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Universities of Eminence?

A university, roughly means “community of teachers and scholars.” derived as it is, from its Latin etymology. It is the spirit behind the coming together of teachers and scholars that a university needs to nurture and preserve. Further, an important tenet of a university is the notion of academic freedom, which guarantees the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interests of education that was first adopted by the University of Bologna, in 1158. In some ways, the early universities nurtured all the facets of education like the humanities, liberal arts, the social sciences, the basic sciences and also the applied sciences and many others. However, pursuit of applied science and its applications, grew to almost a revolution since it closely connected the needs of the society to make a comfortable living. If one were to examine the influence of humanism on scholars in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and physics, one would perceive that humanism and universities were a strong impetus for the scientific revolution.

Universities have traversed a journey of many years, and through many countries, have had a great influence on their growth, in providing the best for their citizens. In the United States there is no nationally standardized definition for the term university, although the term has traditionally been used to designate research institutions and was once reserved for doctorate-granting research institutions. Some states, such as Massachusetts, will only grant a school “university status” if it grants at least two doctoral degrees. In Australia, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is its independent national regulator of the higher education sector. Student’s rights within university are also protected by the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (ESOS). In the United Kingdom, the Privy Council is responsible for approving the use of the word university in the name of an institution, under the terms of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. UGC discharges similar functions in India.

Traditionally, most countries differentiated universities on the funding pattern which varied widely around the world. In some countries universities are predominantly funded by the state, while in others, funding may come from donors or from fees which students attending the university must pay. In some countries the vast majority of students attend university in their local town, while in other countries universities attract students from all over the world, India too modelled its universities predominantly on the funding pattern naming a State University as such, when the funds were distributed by the various state governments in a federal structure, or a Central University when the funding was facilitated from the Centre. The main differentiator, However, between the universities and other organisations is the extent of autonomy they have to function.

For an academic institution, autonomy refers to running it free from being dictated by either the Government or any other regulatory mechanism so that the larger public good is met with. Our universities are However, stuck in a labyrinth of rules that render their effectiveness futile. Read any university Act. The futility will be obvious. The problem is complex since a university is not only an administrative behemoth, but also deals with academics of young and has the responsibility of shaping their future. Over the years, what has our universities delivered other than degrees and diplomas? A host of administrative problems, like faculty vacancies, petty fights within departments and faculty, one-upmanship, and corruption have all broken the back of our universities. Many courses are sub-standard, and even lecturers don’t turn up for some of them.

Academics is not even mentioned except conduct of examinations. Had it been just administration, we could have had career bureaucrats at the helm. A slow deterioration in values, in research, in teaching learning processes, and almost every aspect over the years, has brought the universities to the brink. The last mile, the student who is the most important axle peg in the giant wheel, is made to suffer for no fault of his or her. Credibility of the university is a consequent casualty. The control of the administrative bodies by people other than academicians and well-meaning individuals in the society also has been a serious bane. Unlike Universities in the West, ours are too small to be viable. Many of them would collapse without external funding let alone provide quality.

In India, a new designation of deemed universities has been created for institutions of higher education, that are not universities, but are expected to work at a very high standard in a specific area of study. Such entities are declared by the Central Government on the advice of the University Grants Commission, as Institutions ‘Deemed-to-be-universities'”. They enjoy the academic status and all the privileges of a university. It beats logic that, institutions set up to function like universities and for all practical purposes are universities, but are termed “deemed” or “deemed to be” universities without defining, when and if at all, they would be termed full-fledged universities. The route to establishing a university, if treacherous, obviously both administrators and academics would find a way around it. No wonder this provision has only made such institutions, commercial in nature that appear to have been established just to exploit the demand for higher education.

A proposal to moot world class universities also was discussed in the recent past. Universities which produce transformational research outputs and develop nation’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy are World‐Class Universities as described by Hsiou-Hsia Tai Professor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. The world class universities play key roles in creating and disseminating knowledge, educating a highly skilled workforce for technological and intellectual leadership, and serving the needs of society. In the past decade, the development of world‐class universities has been a central policy concern of various stakeholders across the globe, and an intense debate among the world academic community. Revealing as it is, it took more than a hundred and fifty years for institutions such as MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL or an Imperial College in London to be recognised as the best research universities.

A new phenomenon that we are witnessing currently is where, yesteryear colleges are being converted to universities in the private sector in the name of quality. A hard look is probably warranted here, for a reason not often cited for this, is the escape that it provides from many of the regulators and freedom to function unbridled, as business houses, by closing courses/departments or starting new ones, as they perceive the markets. Social causes are invariably given a go by.

In such a scenario, how prudent is the decision of the government to skew the education space already skewed, by allowing one more entity such as the universities of eminence in an ever-growing cacophony for quality institutions? What then is eminence? If you’ve heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s probably because he’s an eminent astrophysicist. The point However, not to miss, is that the eminence came after his success in astrophysics for which he spent a good fifty years of his life researching and experimenting. Respect and eminence are earned. Not thrust.

The education space too needs to be disrupted like every other. Hundreds of Ph D’s and thousands of research publications are being produced in the country without a converging theme, all out of a multitude of universities. Like in Germany, we need our universities to be modelled on a Max Planck University model for Basic research and a Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft University model for applied research with a focus on Productisation rather than an unholy thrust on publishing papers. The faculty evaluation, if needs to be changed, so be it. That would not only produce Indian products but also would aid creating new markets and new employment opportunities.

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