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Against the Grain: On Convocations & the Pathology of Higher Education

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By BK JOSHI

As we approach the end of another year and wait to exchange Season’s Greetings and New Year wishes, there is upon us another season of great significance for young graduates, post-graduates and doctoral students – university convocations. These are being regularly reported by newspapers. The Doon valley having emerged as a so-called hub of higher education as it now boasts of a number of universities, both public and private, and professional colleges, we find that many are now busy organising their annual convocations. For graduating students, convocation has special significance; it represents the culmination of their formal education and gives them the right to, either, enter the world of work to earn their living or go on for higher studies. Hence, the celebrations accompanying the ceremony. In order to preserve the solemnity of the occasion there is a certain protocol prescribed. Much of it is derived from the traditions of British universities, where incidentally the term is not used. In the UK, convocation refers to “a large formal meeting, especially of Church officials or of members of some universities” (Cambridge English Dictionary). For an occasion conferring degrees, universities in UK use terms like degree congregations (Cambridge University), or degree ceremonies (Oxford University, UK Open University). Use of convocation for a degree conferment ceremony is claimed to be of American origin according to Wikipedia quoting the American Dictionary. However, US universities now generally use the term commencement. In most foreign universities, these ceremonies are held a number of times in a year, generally at the end of each term or semester, while Indian universities follow the annual routine, even though many have shifted to the semester system in place of annual examinations. Unlike annual convocations in Indian universities, those in foreign universities are largely university level functions geared mainly to confer degrees and diplomas to graduating students. The main role in these functions is played by the academic community of the university. In the United States, important persons or other noted speakers are generally invited to deliver a commencement speech or address to inspire the graduating class by sharing one’s experience, values and advice. In India, we tend to give pride of place to politicians during the convocation ceremony. Unfortunately, most of them don’t have anything worthwhile to share and their addresses are largely pedantic and boring. They lack any reference to the speaker’s own life experiences, values and lessons. In short, these addresses fail to rise above the ordinary and singularly lack the ability to inspire new graduates. It seems that the purpose of convocations in our universities is not so much to focus attention on the main purpose of conferring degrees on graduating students, but to garner publicity for the institution and its head in the hope that some tangible benefits may be expected from the powers that be that hold the reins of higher education. This may sound rather cynical; unfortunately it underlines a serious pathology that has come to afflict higher education in the country. Higher education has not only become politicised in the worst sense of the term, but our universities are also guilty of kowtowing before the political class so that the two feed on each other to the detriment of quality and standards. Today, it has become futile to talk of the autonomy of our universities. They first lost financial autonomy soon after independence; this was followed by an assault on their administrative autonomy. This is more blatant in the case of state universities than of central ones. If we take Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand as examples, we find that universities in these states cannot appoint their senior administrative staff like Registrar, Deputy Registrar, Assistant Registrar, etc. All these positions belong to what are now called a centralised cadre, appointment to which has to be done through the Public Service Commission on a requisition from the higher education department. The services of these officials are also liable to transfer between universities by the higher education department of the government. The university has no role. It is hardly surprising that under these circumstances, these functionaries are answerable to the government rather than the university. The crucial role of the registry in the smooth administrative functioning of the university is quite obvious from the duties, functions and responsibilities of the Registrar, which include organising and administering the records, registration and graduation functions, including evaluations process; responsibility for collecting, recording, maintaining and reporting of student records; resolving student issues relating to records and registration; collaborating with administrators, deans, faculty, IT and counselors to facilitate and improve services to students, and serving as secretary to important university bodies like the Court, Executive Council, Academic Council, etc. In a situation where the Registrar is under the control of the government while being the lynchpin of the university administration and working under the supervision of the vice chancellor and university bodies, the possibility of tension, if not overt conflict, between the two bodies cannot be ruled out. To overcome this dichotomy it is important that the Registrar and his team should be appointed by the university so that they function solely under its direction. This was the situation in the past which provided a long and stable tenure to the office. Recently, a new threat to the autonomy of universities has come to the fore. The threat is to their academic autonomy and freedom. Universities are now being told by politicians what to teach, what to include in the curriculum and what to eliminate. If this tendency is not nipped in the bud, the universities will cease to be centres of independent inquiry and thought. They will be reduced to the status of echo chambers and clapper boys of political forces that may be in control of the levers of power at any point of time. Ideas like pursuit of quality education, engagement with world class knowledge, excellence, and independent thought and ideas would become a chimera and a mirage. To avoid the pitfall of the domination and control of higher education by the government, we must pay heed to the wise words of the Radhakrishnan Commission on University Education 1948: We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, the obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over policies and practices. Intellectual progress demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry. The pursuit and practice of truth regardless of consequences has been the ambition of universities. …Professional integrity requires that teachers should be as free to speak on controversial issues as any other citizens of a free country. An atmosphere of freedom is essential for developing this ‘morality of the mind’.