Narendar Pani

What ails our universities

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on March 12, 2018

There is a tendency to judge a university by its brick-and-mortar status.

The crisis in Indian education demands a revival of intellectual traditions that created the J. C. Boses and the C.V. Ramans. To focus merely on the physical infrastructure of universities is to miss the point.

There is a growing consensus today that the quality of Indian universities is not just poor, but declining. There is little doubt that even the best Indian universities of the early twentieth century are today a pale shadow of their past. And newer universities like JNU have fallen somewhat short of their early promise.

There is greater diversity in the prescriptions being offered for this disease, with the suggested solutions ranging from importing universities to offering faculty even higher salaries. But what is missing in the entire analysis is the process that has led to the current situation, particularly the refusal to recognise the distinction between economic elite and intellectual elite.


This distinction should be evident at the very first stage of deciding the objectives of a policy towards the two elites. It is quite possible to build a moral case to reduce economic inequality, even if that means placing limits on how rich the elite can be.

In the case of the intellectual elite on the other hand, success is defined in terms of increasing inequality with those at the top of the ideas pyramid being far above those at the bottom. Even as it is perfectly legitimate for the economic realm to operate on the principle of growth with equity, the principles governing the intellectual realm could well seek intellectual inequality.

Ideally, the two realms should have their own internal dynamics. In the economic realm the objective would be economic gain and success would be rewarded with economic benefit. It is perfectly logical to determine the success of an Infosys by the economic value of its shares. Correspondingly, in the intellectual realm the objective would be intellectual breakthroughs and the rewards would be peer recognition.

The two realms are of course not completely independent of each other. Those with greater economic resources can afford a better education. Similarly, it is not inconceivable that those with a better education will have a head start in the world of business, especially in the knowledge industries. It would also be quite valid for the government to help those deprived in the economic and social realm to gain a foothold in the realm of education, whether this is done through scholarships or reservation.

But the trouble arises when these interconnections influence the internal dynamics of the two realms. Just as the economic realm will collapse if its members placed support from their peers above actual material gain, the intellectual realm would fail if its members sought only economic gain rather than peer recognition for their intellectual contributions.


Unfortunately in India several factors have contributed to the internal dynamics of the economic realm taking over the functioning of the intellectual realm. Arguably, the most important of these factors is the tendency, officially and otherwise, to judge a university by its brick-and-mortar status. The granting of significant amounts of land is treated as the starting point of an intellectual institution, on which is built an often elaborate physical infrastructure.

The extent and quality of this infrastructure makes command over it an attractive goal for individuals. This contributes to administrative control over the infrastructure becoming a legitimate reward for intellectual achievement. Over time the best intellectuals prefer an administrative role over an academic one. And these roles are available, as the best academic institutions often prefer someone with great academic credentials as their directors, rather than those with administrative credentials. While the best academics may have the ability to take on an administrative role – though this is by no means guaranteed – their shift to the new role impoverishes the intellectual space.

Our best intellectuals often take such great effort to create large infrastructure-rich institutions that their intellectual achievements have sometimes fallen behind. As a result the intellectual value of any recognition they offer to their peers is also diluted. Peer recognition must then come from abroad, particularly the West. As a result those academics that are capable of getting peer recognition, and seek no other benefit, fairly frequently prefer to migrate to Western universities.

Even those who stay behind and continue to seek peer recognition are forced to find this recognition by researching questions that are important for Western universities. This can be a fairly significant constraint in the Social Sciences, where the chances of finding something new would be greater if academics focused on addressing the local experience with the confidence to develop their own concepts. By choosing instead to primarily borrow from Western theories, Indian researchers often reduce themselves to becoming, directly or indirectly, mere data gatherers for Western theorists.

With the scope for pure intellectual achievement getting further reduced, the administrative role becomes even more attractive. And as administration draws an ever increasing number of the country's best academics, the next generation becomes even more dependent on Western academia for peer recognition. Over time this influences choices made by students as well. If going abroad to study was primarily a higher education option earlier, it is now being considered at the undergraduate level as well.

It is not clear that the initiatives that are now being planned will do anything to break this vicious cycle. Allowing a greater role for foreign universities in India will only further increase the role of Western peer recognition. It will be no surprise if these universities come here solely with the intention of tapping the economic resources that Indians now have to spend on education. The crisis in Indian education demands a revival of intellectual traditions that created the J. C. Boses and the C.V. Ramans, and not a strengthening of economic control of intellectual activity.

Published on December 04, 2011

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