Saving Higher Education in Manipur
- Part II -

Prof E. Bijoykumar Singh *

A building at Manipur University (MU), Canchipur
A building at Manipur University (MU), Canchipur :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

There are various ways of saving higher education and every section of the society can play a role in it. The major responsibility lies on the government. However there is a section which has a large stake in the vibrancy and dynamism of higher education and also an equally misunderstood one. That is the students.

In Manipur, the attitude of the students towards higher education has been ambivalent. As in other walks of life, lack of accountability has been common feature. Students can ensure to a large extent that the system works well in their favour. This issue has become important as there are signs that Manipur University Students Union is being revived due to a broad-based demand of the student community. The multiplicity of students' organisations is an indicator of their concern. Despite commonality in objectives, core issues differ thereby justifying their existence and emergence.

Students can be the watchdogs for their own interest. This role can be better played by institutionalising their activity. Beginning from the curriculum development stage to the declaration of examination results there are innumerable points where their watchdog role is important. When I was doing my post graduation in Delhi, there was a students' union in Delhi school of economics which played in a circumscribed area. It was not everywhere.

It was where it mattered most keeping a balance between the need to excel and to be a watchdog. There was an intense debate between the faculty members and students on the relevancy of the curriculum. The students came out with an alternative curriculum which they claimed would prepare them better for the future than the official curriculum. Though I do not remember how much of the alternative curriculum became, in due course of time, part of the official Delhi School of Economics curriculum that was the quality of students' participation. The students became world class economists.

Our examination routine used to be decided in a general body meeting of the students community. There was also respect for the teachers. Every faculty member was a giant in his area. Any discussion of Indian economic policy would be incomplete without their contribution. Prof Sukhamoy Chakravorty, then the busiest economist in India, would be there as if he had nothing to do. Whenever he came from the Yojana Bhawan, the office of the Planning Commission he would come with a heap of books which he would drop in the rooms of the younger faculty members and students like me used to be overawed by his simplicity and knowledge.

One Assamese colleague who entered the central service later on even borrowed money from him. Prof Badal Mukherjii, a student of legendary Paul Samuelson of MIT, would enter the class with a cup of coffee from our coffee house in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The neighbouring department of sociology had Prof Oberoi coming in quarterpants. When the nomination paper of Dilip Cherian, nicknamed cutlet and now an established advertisement guru for the post of the president of our students union was rejected by the returning officer Prof Nagar, a father figure of econometrics in India, on the ground that the addition of the nickname in the paper was wrong, no one complained.

When students were debarred from appearing in the examination, not because of shortage of attendance in class but because of shortage of attendance in the tutorial classes, the students union never interfered. Not a single day was wasted in celebration of teacher's day. Can the student community play a similar role?

Many a times we talk about the inadequacy of the curriculum. But most of the debate ends at the tea stall level. I remember one instance when a students' body in Manipur played a role in curriculum development. When Manipur University was finalising the course structure for the three year degree course, English was proposed to be included as a subject in the first two years. We suggested that instead of having English twice, students would benefit more by having a paper in regional studies.

In the first meeting the idea was not accepted. Then DESAM intervened and agreed that there should be a paper in regional studies. The idea was approved in the next meeting and a committee was constituted to produce such a book. The book edited by Prof Amar is the outcome. Since then, I have been occasionally interacting with them on various matters. I have been telling them that college magazines can be very effectively used to reflect quality teaching in the college. In addition to the usual contribution of the students, there should be a section on the various academic and non academic activities of the teaching community.

The records on teachers attending seminars, taking up projects, publishing books, becoming members of professional bodies and committees are all facets of quality education. Mere teaching is inadequate to deliver optimum results. Education has never been the same after the IT revolution. The idea of fully flexible choice based credit system is, to say the least, amazing. The student can choose the course, the teacher, the timing and the subject combination as per his felt needs. In one forum a participant said the preference of B.E. /MBA combination is giving way to fine arts/MBA combination. The need for proper presentation of products is increasingly realised. One has to appreciate the fact that the market is going to play a role in the choice of a subject.

Why an MBBS degree is considered so desirable? Doctors are in short supply and one can always earn a decent livelihood in private practice also. Here is a caricature of public private partnership- government doctors working most of the time in private clinics. Now many teachers in higher educational institutes are coming to think in similar lines. Many of the lucrative and fast growing coaching centres would not be where they are today without them. I wonder how they are balancing their role in the institution and coaching centres.

What does a good lecturer mean if he is absent in his class most of the time and does superbly in the coaching centre? When I was in Indian statistical Institute for a three month course in computer programming in the early 90s, I saw professors, both senior and junior, signing their arrival and departure in an unattended registrar lying at the entrance of every unit. No one complained and there was no question of compromising one's status. The competition among teachers was in the number and quality of publications. That is academic culture.

Our much acclaimed Biometric attendance can keep a record of one's coming and leaving. One can still play truant in between. A few years back we had a dynamic vice chancellor who had the habit of calling up the heads of department at random at the department twice a day- in the beginning and end of the day. That made every HOD attends the department in time and stay there late.

However many of them would leave after the morning call because they knew that they were not likely to get the evening call. We have teachers who come at 8am and leave at 8pm and yet who are rarely seen taking any class. Thus the role of biometrics attendance is limited.

Students can keep the faculty engaged by taking initiatives in organising extracurricular activities and seeking continuous advice from them. They can start debating society, quiz clubs, subject association, alumni association, departmental journals etc. Now, one can easily avail of the e-journal format to publish anything. Even the college magazine can be published on line at the college website which has become mandatory. The idea is to organise an intensive dialogue between the teachers and the students at every level.

How can a teacher be paid Rs 4000 a day for nothing? I have no problem in a member of my fraternity getting something for nothing. I am worried because truancy is contagious and leads to a vicious cycle. Teacher not taking class, students not coming to class because the teacher would be absent, teacher not coming to class because the students would be absent - this is the classic vicious cycle of attendance in higher education.

However, the beauty of such a cycle is that it can be broken anywhere. Why cannot the students keep up the demand for regular class on the teacher? What does regular class mean? It is like the amazement of the British shopkeeper when M.K. Gandhi then a student asked for milk unadulterated with plain water. The teachers are service providers and they are not paid for irregular service - not even the part timers who are required to put in more labour than the regular teachers.

Why should we expect the government to deliver everything? What are we doing to supplement the efforts of the authority in improving and maintaining quality infrastructure? Teachers can contribute in infrastructure development, as in Manipur University, by taking up sponsored projects. Manipur university senate hall was in a building constructed with funds from the Department of Earth sciences.

When we requested teachers to take up research projects which will augment the college and individual level infrastructure, the blame used to be on the college authority who, according to them, would sit over the fund . Recently I have seen many such project- funds being disbursed in a manner, even better than that in the university. Therefore I have come to regard this as an alibi for inactivity.

The student community should remove this inactivity because in higher education, production of knowledge through research is equally important. Students can ensure that the usual complaint of teachers about the smooth fund flow for projects is minimised. They can persuade the authority to honour such academically active teachers. They can boycott 'contractor' and absconding teachers. Poor quality teaching is as important as crumbling walls.

There are people who think that students are part of the society and therefore should be involved in every social issue. I beg to differ. To me, students are in a specific phase of life where they should learn some life skills. In this competitive knowledge based society being 'jack of all trade, master of none' may not be the best strategy for success in one's lifetime. If one is thinking about the long run, it is a totally different proposition.

To be continued.....

* Prof E. Bijoykumar Singh wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English EditioN)
The writer is at Economics Department, Manipur University
This article was posted on June 08, 2013.

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