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A university’s culture is its most valuable resource. Feeding a repressive culture bodes ill for India

Two recent developments draw our attention to the state of India’s universities. The first is the release of the annual ranking of the world’s universities by the Times Higher Education ( THE ). The other is an announcement by the Prime Minister, as reported in the press, which has an even closer bearing on the future of higher education here.
The newcomers’ signal
While university rankings are to be taken with a pinch of salt and should not elicit knee-jerk responses, that they are broadly indicative may be seen from the latest edition. The universities placed at the top all have breadth in the range of disciplines offered and have been recognised as centres of knowledge production for decades, if not for centuries. The ranking of India’s universities has some elements that were predictable and others that came as a surprise. Thus, while the Indian Institute of Science topped, as usual, the list of Indian institutions that made it to the global top one thousand, three very new ones improved their ranking considerably. These are IIT Indore, which finished ahead of most of its ‘founding five’ sisters, the JSS University, Mysuru and the Amrita University, Coimbatore. To get a definite idea of what contributed to the higher rankings of these universities we would need to study the indicators chosen by the THE , but that, though located in smaller cities, they could lead the three universities of Calcutta, Madras and Mumbai, set up in the mid-1800s and with a large number of students on their rolls, is surely of interest. We would be advised to not cling to the data that the said institutions are relatively new, leaving them more nimble, for the universities ranked highest by the THE are over eight centuries old. So it would seem that there is something these three institutions in question are doing which leaves them ahead of a very large number of much older Indian universities. It should prove useful to pursue this line of thought.Almost exactly at the time the THE rankings were released, there was held in Delhi the ‘Conference on Academic Leadership on Education for Resurgence’, jointly organised by University Grants Commission, All India Council for Technical Education and the Indian Council for Social Science Research, among other institutions, and attended by over 350 Vice Chancellors and representatives of the universities. This is a powerful grouping indeed. Delivering the inaugural address, the Prime Minister announced that the government would make available Rs. 1 lakh crore for infrastructure in higher education by 2022. The Prime Minister is also reported to have emphasised the importance of the Indian Institutes of Management Bill of 2017 granting autonomy to the IIMs. He correctly pointed out that this meant that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) will no longer dictate their curricula. Somewhat earlier the government had announced a list of ‘institutions of eminence’, the idea underlying which was that they are now free to set their own rules and regulations. While the freeing of universities from external control and increasing their resource base is for the better, the question is whether these moves can by themselves raise higher education in India to the desirable global level. There are two aspects that need acknowledgement from a survey of the state of higher education in India. First, the rankings, though imperfect, suggest that Indian universities are lagging in their research output. This by itself should be worrying, but another aspect, namely the migration overseas even at the undergraduate level, suggests that not even the dissemination of knowledge here is considered good enough by Indians.
The invasion within It is not as if the idea of the university as a space of freedom and intellectual responsibility has received universal acceptance globally. However, the best regarded universities of the world today yet harbour some of the norms which ensure that they remain ahead. Culture may be difficult to measure but when its meaning is reduced to norms as the rules of the game, it is easy for us to see what is missing here.No amount of hand-wringing over India’s place in the world university rankings or pumping resources into infrastructure building can help if the culture is not conducive to creativity. Its culture is a university’s most valuable resource. Feeding a repressive culture bodes ill for the future of our universities and, therefore, India’s place in the world of knowledge. Rightly we rue the fact that Nalanda, an international university that had flourished in India over a millennium ago, was destroyed through foreign invasion. Today our universities may be being destroyed by our own short-sightedness.
Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana
Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/reading-between-the-rankings/article25209958.ece

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