Professor Yash Pal, Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University has been associated with the Indian education system for a long time, he has also headed several committees set up by Government of India. In an exclusive interview with India Education Review he talks about various problems faced by indian higher education and the solutions to address them.
Q – You have long experience in the indian education system; could you please tell us something about your initial days, how challenging it was?
Prof. Yashpal – I was associated for quite a while but I got more formally associated when I was secretary, Department of Science and Technology and I got a telephone call from Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister, where he asked me to join as the chairman of UGC; I asked him to unify all the regulatory bodies, he agreed and I joined UGC and got deeply involved in it. Then I tried to retrofit it, I tried to create the inter-university centre, my idea behind this was that if we will begin this way then we will reach a stage where we will start working together. Another thing which I did was that as I was going, I wanted a better person to join as the chairman of UGC for which I proposed the name of Manmohan Singh to the then Prime Minister, Chandrasekhar. I also met Manmohan Singh and he agreed and then he became the chairman of UGC.
After that my involvement with the school education through ‘Learning Without Burden’ and ‘National Curriculum Framework’ has continued. My involvement with various other agencies like Space, Atomic Energy, DST and so on has continued. And then a committee was set up to advise on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education and we suggested that there should be a single commission not separate bodies like AICTE, MCI and UGC because they don’t allow people to work properly across. Unless you move across disciplines you can’t do new things, creativity can’t come. The nature of this particular report is that do not think that the any commission you set up, they are not the controllers (of progress). The real initiative lies with the universities and the universities should be given ultimate freedom. Some resources can be provided and resources can be monitored like these days, in electronic age, mutual funds are monitored and so on. Automatically, you put some money in the university and after a year you can find out what has been spent, don’t inspect everyday and do all kind of things.
Universities should have a different freedom system. In the universities system itself, we very strongly recommended that single discipline institutes are not universities, they can’t be universities. All over the world, great institutions started in one subject but then they expanded and included all the subjects; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, was a technical school and then became a great university, the name is same, and it became a fantastic university; there are many other examples around the world and that’s the direction we need to go and we recommended that.
Q – You said that universities should be given autonomous status. Do you think giving autonomous status to universities will bring in research and innovation in higher education institutions in India?
Prof. Yashpal – That was precisely the reason, unless you have autonomy of this kind and you are free to find collaborations with other universities, with other laboratories rather than wait for agreement from the secretary, the deputy secretary or somewhere that they have no right. Universities can do resources that are required and the commission, which is to be set up, should be of that kind which takes a broad view, say if you are working with them and the project looks fine, says go ahead and do it.
Q – Some experts feel that about 80 per cent of our graduates are unemployable, what are the reasons according to you?
Prof. Yashpal – Well, firstly I think this business unemployability comes from the industry and this is mainly because industries are not research oriented. Lot of our industries are based on what somebody else is doing abroad and you begin to do it again and you copy. If you copy something then you need people who are trained rather than educated and to that extent it is true that our graduates do not get training, who may be able to sit and do work. So, partly it is wrong as all the people who have done our atomic energy programme or space energy programme would have been considered unemployable when they were recruited. They learnt things when they got into the institution but it is also true that education is not being done well because it has became a business; so, it has affected the way it is done in normal government institutions also, particularly because the institutions got interfered with a lot by bureaucracy and secondly, they didn’t had enough resources.
But change is happening; resources are now available in greater amount in various institutions from the government. And I see the change very visibly in various universities and technical departments and so on. I don’t see it yet in large number of private institutions which have come up -engineering institutions, management institutions, they are just for the sake of name. They just show while they do not have enough equipment, enough teachers. Why we don’t have enough teachers, because of another failing, for example, take IITs. IITs are pretty good institutions but their primary focus is to train undergraduate engineers, for whom there is lot of opportunity available abroad. They didn’t train enough research engineers of high quality; they didn’t prepare teachers of teachers.
So, we haven’t prepared enough teachers of teachers who can train ordinary people who will then go to all these colleges. I don’t blame them because teachers are not available. B Techs are teaching B Techs, that is not good way of creating creative new institutions. But this has been recognised and we pointed out this very strongly that the research has to grow. We even went to the extent of saying that our IITs and other such institutions should become universities and that the research aspect has to be increased and research should happen not only in a single discipline but many other disciplines because many people working in many disciplines together make new things, not working in a single discipline, very seldom.
Q – If IITs and IIMs diversify and expand their scope to work as full-fledged universities, will it not dilute the quality of these internationally recognised institutions?
Prof. Yashpal – It doesn’t; if you put other disciplines in technical institutes and also institutes of management, both management and technology will gain. We will develop new type of technology out of new type of science and technology working together. If you want something, not something that already exists… I think unless we start doing something which doesn’t exists anywhere… we are not there yet and that focus, somehow, is not there.
In between what happened was, even in the industry and among some bureaucrats, bringing in technology was considered the same as creating technologies, people forgot the difference. Creating technology is very different from bringing in technology as by bringing in technology you can copy what others have done but by creating technology you can do something which nobody has so far done. And we have a lot of things to do in that particular direction, so my main emphasis always have been in support that we have to create research universities and research means do things which nobody else has done so far and if you don’t do enough of those you can’t really educate people who will innovate.
Q – In your report, you suggested for setting up of National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). Do you think it will work as an independent organisation or will it fall in line with the existing regulatory bodies?
Prof. Yashpal – My proposal was that the National Commission for Higher Education and Research should be a constitutional body; it should be like the Election Commission, which is not under any government department, not in the centre, not in the state. So, there would be few bureaucrats who can interfere, few politicians who can interfere and if you move in that direction then there is a possibility… and add to that, the first requirement is that the universities should be self-regulating bodies; universities are the places where real academics reside. The commission is only for co-ordination and helping as a catalyst not as a Czar, this is the important statement I made that this commission will not be a Czar, it will be a catalyst.
Q – In your report, you have suggested for scrapping higher education regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE, what was the thought process behind it?
Prof. Yashpal – How do you create a new one unless you scrap the old ones? The old ones, we said, should be subsumed. Subsume means people are subsumed. I was myself chairman of UGC; I know what its strength is, what it could do and there are lot of good things it has done and delay occurs all the time and people don’t realise what kind of trouble delay can cause. If you want to do a project, if you want to start a course and it takes you two or three years to do that, by that time, you lose your enthusiasm. People should be able to start doing things. You don’t do research; you don’t do new things. If you get an idea today, tomorrow you will have to call somebody that we have to do it together, let’s find out if we can get resources for it and start, that’s how research is done.
Q – Universities do get lots of fund for research, so how the Commission for Higher Education and Research will help in improving the research scenario in India?
Prof. Yashpal – Precisely by allowing universities and institutes to do research. We don’t think people are terrible and if they are given facilities and possibilities… then, of course, resources would be required, a lot of resources are required and at the moment it seems to be beginning to be available.
Q – But don’t you think that it has more to do with the psychology as we have got into a system where we think research is something different from academics and universities do get fund, still research is very less in India?
Prof. Yashpal – We are born human beings, as clever as any human being in the world; if anybody can do new things so can we, only thing is we shouldn’t stop it. We should create a system in which it is possible to do new things and you see them emerge.
Q – Do you think that too much of political intervention has also played a bigger role in degrading the quality of education in Indian universities?
Prof. Yashpal – Bureaucratic and political. It is quiet common for political people to influence who should be appointed vice chancellor etc. That is why, I wanted it to be that kind of a commission, that unfortunately seems may not come, I don’t know. It’s a pity that it doesn’t come that means that people will always think that the central government, state governments are equally obnoxious in terms of interference, interference is from everywhere and that has to reduce.
Q – How do you think the current situation can be improved in terms of actual delivery of quality teaching?
Prof. Yashpal – Well, if you see, if you are talking of universities, the university teaching improves if there is meaningful research going on. In great universities, lot of teaching is not done only through lectures, it’s because people are working and students are working with the researchers which improves the quality and the rest is that you have to have focus on that and do this. Universities should be a place with tremendous amount of traffic between disciplines, taking one course here, another course there, with a new kind of degree that currently doesn’t exists. No UGC should come that says you can’t give a degree.
Q – What are the key challenges faced by the higher education institutions in India presently?
Prof. Yashpal – The key challenge is there is too much interference, there are not enough resources, and not teachers of teachers are produced. IITs have became under graduate factories, the focus is not on producing researchers and some universities feel poor cousins of IITs, they don’t have enough money, enough resources and so on. I think we have to move in that direction.