Why not one more university?

By H. Srikanth

At the height of the CUET controversy in Meghalaya, I came across a letter to Editor (May 6, TST) where the author expressed the view that the state made a blunder by opting for a central university and that all problems could have been avoided if Meghalaya had a state university instead. It appears the opinion expressed by the author was not personal and it echoed the sentiments of many others in the state. Considering that Meghalaya is celebrating its golden jubilee this year, it is time to debate about the kind of university that the state should have to serve its people.
The idea of a secular and public university is the product of modernity. Even in ancient and medieval periods, there were institutions of higher education in the West and also in India. Although other subjects were also taught, they came into existence as theological institutions closely connected with religion–to the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and to Buddhism and Hinduism in India. They primarily catered to the needs of the elite and were not accessible to the masses. It was only after Europe went through Renaissance and Reformation that gradually these institutions gained autonomy from the Church and the State, and emerged as democratic and secular universities.
In India, the process of modernization and democratisation of higher education started during the colonial period. The British, in their own colonial interest, started universities first in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, and later in Lahore, Allahabad, Delhi, etc. Princely states such as Hyderabad, Mysore, and Travancore also established universities during the period. Some social reformers and nationalist leaders mobilized funds and established institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, etc. It was during this period that the doors of higher education were opened for women, Dalits and tribal people.
However, the real expansion of higher education happened only after India became independent. During the initial decades of Indian independence, education was seen as integral to nation building. Central and state governments took the lead in establishing universities, institutes and laboratories. Higher education was subsidized and made accessible to hitherto marginalized sections. As Education was initially on the State List, state governments started different universities. For different historical reasons, the centre also started establishing several universities. The reasons why certain universities were brought under the control of central government, or why the central government went for establishing new universities, varied. The Central University Acts, enacted by Parliament, show that different central universities have different mandates. While some, like Delhi University and JNU, were conceived as national in their scope, some others were established to cater to the needs of particular regions. For example, the NEHU Act clearly spells out that NEHU was set up to address the social, educational and economic needs of the people of the hill areas of the northeast. Establishment of central universities in backward regions was compelled to satisfy the local aspirations for a better future.
On its part, NEHU played a positive role in extending higher education to the hill areas of the northeast. The affirmative admission policy of the university benefitted the indigenous tribal communities. Today we see many students who studied in NEHU working as teachers in different colleges and universities in the region. The University and the colleges affiliated to NEHU have shaped the career of different politicians, bureaucrats and writers. During the initial years NEHU played an important role in undertaking descriptive research on history, language, literature, culture, society, politics, and flora and fauna of the region, and brought the specificity of the hill region and its people to the attention of scholars outside the region. Under some visionary Vice-Chancellors, NEHU gained recognition as one of the premier universities in the country. It is sad that NEHU which was making a steady progress met with road blocks in recent decades and some people who felt proud of their association with NEHU earlier have now started thinking differently about the University. Let us hope that the University surmounts its problems and gets back to the right track in the years to come.
While NEHU is muddling through the quagmire, people may think of other options. The future of higher education in the state cannot and should not depend only on NEHU. The number of students aspiring to have higher education in the state has ballooned over the decades. NEHU has created several departments and increased the student intake in all departments. There has been a growing demand for higher education. UGC has not been providing funds liberally as it used to do earlier. There are hardly any new faculty positions or new buildings in recent years. Starting new departments with two or three teachers serve no public interest. The number of affiliated colleges has increased the load on the exam department and the College Development Council. NEHU cannot efficiently monitor all administrative and qualitative aspects of the UG colleges beyond a point.
All these limitations should compel the people and Government to think of establishing another credible university in the state of Meghalaya. Because of local disadvantages, no premier private universities will be interested in establishing their campus here. Even if they come forward, they would not be of any use to the region, as most people here cannot afford the fee that these private universities charge. Conversely, it also makes little sense to have sub-standard private universities which contribute little to the quality of higher education in the state. Although we know that there are a couple of private universities in the state, their mandate and the reach appear to be limited. Hence, the only alternative is to have a state university, or a university established in partnership with established philanthropic organizations dedicated to public education. Parallel to NEHU, if another credible university takes shape in the state, there will be a healthy competition. The new university can reduce the burden on NEHU to some extent and start relevant academic programs keeping in view the feasibility and the needs of the people. It also gives the option for students and the UG colleges to decide what is best for them. When the central government tries to impose a policy which is not in the best interest of the state and its people, the state government will have the space to exercise its autonomy if it is a state university.
True, several state universities in the country faltered because of political interventions, inadequacy of finances, and petty caste / communal politics. But one cannot conclude that all state universities in the country are bad. Well-known Calcutta University, Jadavpur University, Mumbai University, SNDT, Kerala University and University of Madras are state universities only. They are as good as the central universities. If the state government has a long-term vision and if civil society is mature and progressive, establishing another university is not impossible.
The state or state-sponsored university should not become an option to escape diktats of the central government, or to appease local sentiments. It should be a local university with a global vision. It should protect the local interests without compromising on quality. The university should not become a centre rehabilitating the kith and kin, or end up as a site for pursuing private interests at public expense. As the interests of the students should be the topmost aim, there should not be any compromise on the quality of teachers and officers recruited. For any university, the first few decades are crucial. Experience reveals that the universities collapse when they are not in the hands of competent persons. Thinking beyond ideologies and politics, the government should ensure that only educationists with academic vision and administrative experience hold key positions, such as that of Vice-Chancellor. When Meghalaya has two good universities, they can cater to the growing aspirations of the local people and at the same time, become an educational hub, attracting students from other parts of India and even from neighbouring countries. Cynics doubt such a possibility, but visionaries will concur. Where there is a will, there is always a way.
The author teachers Political Science in NEHU: Email: [email protected]

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