Monday, September 28, 2009

Sibal takes on the IITs

NDTV had a debate featuring the president of the IIT faculty federation, Dinesh Mohan, professor at IIT Delhi and Mohandas Pai of Infosys. I had meant to report this on my blog but Abi has pre-empted me with a detailed account.

There are just a couple of other points made by Dinesh Mohan that I would like to highlight. Mohan said he had taught in European and American universities and that the degree of autonomy he had at IIT Delhi was far more than was available in those places. So much for the talk of infringement of 'autonomy'. Yes, Sibal knocked the stuffing out of the IIT faculty's arguments with the strident declaration that the protest was not about 'autonomy' but money.

Mohan made another point that I had made myself in my post on the Yash Pal report: partly, the faculty shortage at elite institutions is the result of senior faculty not being receptive to quality talent coming in.

Let me add: both the IITs and IIMs have used the 'autonomy' argument to gain public sympathy whenever they are at the receiving end of criticism or when government has attempted to look closely into their affairs. As somebody who has been part of the IIM system, I can vouch for what Dinesh Mohan has said: you cannot have greater academic freedom than is available currently in the IIM system. At no point has government made the remotest attempt to infringe such freedom. Moreover, there is virtually no funding constraint on academic exploration, the problem that cripples research at universities.

I do believe that the IITs and IIMs offer the fullest scope possible for faculty to develop themselves as academics. Not only that, we are free to express ourselves on matters of public policy and often find ourselves taking positions contrary to those of government or public authorities and even criticising government. We must give government credit for making this possible.

My greatest fear is that it is the withdrawal of government from these institutions that will threaten academic freedom because then academics would become more subject to the control of management and the boards. Boards in which government representatives are present have never prevented us from expressing our views. But boards in which government is absent and that are run by people from the private sector well may.

Being part of government makes for true academic autonomy in other ways: you have job security; the institutions come under the writ jurisdiction of High Courts, so there is easier recourse against mala fide actions of management; and then there is the whole range of supervision and protection afforded by coverage under CAG, CVC and the RTI Act.

I come back to my old argument: putting in place a governance structure with checks and balances that will adequately substitute the benefits conferred by government presence cannot be done overnight; it has to be a slow and gradual evolution and it has be fully tested before we can contemplate government withdrawal. A governance vacuum in the IITs and IIMs caused by precipitate government withdrawal is for me the ultimate nightmare.


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