Dr. Suranjan, VC, Calcutta Univ: “Qualitative growth is must”

For Calcutta University being old could be both blessing and burden. This university is deeply rooted in the history of being India’s first university. For the vice chancellor, Prof. Suranjan Das the real challenge is to blend both tradition and modernity in the university. This history teacher looks at semester system as a modern cliché. When his class comprises 150 students and 40 of them come from muffasil areas, he gets upset on how to rush syllabus for these students. “Students from these areas require continuous evaluation.” He strongly feels that universities must focus on qualitative growth but not at the cost of forsaking the principle of social empowerment.      

Q. You are the oldest University in India. Do you think you still hold your old charm?  
Absolutely. Our university was established by British as the first modern university. The Calcutta University was modeled like London University, where it has the same Senate house and other structures.  It was established with sub colonial interest, so the emphasis was on the conventional subjects. Once Calcutta University entered the field of emerging areas, the whole set of academics was developed. We are pioneer in terms of teaching learning process that contributed to the development of Indian science, technology, engineering, history and politics.

I believe that one has to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. There is a general trend that everything that is old is bad. Our university does not entirely follow the trend.  Today you have virtual universities which emphasize on virtual learning. Here the relationship between the teacher and taught is minimized. In contrast, Calcutta university have adopted the modern system but not at the cost of minimizing the direct relationship with teacher and taught. 

Q. Indian education system is going through a transition phase. What’s your take on new teaching and evaluation mechanisms? 
A. I feel semester system is modern cliché. If semester system is created without meeting proper infrastructure, then benefits of such system is enjoyed by microscopic minority of students. I will not create a system where the fruits only go to the privileged lot. For instance, the normal class strength of students is 150 in each social science, commerce, humanities departments. Sometimes the strength goes beyond one section. I teach history and I find that out of 150 students, about 40 come from muffasil areas. Students from these areas require continuous evaluation.

Usually, the metropolitian students get the major advantage at the cost of other less privileged students. We believe in expansion in tune with equitable distribution of education. The focus should be on qualitative growth but not at the cost of forsaking the principle of social empowerment. For example, for the past 2 decades we have not increased the tuition fee as we feel education is social capital.

Q. Bengal is known for its rich heritage. But state faces grave challenges, like an enabling environment for industry does not seem to exist, and the political parties keep encroaching upon every space. How far it has affected your university?   
A. Since Calcutta University belong to classical mode, so we were late in having industry university partnership. We have joint collaborations in terms of research but there is a caveat. When there is a joint collaboration of industry and faculty then 70% of the returns go to faculty members and 30% comes to the university. So faculty members exist because of university. We have been promoting university education partnership programmes but not at the cost of forsaking university’s academic interests. The time has come instead of blaming entirely on university community; I think we should critically look how industry is looking at higher education sector. In abroad, the major part of R&D comes from industry.

I am not against public private partnership, but there should be qualitative difference between public private partnership and commercialization of higher education. Unfortunately, in the name of encouraging private capital to play leading role in higher education, there is threat on commercialization of education. Industry has to play a pro active role. The collaboration should not be only in the lines of profit, rather it should involve the true spirit of social responsibility.

Q. Today state universities are in crippled condition. Is Calcutta University experiencing the same pain?
A. If you look at the annual report of MHRD, you will find that there is strong regional variation of higher education. In northern India, the level of higher education is much higher than eastern or western India.  It is not because my students are less qualified. I feel input output ratio should be the most important parameter for judging quality. The universities in Western Bengal are not doing badly.  If you look at the list of 14 universities which UGC have identified as Centres of learning, the majority of them are from state universities. The major issue is that state universities are not getting the deal that it should get from the central funding agencies. At most state universities, the teacher student ratio is not favorable. The reason is simple. Although we call ourselves as federal country, but most of the grants go to central universities. 65% of UGC budget goes to central universities which is 40 in number. Unfortunately state universities are more than 400 in number.   

I cannot give single paisa to my faculty members unless they get grants from funding agencies. So retaining good faculty is a major problem. You cannot blame young faculty if he/she opts to go to central university and do not come to state university. Another is student teacher in take. In my university, any major department consists of 300 students with 15 faculty members. So this is not the way to develop higher education or bring in semester system. I cannot bank on state governments as they themselves are facing lot of financial problems.


Q. How can we improve the situation?
A. If I need to go for fundamental expansion, then I need space which is tough to get in Calcutta. The number of affiliated colleges under Calcutta University must come down. We have about 174 colleges dispersed all over West Bengal. The time has come to set limit to number of colleges. I am not against affiliated system, although it has plus point because it has multiplier effect. Through affiliating system I can easily reach 10,000 students in Delhi and other universities in the country. But the size of colleges affiliated to universities should have certain parameters.
Recently under the initiative of UGC, a new scheme is introduced which is called Rashtriya Uchu Shiksha Abhigyan (RUSA). It says that state universities will be directly funded by central government. If that happens then we can make a remarkable difference. State universities will eventually develop. The education should be dispersed in a manner that visions are not deprived, but rather be uniformly treated.    

Q. Private colleges are expanding like wild fire where state universities failed miserably.  Your take.
A. There is a strong divide between elite education and popular education. The setting up of private colleges doesn’t mean dispensing the social corporate responsibility. The social cooperate responsibility means lending the helping hand to state to ensure expansion of education goes with principle of equity and justice. What has happened at Gujarat is privatization of education. Most of the higher education in Gujarat is run by trust, which cost bomb as tuition fee. In America, most of the Ivy League universities are privately owned. But there is a strong philanthropic background of private universities like Havard, MIT or any others. In India, private institutions are not essentially motivated by philanthropic philosophy, barring missionary institutes.

Q. So what keeps you moving as VC of Calcutta University? 
A. I look at my work as job of public servant. I get the salary from the society, so I have social responsibility. I cannot satisy every stakeholder, but if I can satisfy one stakeholder, a student, teacher or office staff then I am contributing to the common good. I need to repay my debt to the society. Calcutta is the poorest but brightest university.  

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