Ram Nath Kovind's election as the President of India will be a red letter day for higher education in the country. His social background will give a further thrust to the plebian ethos in the management of higher education. After formal swearing-in, as a Visitor of all central universities, he will have a big 'knowledge constituency' to serve in the country. A nation is ultimately known by its 'soft power', whose foundation depends on the 'forward linkage' of education, where the President of India will be a presiding deity. In view of President-elect Kovind’s contribution in the realm of higher education in Bihar where he was the governor, he is expected to act as a strong catalytic agent in triggering an educational renaissance in the country.
Kovind was not known to us before he became the governor of Bihar. Even after he assumed office, we were not particularly attracted, because the office of the governor was in extreme disrepute in Bihar. Many governors preceding him had sullied the image of the highest constitutional office of the state. We thought that he may be from the same pedigree and kept a distance from the governor's office. But then there was a dramatic change in our perception. We had invited Vice-President Hamid Ansari to inaugurate the 2nd Silver Jubilee Conference of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) on 'Social Statistics'. As the constitutional head of the state, governor Kovind was also invited. In the inaugural session, Kovind’s speech was a landmark event, forcing us to take notice of him. After that we had several rounds of discussion on higher education in the state and the country, including its critical component of research.
Later, we also came to know that he was a close associate of Morarjee Desai, a man known for the highest disciplinary standards in public life. As the chancellor of all universities, he slowly started revealing his Morarjeean traits, which got reflected in the higher education administration of the state.
Within a very short period of his tenure, he started taking notice of the ills affecting higher education in Bihar. He spoke candidly and frankly, not to embarrass the state government, but as a 'nurturant task master' to control and streamline a truant system. Fortunately, financial liquidity was not a problem in the university system, unlike in earlier times; the state government was very mindful about it. Even though governor Kovind was an NDA nominee, he tried structural changes in higher education by taking Chief Minister Nitish Kumar into confidence. There was no element of confrontation with the state government on innocuous issues. He allowed the then vice-chancellors to complete their tenures, but some of them who flouted legal norms were sacked unceremoniously. The most distinctive contribution of the governor was that he initiated the process of appointment of vice-chancellors in a transparent manner. He appointed distinguished 'search committees' to shortlist the names and personally interviewed the shortlisted candidates. For the first time in recent times, vice-chancellors were selected without quid pro quo, which had become the norm, during the tenure of earlier chancellors.
That was not the end of the story; the selected vice-chancellors were exposed to lectures on the issue of challenges in higher education by academic luminaries such as Deepak Nayyar and YK Alagh, successful former vice-chancellors of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University, respectively. Interestingly, both the governor and the chief minister attended those illuminating lectures.
Continuing the trend, it is expected that higher education will be on the highest national agenda of President-elect Kovind. We are sure he will be able to replicate some of the positive experiences of Bihar at the national level. Unlike president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan or president Zakir Hussain, President-elect Kovind is not from formal academics, but from the experience of his Bihar stint, it is safe to assume that he will more than make up for it by his bottom-up approach to the administration of higher education. Being a man of 'consensus', he will be able to give a healing touch to all the central universities by establishing a dialogue involving the state, civil society and corporate India on the issue of higher education. The sagacity that he displayed in Bihar should be extended to the selection of vice-chancellors of the central universities.
No country in the first world has reached their present elevated status without promoting front ranking centres of higher education. Any innovation, whether in natural or social science is a product of the university system. Registration of 'patent' or publications in peer-reviewed journals is the benchmark by which the academic standard of a university is measured. For example, the highly prestigious National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in the US is sponsored by the Rice University in Houston. India will arrive authentically in the 'knowledge' world when scientists are celebrated as much as billionaires – with scientists being one perch above in the pecking order.
Let’s hope President-elect Kovind's tenure as the head of our country’s higher education administration will bring a new lease of life to higher education in India and create a global benchmark.
The author is member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna.
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2017 08:59 AM