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Teaching and research

By Andre Beteille

INDIA'S POOR record in literacy and primary education is nothing short of a scandal. Despite the many problems with which it started at Independence, a country with India's material and intellectual resources could have done better. It is not that good intentions were entirely lacking. The Constitution made the provision of free and compulsory education up to the age of 14, a directive principle of state policy, but decades after its adoption even literacy was absent in more than half the population. Higher education received a larger share of public attention in the early years of Independence.

Things have begun to change. On the positive side, there is greater public awareness of the importance of elementary education, and a stronger sense of urgency in making it universal. Matters are no longer left in the hands of the Government only. Companies, NGOs and even international agencies have begun to play a part in reaching primary education to all. By contrast, the universities as centres of higher education have now entered a phase of decline. Government funding is drying up, and little, if any, private benefaction is flowing in.

The public attitude towards the universities has undergone a sea change. India's first Prime Minister cared for the universities in a way in which few heads of Government anywhere in the world do today. In a memorable convocation address delivered in Allahabad a few months after Independence, Nehru had said, ``If the universities discharge their duties adequately, it is well with the nation and the people''. He expected the universities to make a significant contribution to the new awakening in India to which many looked forward at that time.

Things are not well with the universities today. For every ten persons who will speak up for primary education, there is hardly one who will speak up for the university, unless he has a personal interest in getting a post or a promotion. But if we disregard higher education now, there will be in the future the same cause for regret that there has been over the neglect of primary education in the past. India needs an effective system of higher education as much as it needs an extensive system of primary education. Nothing can be more shallow than the view that in a poor country, primary education deserves public support whereas higher education can take care of itself. They both need public support and sympathy.

The universities owe much of their present predicament to their own improvident and thriftless ways. In the 1950s and 1960s, academic entrepreneurs embarked on a course of reckless expansion of staff and students in the name of planning and development. Then the initiative passed to the teachers' unions which succeeded in browbeating the authorities into relaxing academic standards in the name of equity and social justice. By the 1990s, universities all over the country had become noisy and disorderly places with very little to show for themselves by way of academic performance.

Nevertheless, teaching and research have not died out in the Indian universities, and they still meet an important social need, although not quite in the way in which Nehru had hoped. A country like India depends for its progress, and even its survival, on modern knowledge, and the universities play a vital part in the production and transmission of that knowledge. For all their failings they have contributed significantly to the modernisation of India in the last hundred years. They were among the first open and secular institutions in the country, and they provided not only a new type of knowledge but also a new social setting for interchange between men and women from different castes and communities, and also from different regions.

Their open nature makes universities particularly vulnerable to exposure and pressure. Pressure on the universities has been mounting steadily in recent years. The most irksome form in which it comes is advice to make the work of the universities more relevant to the needs of society. Much of the advice is shallow and uninformed, but advice from those who wield authority or control funds is difficult to ignore. When the universities are doing well in their own sphere, which is the pursuit of science and scholarship, they can deal with gratuitous advice on their own terms; because they are not doing well now, they can be easily unsettled by being told that their work is not socially relevant.

Programmes to inject more relevance into the work of the universities take different forms. They are not all subversive of the academic objectives of the universities, but many of them are even when their promoters act from good intentions. The two most popular sorts of programmes are those that seek to enhance the earning capacities of university graduates and those that seek to improve their moral standing.

Universities are not best suited to providing vocational training; they were not designed to do so. But under threat of financial cuts from the Government, post-graduate departments are now turning their attention to courses of study and research that appear to offer immediate financial returns. From this point of view, work in basic disciplines such as philosophy, history and mathematics, which promises little immediate return, appears to be socially unproductive. Yet neglect of study and research in the basic arts and sciences cannot but lead to the depletion of society's intellectual capital in the long run. The problem is compounded by the fact that many heads of universities themselves feel that their institutions should be made to appear attractive from the commercial point of view.

The very people who wish to make the universities more attractive commercially also wish them to be more active in promoting moral values. Recent attempts by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to introduce value education (VE) into university curricula has caused concern among serious academics. Some believe that the guidelines are part of a plot to introduce Hindutva into higher education through the back door. My own conclusion, after a careful examination of the relevant documents, is that they are the work of amiable cranks who have convinced themselves that they have solved the problem of good and evil. It is only because the Indian university is so weak and vulnerable that one has to worry about what can be done to it by determined ideologues or well-meaning cranks in positions of power.

The modern university is based on the ideal of the unity of teaching and research. The quality of research in the Indian university is highly uneven. The distractions arising from the search for commercial advantage and moral benefit will hasten the decline that has already set in. In the social sciences there is already a diversion of funds from the universities to organisations that are prepared to undertake projects and produce reports efficiently and expeditiously. Part of the money for research that came to the universities and research institutes now goes to the NGOs. The NGOs have become the favourites of foreign funding agencies. Many of them pay well and are thus able to attract some of the best products of the universities for research in fields ranging from health and education to forestry and water management. So the universities are being depleted not only of funds but, what is more important, also of young talent.

The change in the institutional locus of social science research will alter its character. The NGOs have shown both ingenuity and flexibility in conducting research in a variety of fields. But this research is by its very nature project research whose outcome is the research report. It is focussed; it is time-bound; and it is efficient. But being meant for immediate consumption, it is not long lasting; and it can scarcely be expected to build up a tradition of research. Attempts were made in the wake of independence to build up traditions of social science research in the better universities and research institutes. What has been achieved in the last 50 years is not very much, but still it is something, and it will be a pity if it is allowed to languish for want of interest and care.

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