By Swapan Dasgupta
Many years ago, one of India’s most distinguished historians who, alas, has now been lost to the Indian system, narrated his experience of a Central university in India. Having joined the faculty after a long stint in the UK, he was somewhat bewildered when some of his colleagues objected to his presence at a departmental meeting: “He can’t be here; he doesn’t even have an MA.”
The dissenter may have been unaware of the Oxbridge tradition where a good BA degree was sufficient to allow a student to read for a doctorate. Alternatively, he was being plain bloody-minded and using nativism to express his distaste for a Oxford-educated interloper. My suspicion that it was probably the latter was confirmed some years later by one of India’s foremost authorities on political thought—a gentleman with an Oxford and Harvard pedigree.
Like my historian friend, he too had returned to India after a long absence and joined one of India’s most generously endowed universities. His tenure, tragically, proved to be tragically short. He resigned following disagreements over an unstated departmental policy of positive discrimination in favour of the university’s alumni in faculty appointments.
Last week, in an intervention that could be interpreted as an attack on the restrictive practices that have made many universities breeding grounds of cronysism, the junior minister of the grandly-named Human Resource Development Ministry Shashi Tharoor proclaimed his support for the four-year degree course Delhi University is set to introduce from July. Tharoor’s logic was simple: the American 12 + 4 pattern has become the norm. “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.”
Indeed it was. But the logic of Tharoor’s argument is intriguing. It suggests that the primary purpose of Delhi University is to prepare students to adjust seamlessly into the US campuses. Indian higher education, it would seem, exists to facilitate the inevitable Atlantic crossing.
If the main intention behind adding an extra year to undergraduate courses was to facilitate India’s globalisation, it can be said to involve a grudging acceptance of a new world order. Certainly there is ample scope to make the undergraduate curriculum more rigorous and exacting, and better prepare the minority of students who choose to pursue post-graduate studies in US. The changes may even reek of pragmatism: Indian universities reinventing themselves as variants of Rau’s Study Circle, the well-known crammer for the civil services examinations.
And why not? For many decades, under the pretence of modernity and post-colonialism, the definition of a university has witnessed dramatic changes. The notion of institutions of learning pursuing knowledge for its own sake has long been discarded. Equally, inculcating “the code of a gentleman and sportsman”—General Smuts’ evocative description of an ideal Rhodes scholar in Oxford—no longer counts as a priority. Instead, India has enthusiastically embraced the virtues of ‘really useful knowledge’, a euphemism for skills appropriate for the white-collar job market.
Yet, there is a fundamental mismatch between preparing students for a US Graduate School, an approach that demands building sound scholastic foundations, and supplying the market with mid-level functionaries. In addition, there are social objectives that the Indian university has to be mindful of. This involves making the curriculum less intimidating to those who were disadvantaged by indifferent schooling. In short, there is a mismatch between what Tharoor hopes and what the human and infrastructural deficiencies will allow the university to achieve. The conflict between quality education and mass education is inescapable. It can be better handled by improving our schools, not by transferring the problem to higher education.
In trying to blend the functions of high school and polytechnic with that of a traditional university, Delhi University may end up falling between two stools. Whereas the façade of the new four-year degree may correspond to the US pattern, the software could well be vastly inferior and, possibly, virus infested.
Sunday Times of India, May 5, 2013