JNU is set to introduce the points-based system of evaluation for faculty recruitment and promotions dictated by the University Grants Commission. This will mean confusing standardisation with standards.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the few Indian institutions of higher education that have been resisting bureaucratisation, is about to give up. Its Academic Council recently approved the implementation of the University Grants Commission-dictated points-based system of evaluation for faculty recruitment and promotions. Why is the UGC imposing such a system on universities?

There is talk of reaping the demographic dividend of India's young population, given that the developed world has a rapidly aging population. Trade in Education under the World Trade Organisation is seen to give a natural advantage to India with its young English-speaking population. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and the UGC obviously believe that in order to realise the goals, the changes they are imposing on universities are necessary.

Another strand of this strategy is to encourage foreign institutions and the Indian private sector to set up educational institutions to improve educational standards. It is argued that the prevailing standards in most institutions (largely in the public sector) are poor and that they lack the resources to rectify the problem. In this context, financing of higher education is crucial.

Globalisation today involves a race for knowledge-generation. Whether it is software, nano-technology, manufacturing technologies, climate change, trade negotiations or financial institutions, the one who generates better ideas will dominate. Higher education, which is expected to generate ideas, then becomes crucial. Perhaps this is more important than reaping the demographic dividend.

While enrolment in higher education has increased, quality is a concern. Only a handful of institutions produce world-class talent. At the cutting edge, we have a shortage of manpower because we produce little of it, and most of it is lost through brain drain. Many bright students leave the country, unable to get admission to good institutions.

The need for high-quality institutions is obvious. The MHRD is trying to replicate the success of elite institutions such as the Central universities, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, by setting up more of them. In addition, new private institutions in the professional disciplines have emerged in medicine, engineering, management and so on. But can buildings turn into institutions of excellence so mechanically?

Premier institutions face a 30 per cent shortage of faculty. With more of them coming up, the shortage has only spread, threatening standards in the existing institutions. In many private institutions and open universities, the quality of the faculty recruited is indifferent, resulting in poor-quality teaching. Institutions that would hardly be accepted as universities in any country have come up as deemed universities.

There are reports of corruption in setting up private institutions. They not only charge high fees but also extort capitation fees. At times these are set up to buy real estate at concessional prices and make a quick buck. To get recognition, apparently officials from the regulatory authorities (the UGC or the All India Council for Technical Education) are bribed. Some of the heads of these bodies have been accused of corruption.

Higher education passes knowledge from one generation to the next, and can help society advance by generating new knowledge. The former enables routine tasks to be carried out, while the latter equips society to move beyond its present stage and meet emerging challenges. Copying ideas from the developed world is often inappropriate since they may not be relevant to this country's stage of development. The two roles require imparting high-quality training to students, which in turn necessitates high-quality faculty. Union Minister Jairam Ramesh suggested that the IITs, India's most elite institutions, lack world-class faculty — and he was attacked. Not that he was wrong, but he hurt the sense of false national pride of many people.

Quantity is important, but by itself it cannot ensure quality: that requires special efforts. A hundred indifferent lectures can only kill a student's interest, while one inspired lecture can ignite a spark, make learning fun. It is that, and not bureaucratic fiat, which motivates academics to become good teachers and researchers.

Unfortunately, many of the academics produced by the present system have hardly understood their subjects. They dictate notes in class, killing the student's interest. Often, education is less about learning and more a burden that has to be endured to obtain a degree to get a job. Examinations largely test a student's capacity to reproduce mugged-up notes and not the knowledge acquired. The emergence of ‘Kota schools' and coaching institutes that train students mechanically, is a natural corollary. No wonder, book shops around the universities largely stock ‘mug books' for competitive examinations.

The authorities are aware of these deficiencies, but lack an understanding of what higher education needs. The UGC has introduced one scheme after another, often at the instance of the Pay Commissions. The Mehrotra Committee in 1986 suggested the creation of Academic Staff Colleges to train teachers and upgrade skills. Since then, promotion of Assistant Professors under the Career Advancement Scheme has been contingent on their attending these colleges. In order to promote research, academics with M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees are given increments in pay. To make faculty-members work harder, the hierarchy levels in academia have been increased, so that academics would face a selection committee more often. The NET examination was introduced to ensure minimum standards among teachers in higher education.

These schemes involving huge expenditure have hardly helped improve quality. Rather than understand that failure is in-built in these schemes since they are divorced from the needs of higher education, the bureaucrats governing higher education have gone for more of the same. Disinterested ‘academics' have found ways to beat the system. Today there is a flood of M.Phil. and Ph.D. and NET-qualified students without significant improvement in quality. Academics go through Academic Staff Colleges but with little impact on skills. The reason is that none of these measures ignite the desire to learn.

Now, the UGC, in an attempt to improve the quality of faculty, is enforcing a bureaucratised system of evaluation of faculty under the ‘UGC 2010 Regulations,' based on a numerical system of indexing merit, called API. It would lead to ‘paper chase.' How many papers or books written, conferences attended, projects completed, and so on. All these can be churned out in large numbers with little original thinking, to help indifferent academics accumulate points. Already there is a mushrooming of ‘refereed journals,' national seminars and publishers who charge to print books. High-quality research requires years to produce, and in the new system this would get few points. Producing critiques that challenge authority and open new vistas are not easy to publish, and hence would be considered worthless under the new rules. The quantum of work done by an academic is important only to the extent of its quality.

Education is not like any normal homogenised product, such as soaps or uniform-size shiny red tomatoes. An institution of higher education is not like a factory or an office where time and motion study can be used to measure productivity. In fact, there is a need to let a hundred flowers bloom and celebrate dissent as the essence of higher education. Unfortunately, to the education bureaucracy (often including academics), this is anathema.

The short-sightedness that the UGC is displaying, and to which the academic leadership is succumbing, is the result of poverty of thought and insecurity. Army generals, civil servants and clever networkers are often appointed to top positions in educational institutions, not because of their academic quality but due to their closeness either to those in power or to the moneyed. Their objective function is to serve the interest of their benefactors rather than that of the academic body, or society in general. Hence their focus becomes smooth management rather than cultivation of an environment to encourage knowledge-generation. With the decision of the Academic Council, JNU is sliding down this path and caving in to adopt bureaucratised standards of performance. Its academics are failing to stand up to the bureaucratisation that is being imposed by the UGC. A university, expected to give the lead to other institutions, is letting down both itself and the nation.

The bureaucratised UGC, while ostensibly promoting excellence, has been systematically undermining it for long. It thinks standards can be achieved through standardisation — little realising that often the latter is the antithesis of the former.

(The author is with the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This article is based on arguments presented in a section of his forthcoming book, Indian Economy since Independence: Tracing the Impact of Colonial Disruption in Society. He could be reached at arunkumar1000@hotmail.com )