Yashpal Committee and The Future of Ideas:

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)

4 thoughts on “Yashpal Committee and The Future of Ideas:”

  1. Autonomy is a good thing when visionaries lead the institutions. From my observations of a few institutions over forty years, I find that once the numbers increase, outside realities tend to catch up with the institutions. In India, these take the form of caste and regional differences, and the institutions tend to degenerate both in the quality of their work and openess to recruit outsiders. Bending rules to fund even retired people of their own group and/or create new institutes for their benefit have been observed. Another tendency is to fight for higher salaries rewards for publishing papers etc. See the example of Pakistan experience in:
    in particular Pervez Hoodbhoy’s letter.

    I would think that spending more money on primary education may bring more long time rewards.

  2. Autonomy is good provided visionary leader has mission to achieve with zeal and commitment. In case the person wants to take its personal political benifit out of it then there is possibility of social exclusion and encouraging regionalism and castism. Autonomy and accountability shoul be together.

  3. I have read the report. It is all that apoorvanand says it is about. But, the problem is, it is hard to relate this report and its implications with the reality of higher education in India. The report sort of talks about state universities and colleges without suggesting that its authors really understand the depth of crisis in indian higher education away from the gaze on IITs, IIMs and places like Delhi university and the JNU. The report glibly talks about private-public partnership again without realising that devil lies in details that the report says nothing about. Instead, the report talks about MIT and Caltech! It is obvious that the authors of the report know more about American colleges than about Indian colleges. The report even talks about integrating under-graduate and post-graduate teaching in universities without realising how impossible it really is. The report is impressive in its concerns and ideas if you teach in an elite college and university but if you teach /learn in the hinterland, the report is truly in the realm of a fantasy. If wishes were horses….!

  4. I have learnt the contents of the report and I agree with Apoorvanand-ji’s words ” Are we mature enough to take this call?” When the whole focus of all our education till date has been syllabus oriented rather than knowledge oriented, exam-loving than inquiry-loving, time-driven (which means completing a particular degree within a certain span of time) rather than the spirit of learning…I am not sure where are the people today to man these new steeds that we are summoning for ourselves, if at all they appear.
    ‘Gaddeswarup-ji’ mentions that it is significant that we look at primary education. In a country like ours where we cannot even drink water safely out of our taps in our urban homes, without filtering them…does anyone care why we even need primary education? We think sifting through intellectual verbiage is all that is there to knowledge, everyone pays lip service to primary education. But why do we need primary education is something nobody ever talks about.
    Why can we not have the best people go back into education once again? Why do we not have universities that talk of teacher education programs in a big way? Why is education of the poorest not important? Why is it that the urban middle classes is the only focus of all these reforms, changes and debates? Because they have the money? They are seemingly more educated and can represent themselves better?
    I only know that autonomy would not mean the best for the most – the only things that will survive will be the one that can ensure the fastest jobs: so that if there is a need for call centers, fresh school students who speak English will join the labour force, without being equipped for anything really; when there is a need for business interests to shift to India, a lot more of management schools will set up shop here, whether they offer any serious knowledge or not to offer, whether they are even serious players in their parent countries may not be ascertained…and so forth.
    No outsider would do something that we need as a country- unless it is really the people ourselves; for instance teacher-education programs, researching in teaching methods which bring back children to school and not just the midday meals, studying the psychology of students at all the levels of society and especially first generation learners, imparting training and skills and re-orienting teacher attitudes at the core levels, integrating knowledge with lives of people and empowering people from within through real education, not just exam driven learning which has no longevity nor value-orientation.
    Prof GD Sharma says autonomy is good provided there is a proper leader, who has no vested interest. How many of us really know such people around us? …I am sure they are there, but there voices are very faint in this din which is rife with political ends and settlement of issues in education by people who really look at the situation as Vrijendra-ji says and I summarize: with the Outsider’s lens, while being an insider- the Westerner’s view of India; for who else are we the English speaking modern Indians. DO we even know what is happening of education in Kashmir, Chhatisgarh, Jaisalmer or Jharkhand? Who will think of education there? Those who graduate in schools in Delhi and Mumbai?!…and are looking at MIT, Oxford and Berkeley after that?

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