Out of about a thousand higher education institutions (HEIs) that are authorised to award degrees in India, about 400 are state public universities that produce over 90% of our graduates (including those from the colleges affiliated to them) and contribute to about one-third of the research publications from this country. That their quality and performance is poor in most cases is accepted as a given today. It is evidenced by their poor performance in institutional rankings, the poor employment status of their students, rather poor quality of their publications, negligible presence in national-level policy/decision-making bodies, poor track record in receiving national awards and recognition, poor share in research funding and so on.
Commonly stated reasons for these observations include government/political interference in the management of the university, lack of autonomy, poor governance structures, corruption, poor quality of teachers, outdated curricula, plagiarism, poor infrastructure and facilities, overcrowding, evils of the “affiliation” system and poor linkages with alumni and industry.
While many of these observations are no doubt valid, they appear to be only the symptoms and consequences of some deeper malaise and not the underlying cause. For example, it is often said that you cannot expect much quality from these universities as they are run by the government. This is a fallacious statement since many of the HEI s like the IIT s are doing relatively better than other institutions even though they are government institutions. Lack of a proper diagnosis of the problem has led to fragmented and ineffective approaches to improving the performance of state universities. An attempt is made here to identify a core causative factor for this malaise.
Support for Central institutions
Central government HEIs are valuable and should be supported in all ways. That they have hardly ever been short of funding and patronage has been ensured by the Central government and its arms; national-level parties, industries and businesses; and the national elite and the intelligentsia. It is the existence of such an unwritten contract at the national level that appears to be the key factor for the performance of these Central government institutions.
However, a similar consensus and contract has never been built between the State universities and State governments, State-level political parties and organisations, industry and businesses; and the elite and the intelligentsia. It is as though State-level players do not have much stake in the stability and performance of the State university system.
One reason why State-level players do not feel compelled to back the State university system more strongly could be that the latter does not commit itself to anything that may be of particular interest and value to the State where the university is located. The aims, goals, methods and priorities of these institutions are pretty much the same as those of the Central institutions. The only real value add that the State universities are doing for the State and its people seems to be that of enabling a few lakhs to become graduates every year.
For a state contract
In order to receive much more funding and support from the State system then, State universities would have to commit to delivering lots more to the State and its people where they are located. They must come up with a new vision and programmes specifically addressing the needs of the State, its industry, economy and society, and on the basis of it make the State-level players commit to providing full ownership and support to them. In other words establish a contract between the State universities and the State system similar to what seems to be existing between the Central institutions and the Central government and other national-level stakeholders.
The initiative to start a larger dialogue on the future of our State universities would have to be taken primarily by the academic community of these institutions.
C.N. Krishnan is a retired professor of Anna University Chennai