The Yash Pal report argues for autonomy in higher education, both from the state and from private commercial interests.
It is only appropriate that the report of the Yash Pal Committee on higher education is being discussed by the Central Advisory Board On education ( CABE) before being implemented. The Yash Pal Committee makes a very bold appeal for the revival of the state universities and asks the planners to bridge the huge gap that exists between them and the centrally created universities. One can only hope that the state ministers are not daunted by the report’s call to grant real and substantive autonomy to the centres of higher learning. Such autonomy would effectively mean leaving educational matters to academics and cessation of interference by the ruling party or ideology of the day, not only in matters like selection of vice-chancellors and faculty but also curriculum and syllabi.
Autonomy is the fulcrum of the Yash Pal committee report. Perhaps this partly fuels the scepticism with which Left intellectuals have received the report. They suspect that autonomy would lead to privatisation, and therefore they see it as part of a large conspiracy of the proponents of market forces to take over higher education. Interestingly, the ideologues of for-profit universities are also unhappy with the report as it firmly rejects the argument that quality education can only be ensured by opening the doors of higher education for market forces and strong competition. One member of the committee, who is at Cornell university, found it necessary to present a dissenting note arguing that the state-funded universities should be left to deal with ‘esoteric’ knowledge areas like humanities and social sciences where as the commercially lucrative areas like management, engineering , medicine and law should be the concerns of private, for-profit educational entrepreneurs. Prof. Shyam Sunder, an economist at the Yale university countered this by asking which of the leading hundred universities across the globe are for-profit entities! What is to be noted is that the report welcomes the participation of non-government or private players who are serious in their intent and are not here to earn profit. Surplus generated should be ploughed back into the institutions rather than being siphoned off for other purposes. The contribution of TIFR, IISc, TISS to higher education of India cannot be overemphasised. One should not forget that many of our leading universities are the result of private initiatives. The role of individuals and communities cannot be ignored and the state cannot be the sole source of all educational endeavours. Non-state initiatives bring colour, diversity and vitality to higher education.
Separating knowledge areas from each other and setting up specialised, single-discipline universities robs education of its essence. The history of knowledge is full of instances of new knowledge being created at margins of disciplines or through their cross-fertilisation. State or non-state, all institution builders should keep this idea in mind when they create something they would like to be called a university. The report makes a case for diversification in IITs and IIMs where humanities and social sciences are but service departments. It calls upon them to move beyond the role of producing undergraduate engineers and strive to equal institutions like MIT or Caltech which are institutes of technology but have Nobel laureates in areas like economics and linguistics as well.
The desire to become world leaders in education would remain empty if we are unable to create new knowledge. And it is here that the report disagrees with those who argue that since quality is in short supply here, we need to import it and invite foreign universities to plug the gap. The report says that true universities grow in organic connection with the geo-political and cultural soil and develop their unique character over a very long period of time and therefore cannot be transplanted mechanically. It is the metaphor of agriculture and not engineering which needs to be evoked when we talk of any level of education or knowledge. Education or knowledge is a touch sport. Our universities should have space for academics from all over the world and they should not feel constrained by ‘universal’ rules regarding compensation packages etc., while inviting them. It is here that the principle of autonomy becomes crucial.
A strong role for the state, space for creative non-government initiative, respect for the unique individuality of an institution, elimination of the distances at different levels, between disciplines and between knowledge and life outside, a scheme of education which is relevant to the student and the society in all respects are some of the critical features of this report. These are the principles on which the new all-encompassing regulatory agency proposed as the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) by the report would replace the existing regulatory agencies like the UGC, AICTE, MCI, COA, NCTE which take a fragmented view of knowledge, thereby depriving the educational institutions of a holistic vision which alone can make innovation in their respective fields possible.This would not be a regulatory body to lord over the higher education institutions but to play the role of a catalyst for lively exchange between diverse educational experiences, a defender of their unique individuality and protector of their autonomy from all extra-educational interferences, be it from the government of the day or ruling commercial interests. Are we mature enough to take this call?
(This article appeared earlier in The Indian Express, 1 September,2009)