Role of Higher Education

“ In recent years”, says the Planning Commission of India in its Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan ( 2011 ), “ higher education has isolated itself from the society, resulting in breakdown of the vital social contract.” It goes on to suggest that our Universities and Colleges should be encouraged to engage more intensively than before with wider society and contribute to the local and regional development and provide, what it calls “intellectual leadership to the society”. It is this one important aspect which is proposed to be dealt with in this discussion and our existing Universities and other institutions of higher education measured on this scale of salience.

Whither Higher Education ?

Confining  our reflection to the state of higher education in our young state one wonders which way are we headed ? First, we have what is called the Government sponsored colleges, Post Graduate and Degree Colleges. On the other side we have witnessed this effervescence in the growth of Universities of all kinds since the formation of the new state, where we already have more than a dozen Universities and the counting is still on.  Time was, when Deb Singh Bisht ( DSB ) Government College, Naini Tal stood all by itself in good company of the Gyanpur Degree College ( now in Bhadohi district of UP ), both affiliated to that behemoth of a University, the Agra University. Late Chief Minister HN Bahuguna set up what has now become the Central University at Srinagar, named after him, while upgrading the DSB College into the Kumaon University. This writer has the privilege of being an alumni of the DSB, under VC DD Pant and good fortune of being privy to a “bitter piece of advise” given in confidence to VC Bhatt and Registrar Chowffin by Chief Minister Bahuguna ( HNB ). This administration of the bitter pill took place, inside SSB camp at Srinagar, when he shared some spelling mistakes in the very first BA Part I Paper, VC Bhatt had organized in the then Garhwal University !  Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna was visiting Garhwal, after becoming Chief Minister of UP, after many years, and I happened to be officiating as the Deputy Commissioner of Pauri Garhwal ( Mr AR Bannerji, the DC,  being on annual leave.) I still vividly remember the shocked and ashen- faced expressions of  VC Bhatt and Registrar Chowffin, when CM Bahuguna pulled out a crumpled BA Part I Paper from his kurta-pocket and asked both of them to have a good look at the Paper corrected by himself ! “ First year of a new University Bhatt ji, “ he had said, “is just like the first child in the family, which needs every body’ care and attention. When I have time to look at what is happening, what are you two spending your time on ! ”. The Chief Minister of a state of the size of UP in 1970s had the time and concern to bother about the quality of higher education in a remote Hill University. What about today ?

What a fall have we registered in the quality of our supervision, guidance and care of Universities, and centers of higher education, since then ? One Vice Chancellor quits his office on proven charges of plagiarism in his PhD work; another very senior Professor is defended in one voice by all his senior colleagues, members of the University Court, even after two independent enquiry reports establish a similar foul- act and even after the University’s Executive Council has confirmed his departure under strangest of circumstances, involving collusion from all possible quarters ! Such a ‘collusion of silence’ includes partisan politicians, University administration, and most unnervingly, even the ‘all-knowing’ press and media !

Opening of Colleges by dozens became the easiest “vote gathering” political ploy of the first non-elected Government in 2000-01 but that did not help much. The fact, however, remains that majority of these Government Colleges continue to function after more than a decade without land, funds, buildings – more importantly without even full quota of teachers ! Batches of graduates have since passed out and these continue to remain a sheer mockery of the education, rather higher education. Isn’t time that we stopped playing around with opening of institutions of learning in the name of catching vote and attended to seriously retrieving the lost ground in the early heat of one-up-manship in political gambits by our politicians ? This paragraph could be expanded to the size of a full 200 pages plus book were I inclined to add a number of incidents which are now part of Uttarakhand Information Commission’s judgement-files, especially those where heavy fines had to be imposed and which were promptly complied with ! To name a few, there is a case of a ‘Professor’ who had no qualification to supervise research scholars, a Centre at Dehradun which never existed, one MA student found appearing in two papers simultaneously, at two exam-centers situated 250 kms apart; a VC who looked the other way even when blatant irregularities were brought to his notice in black-and-white, and who was ably succeeded by a few more VCs, continuing to look in the same direction !

Spectacle of Central Universities

Measured on the scale of relevance to the concerns of this newly emerging state, when judged by the measure mentioned in the opening sentence of this piece, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes have been to convert the biggest University the state had into a Central University. In an earlier piece I had iterated the same sentiments when the University had witnessed one of the worst student strikes in its history, with higher authorities of the State refusing to break the impasse in the name of its being converted into a central University. Post Knowledge Commission recommendation to set up Central Universities all over India in dozens what the country has witnessed is a steep fall in the criteria of selection of Vice Chancellors and this has created two kinds of adverse situations. These Universities have virtually become now “ivory towers of indifference” in so far as the host-states’ development issues are concerned, on the one hand, and crisis of leadership in higher education, as isolated as the university administration stands, it is crippled into inaction at the slightest of law and order situation,  most often self-created.

Recently I had the privilege of interacting with Vice Chancellors of Sikkim and CUHP, and senior academic staff of Nagaland, at their Mokokuchung campus, all of them confirmed and validated my impressions, some of which I have already shared. Last three years of Sikkim VC’s tenure, I guess he would wish to forget as soon as possible, as there has been a state of open hostility between the University and the host state Chief Minister ! And, I was totally disarmed by a very frank admission of some of Nagaland University faculty whom I met on request recently, when they admitted that they have been farthest away from the development concerns of that remote state. However, they admitted that it has been a serious mistake on their part ! Central University of HP, at Dharamshala, however, was a pleasant exception, as VC Qamar appeared hugely concerned with the concerns of that Hill state. Creation of Central Universities has also created a major chaos in the state of administration of the so-called “affiliated educational institutions” which required, in an open market regime very strict regulatory mechanism governing their ‘admission, fee and reservation’ issues, as mandated by a judgment of the Supreme Court of India. This issue has gone for a six and the privately run institutions have become a residual legacy of an inefficient educational architecture brought to the fore by the indiscriminate creation of Central Universities. Future of thousands upon thousands students has been jeopardised by shuttling of their students between the Central University of Garhwal and the yet-to-be-born Sri Dev Suman “affiliating” University, with barely a staff of handful of clerks ! Are we, one wonders, really serious about our higher education, including technical education ? Reportedly, on last count there were more than 185 plus “affiliated” institutions which operated for years without any effective supervision whatsoever – as one gathered from the complaints received from short-changed students and their parents, in several cases filed with the Information Commission.       

Centre for Public Policy, Doon University

Lest I stray too far away let me dwell on “intellectual leadership” issue, referred to at the very beginning. It was this neglect on the part of higher education, why I finally agreed in June 2011 to VC Girijesh Pant’s offer to accept the NTPC Chair, created way back in 2006. Two years down the line when I look back at some of the interventions ( 2010 -12) made and initiatives taken under the aegis of this Centre I have some satisfaction that at least here was a VC who realized this gap and believed in this major role to be played by all higher educational institutions, functional within Uttarakhand. VC Girijesh Pant worked under extreme conditions one could possibly imagine. Doon University was not well-provisioned or established say like the HNB Garhwal or Roorkee, or Kumaon, or dating back to the days of Lord Curzon ( Gurukul Kangdi, Haridwar ), or flushed with charities and donations of the devotees ( HIHT, Jolly Grant and Patanjali, Rishikesh ), or private capital like Graphic Era or Petroleum, but it tried to do what others were then not even thinking about.

Novelty in courses it commenced to offer, the Environment Science, Development Communication, Business Management, Vocational Courses, the Foreign Languages, and best remembered – the Winter and Summer Schools, the bevy of intellectuals who were invited, both Indian and academics from abroad, made up the whole ‘basket-of-novelty’. The University Schools were involved in a range of academic activities, led by the VC himself, who would send e-mail invites to the crème of academic elite ! It was his deep concern about this “good image” that his institution should have, that I got to know him better during my penultimate CIC months ( 2010 ), when he would consult me on a few of his internal admin ‘concerns’, imagined or real. Indeed it was his deep and sincere concern for probity and integrity in public offices that ultimately drew me to the University, to steer the Centre, after I superannuated a second time.

The Centre now works on “action research” areas in public policy and has hitherto taken pro-active action of Climate Change Action Plan, mainstreaming Rural Livelihoods, help-design Skill development’s unfolding agenda, some Mountain Policy initiatives like the Indian Mountain Initiative and poverty alleviation analysis work. The Centre has also just completed its Field Survey Phase of the biggest ICSSR education project, spread over 10 districts, 30 blocks and 90 villages of two Hill States and moves on to complete two Education State Reports, one each for Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. It is also offering support to research scholars through “action research” association in public policy matters. Rights-based facilitations are the new areas which are being worked upon for implementation. All centres of higher education owe it to the host states and their people, verily the societies at large, pro-actively provide “ intellectual leadership” in the field of their expertise. Pre-fix “ higher ” certainly means doing something which is ‘above the mundane, the routine, pedestrian and the ‘more of the same’ stuff .’ Finally, it is not only the quality of education but also consideration of ‘equity’ related issues that have started bedevilling our higher education system. Privatisation and the so-called ‘globalization’ of our educational system has also resulted in serious ‘access issue’ fast emerging in institutions which project themselves as ‘sure guarantors’ of employment. Preliminary examination has revealed that entry to such ‘premier institutions of excellence’ is strictly limited to those sections of society who believe that very service and product carries a price-tag and nothing is beyond them. There are clear straws in the wind which need to be read early if such neglect of ‘equity’ issues in education are to be separated from political and public disenchantment, leading to serious trouble. Sooner this nauseating rot is stemmed better it would be for all concerned.


R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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