Deemed universities: original sin compounded

Although it was in the air for several months, the decision of the Union human resource development ministry conveyed to the Supreme Court on January 18, to withdraw the deemed university status of 44 private sector higher education institutions has nevertheless shocked the academic community, and particularly the estimated 200,000 undergraduate and postgrad students countrywide enroled in them. Ex facie deemed to be or deemed universities are privately-promoted colleges of some vintage and academic distinction, which were conferred university status for academic excellence and service to their local communities.

At least that’s what should have been their raison d’etre. But as usually happens in the licence-permit-quota regime when wide discretionary power is conferred on politicians and bureaucrats, the discretionary power was promptly put on the auction block. During the incumbencies of former Union HRD ministers — the BJP’s Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi (1999-2004) and Congress party stalwart Arjun Singh (2004-09) — the number of deemed universities countrywide,  especially in peninsular India, increased from 37 in 1999 to 127 in 2009. Following the appointment of Kapil Sibal as HRD minister of the UPA-2 government, a P.N. Tandon committee was appointed to investigate whether all deemed varsities merited their exalted status. Predictably it discovered “several aberrations” in over half of the country’s 127 deemed universities.

Unsurprisingly, the ministry’s intent to revoke the university status of these institutions has angered and frustrated students who enroled in them in good faith, paying substantially higher tuition fees than are levied by heavily-subsidised government-run universities. Although Sibal has assured students that the impugned varsities will be re-affiliated with Central/state universities with which they were formerly affiliated, there is the possibility that some now  tainted institutions may not be given affiliation by government universities.

Student frustration and anger is also undoubtedly fuelled by the awareness that the self-righteousness exhibited by the Tandon Committee and the HRD ministry is unwarranted, because academic standards and infrastructure facilities in the vast majority of the country’s 300-plus government-run universities are hardly better. Indeed many of them have worse market reputations than the tainted deemed universities. Therefore the prospect of reverting the latter to the status quo ante hardly fills them with enthusiasm. For instance, the implicit verdict of the Tandon Committee that the infrastructure and academic standards of Christ College, Bangalore which was conferred deemed university status last year, are inferior to those of the thoroughly dumbed down Bangalore University, is patently absurd.

The fundamental problem of contemporary India’s higher education system is excessive and unwarranted government subsidisation, control and micro-management. By targeting deemed universities which for all their faults had broken free of the government stranglehold, the new HRD minister has displayed lop-sided priorities and compounded the original sin of his ministry having casually and/or corruptly accorded them deemed status in the first instance.

Jyoti Basus's destruction of West Bengal

The death in Kolkata of veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Jyoti Basu on January 17, is an important milestone in the history of post-independence India. It marks the beginning of the end of communism as a significant political force in the sub-continent and West Bengal in particular, where the CPM-led Left Front government has ruled since 1977. A suave British trained barrister, Basu represented the acceptable face of the CPM, behind which party cadres were encouraged to practice ruthless end-justifies-the-means Stalinist/Maoist politics to decimate all opposition to the party in Bengal. This objective was substantially achieved during Basu’s long reign as chief minister from 1977-2000.

Yet the supremacy of the CPM was established at terrible price for the people of West Bengal (pop. 80 million). By stoking the fires of militant trade unionism in urban West Bengal to create vote banks for the CPM, and forcibly distributing rural landholdings to tenants and sharecroppers, Basu engineered the de-industrialisation of Bengal and provoked an unprecedented flight of capital coupled with an exodus of the educated middle class from the state.

Perhaps even more damagingly, under Basu’s benign supervision CPM cadres captured teachers’ unions, abolished the teaching of English in primary schools even as the party’s card-carrying lightweight intellectuals spouting gobbledygook Marxist economics and social sciences, swamped the higher education system. Today while the educated middle class has fled West Bengal en masse, this state once highly reputed for its education system, ranks 30th on the education development index of the Delhi-based National University for Educational Planning and Administration.

Moreover even as paeans of praise are being sung posthumously about Jyoti Basu’s personal integrity, it is pertinent to note that Basu made sure that he didn’t share any of the pain and privations that the CPM visited upon the people of West Bengal, and the middle class in particular. The residential area where he lived was always spared the state’s notorious power outages, and the epicurean barrister drank only the best Scotch whiskey and holidayed in London every summer, while his son Chandan transformed into a rich businessman in de-industrialised West Bengal, where bonsai   crony capitalism has flowered under three decades of communist rule.

Cultural norms and propriety discourage speaking ill of the dead in Indian society. Yet the outpouring of popular grief and nostalgia following Basu’s demise is more a reflection of the capacity of the people of West Bengal to endure limitless suffering and express maudlin sentimentality, rather than genuine sorrow for the passing away of a self-serving leader who missed a great opportunity to lead a second renaissance of Bengal (after Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Rabindranath Tagore etc). In the process he unwittingly wrote the obituary of communism in India’s once most educated state.