The cancer of affiliated colleges: Higher education doesn’t need them

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

It was 1954. This writer was working on a glorified post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, trying in the process to shift to biology which he had never studied, even in school. He was then advised to audit an undergraduate course in genetics given by a professor in his late twenties, Joshua Lederberg.

In retrospect, one can realise that that course played a significant role in my transformation from a chemist (with a background of physics and mathematics) to a biologist. I was surely among the first, if not the first, east of the Suez to have broken the above disciplinary barrier.

Joshua Lederberg went on to become one of the youngest Nobel Prize winners and this writer, during his stay in Wisconsin, made a small contribution to the discovery of the well-known and widely used anti-cancer drug, 5-fluorouracil. This was possible as the University of Wisconsin had undergraduate classes taught by the best and the most famous whose research interests and contributions kept them updated in the field.

It will be difficult to find any well-known academician in the world today who hasn’t had his or her undergraduate training in a university where the undergraduates are taught by the cream of the staff of the particular department, but in our country most of the undergraduates are denied this extremely valuable experience.

For example, none of the 13 universities in Andhra Pradesh have undergraduate classes, nor does the University of Delhi or Jawaharlal Nehru University. On the other hand, we have over 17,600 affiliated degree-giving colleges, a vast majority (well over 90 per cent) of which produce mostly unemployable graduates who have never been exposed to excellence of international calibre in the field. Thus, according to Mr Kiran Karnik, Chairman of NASSCOM, over 70 per cent of engineering graduates in the country — largely a product of the affiliated college system – are unemployable.

This is not to say that India has no good colleges. There are some (though very few) outstanding colleges where undergraduate teaching is excellent and is done by people who have made significant contribution to research; such colleges generally have postgraduate classes and research facilities comparable to a good university. In fact, there is no reason why they should not actually be a university. An example would be St. Alousius College in Mangalore which is, ironically, affliated to Mangalore University when it should be an independent university by itself.

A vast majority of our affiliated colleges are de facto, if not de jure, commercial colleges set up primarily to make money for the promoters, exactly as it happens in industry where the management is expected to make money for the shareholders. Any real education imparted to those who are persuaded to join the portals of such institutions is incidental and minimal that would satisfy or hoodwink the customers who are often ignorant and uninformed.

That is why India has had no Nobel Prize in science or even literature in the last 60 years.

What must India do to get rid of the cancer of such affiliated colleges? Here are some steps: De-commercialise all education — from the primary classes to the university level — that leads to a degree. Do not set up any more affiliated colleges but, by all means, set up universities which satisfy the minimum criteria that would ensure both equity and excellence.

Encourage non-commercial, government-supported private universities set up and organised to meet the stated criteria of excellence. Convert good affiliated colleges (may be 5 per cent of over 17,600 we have) that satisfy the criteria of excellence, as laid down by an appropriate authority, into universities — private or state-run – ensuring that they are not (de facto or de jure) commercial institutions set up to make profit for individuals. They must be provided an initial grant by the government (State or Central) to make up for the deficiencies, if any, especially in regard to research facilities. This would be cheaper than setting up a university de novo.

Similarly, small affiliated colleges in a city that are good and not de facto or de jure commercial institutions could together form a university in which, for example, the faculty would be transferable from one constituent college to another; in fact, one constituent college could have one department and another college another department.

The remaining affiliated colleges may be given three options: to upgrade within five years to a level that would entitle them to be converted into an autonomous university. They should be wound up within the subsequent two years if they do not rise to the status of a good university in the first five years. To convert them into trade-related institutions training people for a specified vocation or trade. To wind up within a reasonable time (not more than five years) with no new admissions from the following year.

We need 3,000 good universities, each with no more than 10,000 students. One can imagine that we could augment the 350 and odd universities that we have substantially (to more than a thousand) by upgrading good affiliated colleges to the status of a university.

Concurrently with the above-mentioned steps towards the eventual dissolution of the affiliated college system, we must bring undergraduate classes to all our universities, and limit the total number of students on one campus to, say, 10,000. There would be nothing wrong in the university having more than one campus as, for example, the University of California has, where each campus is academically and administratively independent.

We have no Central Act today to regulate private universities. The UGC has some rules but they are not stringent enough to prevent the setting up of second, third or fourth-grade private universities. For example, the UGC (Establishment of and Maintenance of Standards in Private Universities) Regulations of 2003 rule out the setting up of commercial universities. This is hardly being followed, at least in spirit.

It must be made clear that this writer is not against private or government-run commercial colleges or institutions that give training in a trade or in a specialised field, such as photography, management, or design. They can give their students a diploma or a certificate, but not a degree. The recognition of a trade institution by society or trade will depend on the quality of the product — its students. It is a pity that India doesn’t have enough of such institutions — in the private sector or the public sector. In the whole country, for example, there is just one National Institute of Design.Trade organisations could have a stake in such institutions.

Finally, the admissions to universities or to trade institutions should be based on merit but with the provision and facilities for scholarships and a bank loan for meritorious students without means.

The cancer of affiliated colleges: Higher education doesn’t need them. P.M. Bhargava. The Tribune, 2nd August 2007.

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