By Shalini S. Sharma
Prof Yash Pal (26 November 1926 – 25 July 2017)
Prof Yash Pal is no more. Eight years ago it was in this month of July that I had first met him at his home in Noida. Soft spoken, with a long snow white mane, a sparkle in his eyes and a benign gaze, he was at that time busy writing a book for children. Even at 82 years of age then, he was the talk of the town as the architect of a new comprehensive recommendation to the ministry of HRD on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education. It was in June of that year, 2009, that the government had accepted the report of the committee headed by him which later came to be referred to as the Yash Pal Committee Report.
By that time, Prof Pal’s name had already become synonymous with a crusader for quality in higher education. It was in 2004 when, at the age of 77, he had filed a case in the Supreme Court against the proliferation of private universities in Raipur district of Chhattisgarh. For a state which even today has only a 2.2 per cent share of people in the 18-23 age group, i.e., of those who are eligible for higher education, to have as many as 97 private universities 13 years back was simply a joke. Specially so because the place at that time did not even have a corresponding industry hub to cater to or demographics to tap into. For some curious reasons related to the politician, land mafia, big money nexus, Raipur had become the den of rogue players who were busy setting up dubious private universities to earn a quick buck from gullible students. It was that time in the history of India when privatization of higher education had just caught the fancy of private players and new universities were mushrooming every day.
Prof Yash Pal raised his voice against this farce and won the court case. The judgement led to the closure of all 97 universities and is till date quoted in any case related to malpractice in higher education.
Following are the excerpts from an interview that this writer did with him while at Businessworld.
“Q: There are many who are in favour of no licences, no regulations in education. What is your view?
A: How can you leave young minds in the hands of fly-by-night operators who only have money to advertise? Some of these so-called universities even put up boards saying ‘Come, pay Rs 25 lakh and get a degree’. There can be no talk of excellence in such a scenario. The edifice of good education is a good institute. Today virtually none of them qualify to be good institutes.
“Q: But then everybody says the sector should be opened up.
A: It is only the people of your community [private sector] who say that.
“Q: A lot of educationists also say that.
A: None of the educationists says this. I am not in favour of constraints but the onus of deciding the nitty-gritty of academics should not be on the owners. They should get out of academics. They have no business being there. Look at the manner the Indian Institute of Science was set up in Bangalore. It was a deemed university. The Tatas provided funds but they withdrew after that. They did not stay on to decide whether it was Raman (CV Raman) who was going to be the head or someone else or which programme was going to be run. All that was left to the academics. The industry can have its own training institutes, nothing wrong with that. They are needed. But they shouldn’t be called universities.
“Q: Should profit-making be allowed?
A: You should make ends meet. You should be able to make as much as is required for running an institute. But as Shyam Sundar, a finance and economics expert at the Yale School of Management wrote in a letter to me, “No university in the world has found a way of delivering quality higher education without government or charitable subsidies. Quality education is expensive. And anyone who can figure out a way of running a world-class (or even an average-level) university at profit deserves at least a Nobel Prize. Since none of the top 500 universities across the world is run without large subsidies, the source of widespread belief in India that investment by profit-seeking organizations—whether foreign or domestic—in higher education will help deliver quality education is a mystery. There is no such thing as commercially viable higher education beyond low-level vocational education.” So none of the universities today has a right to be called a university. They should call themselves a vocational institute and do what they like.
“Q: Is it only a question of nomenclature then?
A: Nomenclature also matters. Upper-class people want their children to have degrees. These training institutes cash in on that, calling themselves universities and including their sons and families in them. The way deemed universities are set up these days is a joke. I myself have heard people say, “I have already set up three deemed universities—one each for my three sons—wondering what to do for my fourth son.” Politicians are involved in this. Let us not play games. The way to go is to take all the good institutes, take all IIMs and IITs—we can easily find at least 40-50 good ones—convert them all in such a way that they are broad-based, develop them, give them tremendous freedom, there should be no UGC, nor any other government body regulating them. They should be able to take their own decisions, academic decisions. If they need money they should be able to requisition it, they should also be allowed to run professional courses without violating the basic character of a university—you should be able to learn philosophy, music, gardening, languages and wonder around and pick knowledge, take credits from one place, utilize them at another, there should be freedom for everything. Then they will really be world-class. If you keep controlling them they will develop dead wood. Only by giving them freedom to set rules for themselves can you allow them to develop as academics, otherwise they will only remain technicians.
“Q: Are you in favour of only government-recognised and government-run institutes being chosen for upgradation?
A: Not government. A National Commission for Higher Education (NCHE) will do this. This will be an independent body, created by an act of Parliament, through Constitutional amendment and will be above central or state government. All other bodies will be washed out. People will remain the same. There is nothing wrong with them, their roles will change. If this amendment is passed it will bring about a phenomenal change. For the first time we have the chance to do that.
“Q: What suggestion do you have on private players?
A: They should disclose their accounts. There should be audits, just as in the case of corporations.
“Q: What about the shortage of teachers?
A: Teachers will grow. Once institutes grow, teachers will also grow. Teachers are like seeds, you have to nurture them.
“Q: That is why most of the good ones go abroad.
A: They all don’t go abroad to first-rate universities. Neither do all those students who go overseas to study. Very few, in fact a miniscule fraction, go to real top-notch institutes. And all the foreign universities which come here seeking tie-ups are as bad as the Indian ones. Some of the good ones may also come, for money. These days people will do anything for money. But will you really get that university environment where you can soak in knowledge? That can’t happen sitting for three months in a laboratory. You learn a lot from ambience, the surroundings of an institute. Otherwise everything these days is available on the Internet.
“Q: Does the government have the kind of resources needed to promote higher education?
A: We have all studied in institutes which were set up by private initiatives. In DAV School we used to go collecting alms for food and people gave. Once you grow, you give back to your institute what you had gained. This was how Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University were set up.”
(The writer is a freelance journalis