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Leave Education Alone

It is reassuring to hear that the Sarbanda Sonowal government has no plans to downgrade Assam Women’s University (AWU) to a technical institute as was alleged earlier and that led to widespread protests by students across the State, earning solidarity from elsewhere too. Last week, Assam Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, on the line of fire by students and others, made it categorical that the government was not nursing any desire to downgrade the existing status of the university and that a new law should rather be put in place for its betterment. On Friday, Assam Assembly Speaker Hitendra th Goswami, who had a tough time controlling the ruckus in the House over AWU affairs on Thursday, also said that “the present status of AWU will remain intact and there will be no dilution”. Even the expert committee constituted by the higher education department of the State in 2017, in its report submitted to the government the same year, had strongly recommended that AWU be upgraded to an affiliating university as we reported yesterday. “The committee does not recommend its (AWU’s) merger with other institutes in view of the increased thrust on women’s higher education,” it had observed. All of this – the government’s assurance and what the expert committee has held – must now put an end to the brouhaha over mere speculation as to what might befall the lone women’s varsity in the Northeast. Sense must prevail now.

This brings us to the point on which we want a serious and informed debate – for the sake of education in a region pitiably starved of any meaningful education. This is not just an Assam issue, it pertains to the rest of the Northeast too. For one, politics has always played the biggest spoilsport here as politics enters campuses in the form of students’ leaders leading unions with fledgling but firm political ambitions; they would wait impatiently for their times to come in the corridors of power. They are pampered and patronized by their political masters outdoors. As anyone can see, student unionism is more about political ambitions than about issues related to education. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most influential politicians in the northeastern region were influential students’ leaders too, such as the Assam Chief Minister who presided over arguably the most powerful students’ organization of the region, AASU. The AGP is manned mostly by former AASU leaders. 
For another, it is not just about students in their avatar as would-be politicians indulging in political games in campuses as dictated by their political masters outdoors during elections to students’ bodies, but also about politicians hell-bent on scoring brownie points over issues of immense gravity and ramifications related to education, such as the one that has hit Assam over the AWU state of affairs. The commotion in the Assam Assembly last week over the Speaker’s ruling that did not allow former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to make his point as the latter wanted to counter the AWU-related allegations fired at him by the State Education Minister, with both the ruling party and Congress MLAs rushing to the well of the august House without bothering to maintain the much-needed decorum, was in very bad taste – the people of the State were watching them on their TV screens, the lawmakers should not forget. It was politics as usual, with charges and counter-charges being traded in full gusto without anyone having to bother about the root and genesis of the problem in the first place and a meaningful resolution of the vexed issue affecting the AWU student community facing a precarious future. This must be avoided in the future so that education is left alone for education in the real sense to flower and flourish without the ills of politics as usual. 
 
Innovation as Key 
On Friday, Prime Minister rendra Modi made a big comment on innovation and its need for a new and vibrant India to evolve and make its mark intertiolly. “Innovation is not merely a word or an event. It’s an ongoing process. You can innovate only when you understand a problem and try to find out its solution. We must go to the root of the problem and find out its solutions… In the era where knowledge is power, innovation is the driver of growth,” he said as he addressed engineering and magement students at the grand file of the Smart India Hackathon via videoconference. He also gave them the mantra of IPPP – Innovate, Patent, Produce and Prosper. This is refreshing, coming from a man whose intentions seem to be right and whose vision seems to be laden with pragmatism too. But he would do well to also encourage the kind of innovation he has mind in the centres of higher education and research – universities in particular, which are so desperately crying for autonomy. True, 60 universities have been given autonomy recently, by virtue of which they can introduce trans-discipliry studies and research, set up off-campus centres, fix salaries according to merit, and recruit foreigners too, of merit and proven record, in their faculties. This can be instrumental in bringing about innovation in higher education and research, which is much needed. But more needs to be done, and sooner the better. A beginning can be made in leadership. Which brings us to the vice chancellor issue. A university must have a leader at the helm of affairs who can lead it towards a goal of high-quality education and high-end research through the route of innovation. Such leaders are lacking in the academia in general. And they cannot be political appointees. They must be men and women of leadership excellence, proven over time. Can this be done? 

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Ankur Kalita