, it nurtures universality of learning, free from ‘isms’ — regionalism, communalism, fanaticism, nepotism, favouritism, etc.

Universities are not established only to disseminate existing knowledge but to create new and productive knowledge to enrich the ‘life and living’ of people at large. As a body of students, teachers and authorities (say, the Syndicate and the Academic Council), universities are empowered to confer degrees and diplomas on eligible candidates. Therefore, they are not to be likened to or compared with regional facilities set up with specific, limited objectives.

Currently, universities across countries are established as centres of both basic and applied research in addition to promoting higher learning in emerging areas. They are no longer reckoned as mere teaching and examining bodies — the twin rituals that we witness in a majority of our state universities.

By and large, there is neither novelty nor creativity nor diversity in their functioning. Against this poor stature, it is not surprising that more than 85% of our graduates and postgraduates are found unemployable.

If the objective of the government is to encourage certain areas of academic or social importance, it need not necessarily start a university to do so. Instead, we could set up institutes of research and schools of specialised studies, even postgraduate centres, which can in time be expanded into universities if need be. For example, rural and regional development, environmental pollution, classical music and performing arts, tribal welfare, wildlife management, our indigenous knowledge systems (for e.g. AYUSH), traditional sports and games, school of economics and social welfare and a host of domain-specific specialised programmes can be justifiably brought under the umbrella of postgraduate centres, regional institutes and schools. Smaller units can function better than large universities in serving specific objectives. Secondly, such regional centres are less expensive than universities.

Universities elsewhere in the world have visible international perspectives in terms of faculty, students and programmes. For example, even in a country like China, with inherent limitations of English language, the University of Peking has students from more than 80 countries. Does the present state of a majority of our universities qualify them to be called universities, given that there is no atmosphere of universality of learning, with international participation and collaboration.

Keep politics out

There is also a mismatch between objectives and resource allocation in the state higher education ministry. Whereas the existing universities are starved of funds for infrastructure, competent faculty and research facilities, the government is thinking of starting new universities — an idea not supported by any exercise of proper planning of objectives, location, resources required, etc.

Such decisions as starting universities cannot and should not be exclusively political. One of the imminent dangers of ill-conceived actions in this regard would be that if a new party comes to power, these institutions will be left in the lurch, with stunted growth at the very nascent stage.

A university without credible research output, especially in these days of national/international accreditation and ranking, will have no national or international focus either at present or in future. Unlike earlier, when teaching was preponderant, today, universities are not to be created solely for teaching, affiliation, examination and award of degrees. No university worth the name can function as a regional body with suffocating territorial restrictions of operations, especially on admission of students and appointment of faculty.

Instead, they should be international learning and training centres with profound emphasis on fundamental as well as applied research. The world’s top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge universities, have evolved over centuries as international incubators of intellectualism with distinguishing features of ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self-governance’.

It is apparent that, in our context, the idea of a university is grossly misconceived and badly implemented. In fact, it is less important how many universities we have than how good they are in creating new knowledge and expertise and producing confident and competent performers.    

(The writer is a former vice chancellor of the University of Mysore)

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Do we need more varsities?

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