"Swaraj and substance in the academy", 'The Hindu', August 5, 2015

Swaraj and substance in the academy

The view has been expressed that we spend much too much time discussing the state of higher education in India – especially the IITs and the IIMs – when the schools of our country are in such poor shape. There is of course a point in this. However, so much of our national resources is being poured into this segment when it has valuable alternative uses that we would be naïve to ignore the outcome. We should therefore be welcoming as not a day too late two recent public interventions that help us see what needs to be done to improve outcomes in higher education. Though these have been made by individuals from different vantages, as with the vanishing point in the work of art, they lead to a single destination in terms of our understanding. Thus, Amartya Sen has appeared in the media to state that the present government aims to establish control over the institutions of higher learning in the public sector while N. R. Narayana Murthy has used the occasion of the annual convocation at the Indian Institute of Science to challenge it to explain how it may have helped improve lives in India. These interventions are vital to an evaluation of the democratic project as we build public institutions, and have poured our meagre resources into them for decades, so that they hold a mirror to society, helping us see what we may missed or, more to the point, what we refuse to look at. For far too long has the functioning of these bodies been kept off the radar of social audit.

          Sen has stated in public that there is on currently a concerted action by the NDA government to establish control over the research and educational institutions that report to it, claiming that this is designed to further an ideological agenda. It would appear that he is right. He has even referred to specific cases, and the media has reported of professionals who head these institutions coming under pressure from the government or its agents. Instances range from giving favourable treatment to members close to the ruling dispensation to making financial contribution to specified external bodies and parachuting spiritual leaders into professional assignments for which they have no demonstrable competence.

          India’s public educational and research institutions, which bear high potential, are by now low-hanging fruit for a class of politician that has done little to germinate them. Its members are mostly uneducated when they are not downright anti-intellectual. This is in marked difference to the founders of these magnificient temples of modern India, pre-eminent among whom was Nehru, who was assisted by his contemporaries in public life. They had nursed high ambitions for us, in particular that Indians should hold their own on the global field of ideas. They were aware that this could not be achieved by creating institutions controlled by the government.

          Control is surely ineffective in producing intellectual output. Freedom for academics, and thinkers in general, is as water is to the fish. As fish gambol, preen and strut in the water so thinking beings give off their best only when left uncontrolled. But, it will surely be queried whether public funds should be made over to anyone without oversight. This is relevant, though a distinction needs be made between governance and surveillance. Much of what we have by way of the administration of our institutions of higher learning is  surveillance, with the metrics ranging from daily attendance to the number of years spent in a post. This colonial-era governmentality has succeeded in creating a vested interest in its continuity. The production of knowledge, which Mr. Murthy was most likely alluding to, and which was the reason for setting-up the institutions in the first instance, comes second in this scheme of things. The mandate of the production of knowledge is not served either by surveillance or its conduit, the stuffing of boards of public institutions with those loyal to the ruling dispensation. Of course the practice of rewarding loyalty is not unusual even in democracies. For instance, it is considered quite appropriate that an incoming US president appoints benefactors as ambassadors. But the impact of this is altogether different from that of appointing the head of an academy on the basis of political allegiance. Today an ambassador is no longer a plenipotentiary, and a personal appointee assures expected performance thus ensuring efficiency. On the other hand, we certainly don’t want biddable heads of educational institutions. We want them to be not only professionally suited but also fearless and independent-minded. In the glass houses of our existence that the media’s reach has by now created anything less will be found lacking credibility, as the present government has discovered to its discomfiture in the case of the Film and Television Institute of India. While there is no disputing the state’s legal authority to appoint heads of public institutions, the professional authority of those chosen will remain subject to scrutiny.

          However, the practice of the government of the day appointing craven individuals to further its political agenda has a long history in the Indian academy. Most political parties have done the same, whether the Congress, the CPM or the two Dravida Kazhagams. They all attempt control and abet cronyism. While the national media rightly highlights the high-profile instances of governments meddling in the premier institutions of the country, nobody gives a thought to this age-old practice in the state universities where the vast majority of our students is located. So it would be useful to extend Professor Sen’s intervention to these reaches when establishing the principle that the state’s action is rendered credible only when it not only maintains a distance but also appoints the best and the brightest to head public institutions.

          Now on to Mr. Murthy’s query. Saying that we don’t want state control certainly implies that we want autonomy for our public institutions. But will autonomy necessarily yield the sites of research and education that we desire? Going by history, we have reason to be sceptical. Until quite recently India’s public institutions have had substantial freedom to function but this has not resulted in commensurately creative output. For instance, India’s social scientists have mostly been loath to notice the glacial pace of human development in India where the vast majority had been left flailing due to the absence of effective public provisioning in health and education. In the context we may also ask, as Mr. Murthy did, what technological solutions for removing human deprivations has come from the archipelago of science and technology institutions maintained by the state. Exceptions of course exist, the contribution of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to the Green Revolution being one. As for the IIMs, they seem to have more recently set themselves up as cheerleaders of corporate globalisation, leaving you to wonder what may be expected if they are given the full autonomy that they believe they should have, and which should of course be granted them ungrudgingly. Do they aspire to build liberal and democratic spaces committed to producing innovative ideas for India? Or would they remain content with remaining as purveyors of borrowed protocols at exorbitant fees? And finally, how committed are the teachers in the far-too-many public universities of India to equipping our youth with the best in the world?

          Our higher education community has generally failed to govern itself credibly vis-à-vis the production of knowledge. The most egregious instance of this is their having developed, of their own volition, criteria for evaluating faculty performance featuring quantitative scoring of research output, later on gleefully adopted by the UGC as its Academic Performance Indicator. Crudely designed and pathetically juvenile, this scheme is entirely out of sync with anything in the wider world where India’s academics are expected to compete on equal terms. It privileges quantity over content, a device set to take us backwards. This scheme was conceived of by academics without any micro-management by government, a fact that the bureaucracy is naturally fond of recounting.

          Will Sen’s salvo and Murthy’s challenge lead to a new imaginary for the Indian academy? These interventions by two of India’s leaders must prod us to re-think the architecture of our public educational institutions so that they are made fit for our youth. The bottom line would read “Swaraj by all means, but it is what do you do with it that counts”.