Governing the Production of Knowledge
By Pulapre Balakrishnan
India must rank among the world’s oldest centres of ideas. Going by the texts and the inventions that have emerged from India there must have been a time when it had an effective system of learning and instruction. However, it appears that somewhere along the way from a hoary past to a stagnant present there appears to have got locked into place an arrangement that is completely out of synch with the requirements of India’s economy and the aspirations of its people. Perhaps the most significant shock, as in independent event, that led to India’s educational system veering off course was the introduction by the East India Company of the system of higher education in mid-nineteenth century. The significance of this is usually understood to be that the medium of instruction now became the English language. However, arguably, the medium of instruction per se mattered less than what came to be considered knowledge.
The colonial initiative in the field of education led to a system of higher education concentrated in the ports, eluding the vast hinterland, and heavily skewed towards a European idea of the humanities, cutting away the graduates produced from their fellow natives. It cannot be asserted, however, that it was entirely worthless, at least not in the context of colonialism. The system did produce, in modest numbers, doctors, engineers and administrators. But, unsurprisingly, they largely went on to perpetuate colonial rule in India. Exceptions there were of course. Thus there was C.V Raman who won the Nobel Prize working out of his lab in Kolkata. Then there were the scientists Bose and Saha, and in the arts Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, one of the first of the global academics from India who attained prominence as an interpreter of Indian texts to the West. But by and large what the university system produced was geared mainly to advancing the colonial project in India. It had little to offer on the specific problems of the country, was coy on the topic of democracy, and wont to privilege English literature over the writings of Dadabhoy Naoroji, though he was writing on India from England. Political independence presented us with a unique opportunity to develop a higher education system devoted to creative thinking on India. Close to seven decades since 1947 we can squarely say that we have not made much of this opportunity, though the political class might claim that it has increased access.
Education, in short, may be seen as enabling access and generation of ideas. In the world of ideas political boundaries do not just count for nothing, but are mostly viewed with scorn. The adage “No man is a prophet in his own land” is not so much a lament for the prophetic academic as a message to the political establishment that they had better be hospitable to their thinkers. Long before the advent of the WTO, the world of ideas, as opposed to goods, was resolutely global. The one difference is that in the 21st century, information technology lays bare the cupboard, exposing those who only borrow ideas while celebrating those who produce them. We are by now left with the inescapable impression that in today’s world India is a mere consumer of ideas generating much less in turn. From economics to political theory, not to mention the management mantrams, India’s higher education archipelago is content to be at the receiving end. The unimaginative way in which higher education is structured is entirely responsible for this.
The central element in any system of institutionalised learning is the teacher, collectively referred to as the faculty. Following the substantial hike in salaries, as recommended by the Sixth Pay Commission, the universities have had to accept a set of rules governing all aspects of the functioning of their faculty. While the principle that earnings must be performance-linked is entirely correct, the question is whether these rules on recruitment and performance appraisal are designed to allow Indians to compete on the global market place for ideas, a forum not substantially different from the rumbunctious world of commerce where only the fittest survive. The point about the current rules is that when it comes to performance appraisal it quantifies activity without sufficient correction for quality. In a similarly misguided vein the recruitment rules that complete the package are hooked on experience as opposed to proven excellence in research. While quantitative indicators have their place alright their use must be confined to those areas where they have an applicability, such as lecture hours, and resolutely kept out of everything else as they distort the picture. The claim that they provide a ‘transparent’ index shrivels up when we recognise that even criteria and procedures stated upfront can be transparently poor when they are ill-suited to the task. Quantitative output targets that ignore the quality of outcomes in the university can be disastrous for a society. Service rules in many Indian universities also restrict professional travel at a time when traveling to conduct and disseminate one’s research has become the mark of the successful academic. It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that many overseas Indians are here almost as often as they are in the countries where they hold professorships. Why should India’s academics be tied down by mindless rules, very likely devised by unaccountable bureaucrats who have no idea of how to create knowledge?
Quantitative targets mindlessly implemented are no answer to the very serious challenge the Indian university faces today, which is to compete in the global forum for ideas. The rules that govern them tie them down even before the race has started. An argument often made is these rules have been necessitated by the situation that we have been unable to discipline the vast army of college professors who have historically violated all norms with impunity even as they draw a salary from the public purse. Absentee teachers, and underperforming ones even when they do appear in the workplace, are a very real problem especially in the vast hinterland of this country. There is also the problem of private college managements that have no interest in education except as a profit-making enterprise. While all of this needs seriously to be tackled, the field of education poses a very specific problem. Regulation interpreted as tethering the faculty or evaluating them loosely is less of an objective than the furtherance of education. We need to recognise that our objective is less to tie the lecturer down than to advance learning which ultimately revolves around how much the young have learned. This requires something more than merely devising conduct rules for the faculty.
India needs to learn heavily from the experience of the West whose model currently towers over others in higher education globally. Certainly there are no nation-wide rules in the United States, and far greater autonomy is given there to heads of institution when it comes to raising academic standards. In India heads of institutions, especially in the university system, have become insignificant, in that they have no autonomy nor are they held responsible. Inevitably, the morass of rules and regulations precipitate self-selection, whereby the brightest and the best give a wide berth to administration as it is a professional deathtrap. Even as the rules for faculty appraisal, quite shamefully, privilege ‘foreign’ journal publications over ‘Indian’ and ‘international’ conferences over the merely desi, they remain entirely out of synch with the best global arrangements in higher education. Furthermore, among the recognised publications, there is no place for books, considered an important part of an academic’s accomplishment globally and the required expected teaching load is outrageous. Summary quantitative indicators, adopted in the name of objectivity, kill creativity and encourage the mediocre. Actually, they are only the thin-edge of the wedge in the progression, and bode ominously for the future of India, boasts of “knowledge economy” and all. Imagine an India without an Amartya Sen, a Romila Thapar or a ‘Venky’ Ramakrishnan. The current system of governing the production of knowledge in our higher education system has come close to delivering precisely this outcome. It may be claimed that too few among India’s academics have protested. But this is proof that the deathly arrangement devised to govern our institutions of higher learning have actually succeeded. The rules on recruitment and appraisal of faculty to these institutions need to be publicly reviewed by an independent panel of citizens before it can do further harm.