Mohanpur (West Bengal): The Narendra Modi government should show decisiveness of the kind that was on display over demonetisation to depoliticise and revamp regulatory bodies in higher education and research like the University Grants Commission (UGC), a noted scientist has said.
P. Balaram, a celebrated biochemist and educator and former Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), also dismissed as "meaningless" and "silly" the so-called efforts at the "saffronisation of science".
"If you can do that (demonetise), I don't see any difficulty in (taking action) in higher education and research. The most important thing is to immediately do something about the regulatory bodies in higher education, the UGC, AICTE and NAAC," Balaram said.
A complete revamp and depoliticisation of the three crucial bodies was a must as there "needs to be some level of professionalism in education", Balaram told IANS in an interview at the IISER-Kolkata campus here on the sidelines of the Advances in Life Sciences conference. The three-day event has been organised by the institute's Biological Sciences Department.
AICTE is the All-India Council for Technical Education; NAAC is the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.
"Education also comes with the problem that it has a very large private component and so you need to look at private and public institutions separately," suggested the 68-year-old scientist spent 43 years at IISc Bengaluru, including nine years helming the top-ranked institute.
Balaram dismissed claims of "saffronisation of science" under the Modi regime, days after the 104th edition of the Indian Science Congress drew flak for equating science with spirituality.
"I don't take all that seriously. It's good for the press. It's good for the fringe. You can't saffronise (science). It's not going to happen," he maintained.
"It's meaningless. It is silly. After all, in the US there's a big lobby for what is called creation science, they are creationists. Let them say whatever they are saying. How does that matter?" Balaram averred.
Observing the process of accreditation of institutions has become corrupt over the years, Balaram, a Distinguished Alumnus of IIT-Kanpur, blamed interference in the academic autonomy of establishments.
"If you want to accredit institutions you can't have public and private institutions mixed together. The accreditation process over the years also has become very corrupt because of the mushrooming of colleges and this interference in academic autonomy of institutions," he said.
Known for his incisive talks and writings, Balaram highlighted the differences in autonomy in administration and academics.
"In administrative functioning, you are taking money from the government, so you must follow certain rules for spending it and you must pay your people certain salaries; one doesn't want autonomy in that at all. But academic autonomy is what courses you start, what courses have to be recognised and that I think the UGC interferes with," he noted.
Batting for increasing the budget for higher education and research, the veteran scientist recommended the Department of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Human Resource Development work together.
A former member of the now-defunct National Knowledge Commission, Balaram gave high marks to the National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and the first United Progressive Alliance regime of Manmohan Singh for support to expand research.
"The period during which the maximum expansion took place was NDA1 and UPA1. From about 1998 till about 2008, that decade, I think, government was extremely positive. I would give both high marks for expansion as it is an important way for showing interest and showing it's an important activity," he said.
Dubbing as "worrying" the inaction in implementing reforms in the higher education sector, Balaram, known for his penchant for peptides and proteins, said the Modi government appears to be "somewhat disinterested in the area of higher education and research.
"It's not high on its priority. That's also understandable because the country has so many problems. But every country must have a certain emphasis on higher education and research and it's also done by an active interest of ministers," he emphasised.
Balaram did his Ph.D from Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and underwent post-doctoral training at the Department of Chemistry in Harvard.
Likening the perception of rankings of institutions to a "beauty contest", Balaram said figures should be harnessed for introspection and improvement and not for lamenting or chest-thumping.
As for the National Institutional Ranking Framework (launched by MHRD in 2015), he opined: "The national rankings could be used, if you have all your parameters correct, not to grade institutions but to decide the extent and kind of support. By support, I mean all kinds, not just financial but facilitatory and also boosting morale."
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)