Why higher education must be free of the profit motive

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Knowledge centres call for rigorous standards of productivity and accountability. But they do not operate by hire and fire, stick and carrot, supply and demand tactics of a consumerist market

indian higher educationThe few exceptional private universities offer faculty much more security (including tenure), and assured facilities like research grants and sabbatical leave — the benefits common to universities across the free world, including central universities in India. (Representational)

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For the second time in a year, Rohit Kansal and Dipankar Sengupta (‘Reading the rankings’, IE, June 30) have expressed their dissatisfaction with Indian higher education institutions and ascribed it, broadly speaking, to the absence of corporate practices of hiring and management in public universities. I had offered an alternative view in an earlier response. Today, let me offer a new angle on these issues.

But I must start with the same question. India has a vast network of private institutions, enrolling 70 per cent of all tertiary students. Why have they not transformed the dismal scene?

With a handful of exceptions, they are run by a reductive mechanical model of the management regime favoured by Kansal and Sengupta: At factory floor level, shall we say, rather than the inspired heights where unicorns graze. These institutions might hire a few star faculty, but most teachers carry out routine teaching at cut-price rates, often within a kind of gig economy. At most places, taking time off for research is discouraged. The best of these institutions purvey sound formal training in set professional skills; many cannot deliver even at that level.

The few exceptional private universities offer faculty much more security (including tenure), and assured facilities like research grants and sabbatical leave — the benefits common to universities across the free world, including central universities in India. (State universities usually offer much less.) Quality is ensured, in both private and public institutions, not through invasive monitoring by “regulators and funders” but by free exchange and collegiality among the faculty themselves.

Funds for public universities, especially those at state level, are not routine handouts. In the heyday of the UGC, when independent India‘s university system was being put in place, UGC funding was a reward for enterprise. Virtually all research grants were routed through project-based schemes. They involved project writing, a defence, and periodic review before each release of grants. The other great source of funds was the Five-Year Plan. Although Plan funding was a regular feature, the quantum of funds was not: It was determined by past performance and the merit of the proposals. No doubt there were undeserved awards (and undeserved rejections) but from much experience of both ends of the exercise, I can testify it was no pushover.

Hence, the wide disparity in standards between public universities — success bred success. The one major complaint might be that lack of success was not adequately penalised. The public university system started to falter when the ambitious professional classes opted out, seeking more exclusive access to jobs and ascendancy through privatised higher education. The decline in status of the public universities inevitably translated into a decline in funding. Today, the UGC and plan funding have both vanished. The Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan is a scaled-down and unreliable substitute.

What, in this context, are the “market forces” Kansal and Sengupta speak of? Presumably they are not thinking of income from fees, though their advocacy of “for-profit HEIs”, including foreign universities make us wonder. In that case, Gujarat’s upcoming Gift City will soon be India’s leading education zone. Let us wait and see.

More likely they mean demand for the kinds of training the job market requires in a market-driven economy. Gainful employment is very reasonably the first aim of virtually all students, and HEIs must cater to it. But what kind of employment, within what ecosystem?

“Knowledge economy” can be defined at many levels. It can mean the application of skills across the manufacturing and service industries. It can more fitly mean industries where advanced knowledge is a major input, like pharmaceuticals or information technology. But a knowledge economy in the fullest sense is where knowledge is not only the input but the output: where knowledge is harnessed to yield more knowledge.

Knowledge is its own “market force”. This is the most basic market to which HEIs must cater, creating jobs in teaching and research. Universities and research centres are usually not floated on the stock exchange, but the instruments traded there ultimately draw on the knowledge market. Hence, nations with a long-term commitment to capitalism — the US above all — foster autonomous centres of learning where knowledge is generated from knowledge, at its own speed, in its own congenial milieu. These centres expand the reserves of knowledge, a fundamental asset. It can then be invested in more conventional forms of wealth creation.

Such knowledge centres call for rigorous standards of productivity and accountability. But they do not operate by the hire and fire, stick and carrot, supply and demand tactics of a ground-level consumerist market, let alone a gig economy. To define one market in terms of the other is to distort and misdirect it. The rhetoric of management science cannot be glibly evoked.

Yet left to itself, might the knowledge economy not foster indolence, waste and irrelevance? Yes, of course, just as economies of other types embrace loss, greed and aggression. Neither kind of entropy can be prevented by external regulation beyond a point. It is for the players themselves to act with skill and probity.

It is usually best to leave a system to ensure its own viability. When the UGC sought to regulate teaching appointments by designing an Academic Performance Index, it proved to contain an almost inbuilt mechanism to eliminate the best candidates, especially in the humanities. Laying down the details of every syllabus has curbed the teacher’s freedom to teach and the student’s to learn. Both provisions have prevented some damage, but worked a great deal more.

The only valid question should be this: Does the current dispensation, with much mechanical regulation ineptly factored in, offer more or less chance to a student to acquire knowledge and lead a rewarding life than the untidy order it is supposed to rectify? There is no easy answer either way.

The writer is professor emeritus, department of English, Jadavpur University

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

First published on: 08-07-2023 at 07:00 IST




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