‘It should not presume elite status but create excellence by drawing freely on best talent'

The Tagore University for the Liberal Arts, first institution to be established under the Human Resource Development Ministry's once ambitious Universities for Innovation programme, will be set up in Pune. But, ironically, the word ‘innovation' will be missing from the nomenclature of the institution. For, the group of experts, which was asked to draft a concept for such institutions, fears that such an emphasis is likely to inhibit its creative potential.

The task of such an “institution should be, not to presume an elite status for itself, but to create excellence by drawing freely upon the best talent from all sections of the populace, and fostering it to the furthest extent possible in a climate of international exchange and awareness. Ultimately, such an institution might be the first of many, and it might also provide a model for other existing universities,” the group said in its report submitted to the Ministry.

On its part, the Ministry is finalising the concept paper so that it can send the toned down version of the Universities for Innovation Bill, 2011 for Cabinet clearance.

The proposal to set up 14 such world-class universities was made during the tenure of the former HRD Minister, Arjun Singh, and even the locations were finalised with the Planning Commission. Under the new regime, it was decided to convert these universities into institutions of innovation in different areas of societal concerns. They were then named Universities for Innovation, each expected to focus on its theme in an interdisciplinary manner. However, the revised draft Bill does not give any number for such universities.

The experts group says that instead of using the epithet ‘world-class', which is meaningless in the absence of any concrete embodiment, it would be best to think of such an institution, a public university set up by the Indian state, as offering an experimental model of what higher education in the country could be. Ideally, it should be free of the infrastructural and systemic problems that beset the country.

The experts include theatre personality Girish Karnad, academics Supriya Chaudhuri and Sunil Khilnani, and writer Ramachandra Guha.

According to the group's note, the task of the Tagore University for the Liberal Arts should be to promote both arts and science under the rubric of liberal arts, in an interdisciplinary environment which allows creative interchange of scholars from different fields. The university will have five schools: School of Humanities for teaching languages, literature, philosophy, cultural studies and creative writing; School of Social Sciences for teaching history, politics, sociology, economics and human sciences; School of Sciences for mathematical studies, biological sciences, physical sciences and environmental science; School of Performing Arts for dance, theatre, music, film and sports; and School of Visual and Applied Arts for painting, sculpture, graphic, arts, textile arts, crafts, design and photography.

The experts group has recommended that the university should have a Research Fund with an annual corpus of Rs 200 crore, administered by a Research Council with both internal and external members. The university will be founded as a non-affiliating unitary institution but once successfully established it may seek to replicate its model elsewhere in the country or overseas. It will have complete autonomy over academic, administrative and financial matters, though it is subject to the reasonable provisions laid down by the higher education regulatory authority in India and funding agencies.

While the university need not get government approval for academic projects, proposals and invitations unless the security of the nation is involved, its accounts will be subject to the Comptroller and Auditor-General's audit. The university can invite applications for a proportion of its posts from non-Indian citizens who are outstanding scholars, artists, writers and scientists so as to promote international cooperation and exchange of ideas. The guests will be entitled to special salary provisions, in excess of the pay scales stipulated by the University Grants Commission or other such regulatory body.

Tracing the history of universities in India founded during the colonial rule and after independence, the experts group's proposal points out that these were an explicit effort to incorporate the lessons of ‘modernity' and create institutions of higher education that would impart training in globally recognised disciplines of study. Historically, there was a break with both pre-colonial universities such as Nalanda and Vikramshila, great institutions of Buddhist learning in the medieval period, and more significantly with traditional, often religious centres of instruction where students (usually male) were trained in the scholarly disciplines as well as in the sacred doctrines of Hinduism and Islam.

The transition from traditional systems to new kinds of learning resulted in devaluation of the study of ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil, Arabic and Persian and even ancient medicine, mathematics and science, the experts group said.

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