In 1950s, the literacy rate in India was just around 20 percent as access to education was limited to only a small segment. Those who were in schools, colleges and universities were being made aware of the Indian tradition of knowledge quest, the Gurukula system and the reverences in which the Indian society held the guru. Further, the Kulpati was supposed to be the embodiment of scholarship and knowledge, beholder of values, morals and ethics.
Emperors took dust from his feet, and visiting him in his Ashram was a privilege for them. Kulpati is now designated Vice-Chancellors (V-C) in a modern-day university, supposed to be the highest seat of learning and transfer of learning to generations. When India had some 20+ universities, it had V-Cs of the stature of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Dr Radhakrishnan, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Lakhmanaswami Mudaliar, Pandit Ganganath Jha, Dr Amaranth Jha, and several other luminaries.
Now, India is going to touch the 800-mark of its universities. Exceptions apart, young generation of today is least interested in the academic contributions and professional stature of their V-C. They do find out his political affiliations, which helped him to the coveted position, and how he is handling appointments and purchases! They are neither dismayed nor surprised when media reports appear on V-Cs being subjected to inquiries on charges of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement. In some cases, V-Cs were removed, or sentenced to jail. Prevalent public perception indicates that all is not well in the recruitment of the V-Cs, and steps must be taken to bring in transparency in the selection process.
Merit, scholarship, character, contributions and reputation must be the driving ingredients in finalising the process. Unless we realise the criticality of institutional leadership, it is pointless to rue about poor quality of research, inadequacy of innovations and Indian universities not finding a decent place in the global rankings. This applies equally, if not more, importantly to schools and colleges also. And what are the consequences of the absence of iconic leadership in institutions?
The system of governance is managed by highly educated products of our universities. And see what they have given to the nation: loss of public confidence in governance, escalation of exploitation of the weak and deprived, and gross negligence of the life-sustaining bounties of nature! Contributions of the educated include dying rivers, denuded forests, unplanned growth of cities, rush of urbanisation, and shocking levels of neglect of agriculture and farmers. It is the responsibility of the state to universalise access to education. Probably, still higher primacy must go to the quality of the products! To achieve this, the essence of the traditional Indian system that emphasises spirituality and human values must be integrated in the teaching-learning process, under the guidance of right kind of leadership.
Children search for their icons in schools and colleges. Unethical practices erase their confidence and dilute respect for institutions and those imparting knowledge. In several states, board exams are transformed by Shiksha Mafia into opportunities to offer alternative packages in copying; practical examinations in science subjects have become a farce. Other things apart, no lessons were learnt and such negligence has led to the unmanageable crisis of consciousness. The new education policy must draw substantially from the words of Dr Radhakrishnan:
“Intellectual work is not for all, it is only for the intellectually competent.” Only inspired, ignited and fiercely committed leadership could achieve an attitudinal transformation that would lead to educational reforms, the major focus of which shall be on values, ethics and morals. To be effective it shall include substantial reforms in exams, including board exams.
The writer is a former director of the NCERT.