On December 24, 1964, members of the Rajya Sabha were asked to consider a bill for the creation of a new university in Delhi. Moving it as the Jawaharlal Nehru University Bill, the education minister Mahommedali Currim Chagla made a passionate plea for making it a “unique” university as a memorial to the life, work and ideals of India’s first prime minister. But parliamentarians were dissatisfied, both with the name and the relatively tepid blend of uniqueness proposed by Chagla. The bill was, therefore, referred to a Joint Select Committee.

The committee’s report, submitted on November 3, 1965, provided the context for the stimulating discussion that followed. What would be the state’s role vis-à-vis the university and vice versa? What would make it truly “Indian”, “relevant”, “excellent”?

Reimagining the university

Two notes of dissent to the report, both of which objected mainly to dedicating the university to “fulfilling the ideals” of Nehru, initiated the fashioning of a truly radical conception of what an Indian university would be.

One, HN Mukherjee and PK Kumaran said, a university must be a space for “systematic thought”, free of “partisan pressure which might stifle intellectual creativity”. It must create a community, “a continuing membership of minds devoted to the tasks of learning and of the good life…inspired by love and guided by knowledge”.

Two, M B Lal and H Barua noted, it cannot be a “church” or “caged in the cult of a prophet or any great man” because it “must represent all of India in its totality”.

When the committee’s report was tabled on December 1, 1965, Chagla told the Rajya Sabha that they had crafted a university of “an entirely different and new type”, quite distinct from the 70-odd universities that existed in India then. Nothing in this university would be a “replica of existing universities”. It would teach all that other universities did not, making “special provision for integrated courses in humanities, sciences and technology”. It would establish departments “for the study of languages, literatures and the life of foreign countries” to inculcate in students “a world perspective” and “international understanding”, and its doors would be forever open for “students and scholars from outside”.

Autonomy in all curricular, pedagogical and research matters was fully guaranteed because Chagla was “certainly not in favour of making the university a department of the state” and believed that “the cause of education would be lost in the country if the autonomy of the universities is undermined”.

Who would be the students in the new university? Most of the passionate advocates of setting up this unique experiment were Oxbridge trained but their political commitment had convinced them that in newly independent India, higher education had to play a socially transformative role. But this would only be possible, as G Ramacandran argued in the Rajya Sabha on December 2, 1965, if we “let education in this university be one hundred per cent free for a thousand of the best young people we can select” and make it a “post-graduate residential university restricted to one thousand students of the highest calibre”.

Why, though, did India’s parliamentarians, 18 years into independence, feel the need to imagine the university anew?

The answer largely lies in their experience of the University Grants Commission.

JNU students protest against the UGC for reducing the intake of research candidates. Image credit: HT

Threat of uniformity

Introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 30, 1954, the University Grants Commission Bill envisaged a body for “the coordination and determination of standards in universities”. It was, however, roundly greeted with hostility for encroaching on university autonomy.

An early salvo was fired on February 22, 1955 by Renu Chakravartty. “Autonomy for free scope for the development of university education, according to the needs and traditions of a particular university must not be interfered with,” she said. “For instance, the Lucknow University may say that it would like to specialise in sociology, or may decide to have a special type of education most suitable to women. The Calcutta University, for instance, may like to lay special stress on domestic science; or some other university may choose to specialise in some other subject. Standardisation must not lead to stereotyping.”

The pervasive anxiety in the Lok Sabha caused the bill to be referred to a Joint Select Committee. On its return, and despite curtailment of the UGC’s powers, parliamentarians remained sceptical of the government’s intent. They spoke against the imposition of uniform standards and questioned the very idea that the UGC could be qualified to set these standards.

The bill was eventually passed but not before the government clarified that it had no intention to undermine university autonomy. In the words of the deputy education minister K L Shrimali, the UGC was meant to combine “freedom with planning”. The government had the duty of “reorganising universities and putting these houses of learning in order,” Shrimali argued, adding, “I can assure you that the autonomy of the universities will be secure.”

In the following years, however, the UGC’s annual reports made it painfully clear to Parliament that “coordination and determination” of standards in universities was no simple task. Several kinds of degrees were being handed out and several standards of qualification followed. A major challenge facing the UGC was to persuade the universities to accept the three-year bachelor programme as the standard, with eleven years of schooling as the eligibility. By 1965, only 46 of the 71 universities in the country had been successfully cajoled.

In the course of debates on the UGC Act, many parliamentarians had asked for expansion and innovation of university education to be mandated among its prime duties. But by the time the UGC’s first annual report was presented in April 1958, it was clear that neither expansion nor innovation would be on the agenda soon. By the early 1960s, the UGC, operating then as now in straitened circumstances, could come up with only two recommendations — stop opening new colleges and universities and reduce student enrolment.

JNU’s research standards, programmes and outputs have consistently been judged to be quite excellent by its peers, and by the metrics that a hostile government has decided to institute.  

Parliament rued that nothing new was being attempted in Indian education, and that the UGC’s policy was being dictated solely by the emptiness of its coffers. The quality of universities had undoubtedly declined but wasn’t the solution to spend more, rather than less, on education?

Over the next few sessions, parliamentarians protested that access to higher education, especially research, was limited to the rich. Bhupesh Gupta and Govinda Reddy angrily demanded that there should be no restriction on admissions. Rukmini Devi Arundale and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur wanted expansion of residential universities set away from the cities. Some others demanded free or fully-financed education for the poor and rural students.

It was the combined effect of these discussions on the establishment of the UGC and its annual reports, and the desire to innovate, to create a place of excellence where standards could be evolved without reference to existing priors that led to the Jawaharlal Nehru University Bill.

The policy masterstroke lay in recognising that innovation and excellence of standards in higher education were inextricably linked to the equity of access and democratisation of university structures.

Exceptionally excellent

Though it was the UGC that had called for setting up another university in Delhi in 1960, once the Joint Select Committee had woven its magic, it was no longer in the loop. After JNU was established, the UGC’s annual reports faithfully recorded the growth of the university’s innovative programmes, the acquisition of land for its campus and its own disbursal of grants to it. JNU’s experiments with knowledge and standards were never interfered with, however, and the university was listened to patiently.

In fact, as late as 2009-12, when JNU’s research student-to-supervisor ratio shot up because it faithfully implemented the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, the UGC did not penalise the university for not adhering to the limit of five MPhil and eight PhD students per faculty member. It did not object to the logic that in a research university with a multitude of departments that do not have bachelors or masters programmes, keeping to such a ratio would mean a waste of resources.

So, was JNU treated with laxity by the UGC because of its left-liberal ethos and proximity to those in power? Quite the contrary. (JNU students certainly have not been friends of any regime.) It was because its research standards, programmes and outputs have consistently been judged to be quite excellent by its peers, and by the metrics that a hostile government has decided to institute.

That JNU has done well is a testament to how right India’s parliamentarians of 50 years ago were when they decided that plans for academic excellence were best built on the bedrock of democracy and justice.

While JNU struggles every day to ensure that the small and successful experiment that it is survives, it is the UGC that has strayed far from the intention behind its creation, which, in the words of Shrimali, was to build “a kind of partnership between the government and the universities and to ensure that there is no rivalry between the universities and the government”.

It is time the UGC revisited its legislative history and recognised the role it must play. The words of SS More, spoken in the Lok Sabha on February 28, 1955, may provide some guidance: “Education is not some dead material which could be lumped up and given some final shape according to the wishes of the Central Government or any other Government. It is a live thing, integrated with the lives of the people, integrated with the lives, aspirations and social conditions of the people. Any attempt to create a dead uniformity will be an attempt to create a stuff which has no life, which cannot expand.”

Ayesha Kidwai teaches at the Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She serves as president of the JNU Teachers Association.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly.