The West Bengal government has at last steered through the state Assembly the legislation conferring university status on the 193-year-old Presidency College of Kolkata, thus ending an epic, nearly four-decade battle to secure for it the autonomy it deserves. As the institution is known for its excellence, not just in India but also beyond the country’s shores, its travails in seeking to stop being a government college are relevant for the whole country and provide an abject lesson in how not to run higher education.
The development is a pointer to the political upheaval that is engulfing the state. The state government woke up only when, late last year, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee added her voice to the long-standing campaign for autonomy. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, an alumnus himself, had wanted to get this done long ago but his party, the CPI(M), had opposed it. The reasons for the initial opposition and the recent volte face are revealing. Since the late 1960s, the dominant Left forces in the state have cared less for academic excellence and more for their desire to control higher education and appease the government college teachers’ union, which was against any special status to Presidency College.
Attitudes have changed because the prospect of defeat in the Assembly elections next year stares the Left Front in the face. Particularly humiliating is the loss of support among the state’s intelligentsia, after the violent incidents in Nandigram over land acquisition. Once Ms Banerjee added her voice to the demand for autonomy, it saw merit in usurping an emotive issue for the state’s educated middle class. Otherwise, if Ms Banerjee and her party were to win next year, the Left would have offered her on a platter a chance to deliver a popular measure and take all the credit. The one-upmanship at play is clear from the fact that, after having asked for autonomy status for long, the Congress-Trinamool Opposition in the state opposed the passing of the Bill on the Assembly floor, demanding greater scrutiny.
Full university status will not be a password to academic excellence. A great deal will depend on who the government will appoint as the new university’s first vice-chancellor, till the electoral arrangement provided under the new law can be set up. Also, Presidency University will be no different from other state universities across the country, which have state politicians meddling in their affairs, invariably to the detriment of academic standards. The university’s budget will have to be approved by the state government, the difference being that it will be able to secure endowments and funding independently and not include what it does with these in the budget. This something will be better than the earlier nothing.