A crumbling edifice

Print edition : September 24, 2004

At a university library - H.SATISH

A new structure needs to be put in place to rejuvenate universities, which are now crippled by a loss of direction, poor governance, misplaced priorities and political interference.

STRENGTHENING the infrastructure in universities is a common refrain these days. The necessary facilities, services and equipment that enable the normal functioning of an organisation constitute its infrastructure. When one talks of the need to strengthen the system in universities to enhance research facilities, and consequently, research output, the implicit assumption is that they have a system.

This, unfortunately, is not the case. At present there is no structure, no functioning system in universities. There are only levels of anarchy where most of the decisions are person-based and not issue based. The major problems in this regard are a loss of direction, poor governance, misplaced priorities, political interference and bureaucratic dominance. A new structure has to be put in place as the present one either does not function or, at best, perpetuates mediocrity.

Often, one hears senior colleagues in universities and people in high offices say: "Universities are for teaching. If you want to do research, go to a research institute", or "If you do research, then you do this for your own benefit. Your research has nothing to do with the university". The synergism between research and teaching in our universities is conspicuous by its absence. There can be no conflict between teaching and research. The Collins Dictionary defines "university" thus: "University is a place where students study for degrees and where academic research is done".

INFRASTRUCTURE has three components. Its active component is the human resource - teaching, laboratory and administrative staff - and passive components are buildings, libraries, equipment and other basic facilities. The third one is the interactive component - work culture and external interaction - and this probably plays a bigger role than the first two.

As regards the first component, the most serious problem is the failure to recruit "proper" teaching staff. At present, there are temporary appointments for years; in some instances for as long as 23 years. Some people even retire as temporary staff. Most of these appointments have been made without a selection committee meeting. (In University of Rajasthan, for example, there are about 290 temporary teaching staff members and an equal number of permanent staff.)

The process of recruitment has to improve. In general, the existing interview processes invoke little faith - in a recent interview for promotion, the candidate was asked to explain the `Uncertainty Principle' to a political scientist 65 years old.

As a consequence of such compromises in appointments, society develops an indifferent attitude towards university teachers and teachers themselves have low self-esteem. The distorted value system in sections of society, which measures people's worth by the amount of money they have or the extent of power they wield, is an additional contributing factor to this skewed societal perspective. An ordinary teacher has no avenues that may help him or her make some money; nor does he or she play a role in the university administration. Only a few pursue academics and research with their self-esteem in mind. In the process, they cause insecurity among power-seekers. The lack of self-esteem among teachers contributes significantly to the present state of affairs in universities. Fortunately, there are still a few people in power who enable research and researchers, and thereby the institution, to grow. They are responsible for whatever progress one sees, despite the system.

The solution to this lies in getting the right manpower, which not only provides positive peer pressure, but also has a positive influence on the passive components of the infrastructure. If people are recruited in time and when they are young, the libraries and equipment will follow. Compromises weaken an organisation. With increasing age, human beings get more tolerant and more willing to compromise. The average age of people in decision-making bodies should come down, as these policies decide the future of the young.

To begin with, closed-door interviews should be stopped. The candidates, after a minimum qualifying examination, should be asked to give open seminars where the entire faculty and some external experts judge the candidate and his/her suitability to the department.

The profession should be more lucrative to attract talent. The candidate should look forward to having good academic companionship, economic security and essential infrastructure. This would change the value system in the universities. Universities should lead society. Today, they are being led by society.

One serious problem is the attitude of the bureaucracy that questions everything. It does not play the supportive role it is meant for. Part of the problem is the failure to recruit competent people. Many problems occur due to delay in making decisions, even on mundane matters. In following procedures the bureaucracy should keep in mind the physics rule on the decay of elementary particles: "Unless it is absolutely forbidden, it should be allowed." The researcher should be given the freedom to take any administrative or financial decision, authorising its necessity and accepting responsibility for its consequences. The accountability of the researcher should be increased.

THE library is the most important component of the passive infrastructure. The lack of journals and books in the libraries has dampened the habit of reading. The University Grants Commission (UGC) or some other national agency should enter into contracts with major publishers across the world for the redistribution of their journals and books to all universities/institutes within the country, either as electronic version or as hard copies.

A central computing facility should provide everyone access to computers and 24-hour Internet connectivity, preferably on their tables. Also essential is a functioning, centralised workshop and an instrumentation centre to meet the professional needs of teachers and research laboratories. A lot of the computing power and other equipment in the universities remain under-utilised. Unfortunately, there is no accountability in such matters.

Universities should attract the best talents and support them in their research, demand productivity in their teaching and research work, and let them act as models for others. Indeed, active research should form a part of the job description. In the present situation, there is little freedom to do anything and little accountability. A system for research should be built by encouraging teachers to go on sabbaticals and academic leave. In the present system, one takes personal leave to carry out research, even if it is for a short period. In UGC-conducted refresher courses, promotions depend on attendance and not on the teacher's research contribution.

National institutes and laboratories can support research in universities so that they can be self-sustaining, and contribute to collaborative programmes. Short-term positions should be available in institutes and research laboratories for university teachers. This helps in increasing the exposure of the university personnel, who otherwise spend most of their time in teaching. People from the institutes, too, should occasionally teach short courses in universities.

In a recent public lecture, a scientist of repute, who is also the director of an organisation, spoke with disdain about the performance of universities. People like him, who have power, can make a difference by devoting a little more of their time to rejuvenating academics in these apparently failing institutes of higher learning.

Teaching and research complement each other. Students have to come in direct contact with research workers, which is possible only in universities. To enable good synergism between teaching and research, some freedom should be provided to teachers regarding their teaching hours. It would be ideal if they do dedicated teaching for some months and utilise the rest of the year for research. The most difficult job for a university teacher is to create work for himself or herself. The ambience should be conducive to research, to attract the teachers into it.

A very big hindrance to research is the introduction of self-financing and vocational courses without any additional staff. A major part of the working hours is spent in administering and teaching these "legitimate" courses. There should be no compromise with regard to the once-mandatory National Eligibility Test (NET) of the UGC, so that research standards are not diluted. All students should be evaluated on the basis of a common national examination such as the NET.

Funding and monitoring agencies interfere in the functioning of Universities in undesirable ways without regard for their autonomy. This is particularly true of State universities. To prevent misuse of public money, funding agencies generally have stringent laws for the execution of research projects.

This existing system has failed and it is worthwhile to try an alternative system. Too many checks make the execution excruciatingly slow. When a research programme is sanctioned, more freedom should be accorded to the researchers, with a proportional increase in accountability.

In universities rules are made on the assumption that all are miscreants, and it is the duty of the administration to stop their malpractices. Too much time and money is spent on attempts to stop these "malpractices", which would otherwise die a natural death. The UGC should fulfil its responsibility to keep a check on the quality of education being imparted by the universities.

Sudhir Raniwala is a physicist at the Department of Physics, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. This article is based on the talk he delivered at a seminar organised by the Indian Physics Association on "Physics Education, Basic Research and New Technologies" at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, in November 2003.

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