Specialized Universities in India: Do we need them?

There is very little doubt that India needs more Universities to meet the rising demand for higher education. It is also clear that the resources required for the establishment of such universities are not available with the government and thus entry of the private sector is a welcome move in this direction. Lately, I have been witnessing the growth of specialized universities in many States both in the private sector and in the public sector. The question that has come to my mind is does India need specialized universities in the first place?

In order to address this issue, it is important to first understand the concept of a university and what it is supposed to do. A university is a fairly broad concept which encompasses the study of the world that we live in and are mostly founded on a liberal arts foundation. Traditionally, the subjects of the study included science, mathematics, language, logic, rhetoric, religion, philosophy, astronomy, astrology and warfare. Over time new subjects and areas of study got included in the focus of university education. The universities provided a very broad-based education with an interdisciplinary approach. As students moved up the ladder of higher degrees, they could begin to specialize in the study of particular disciplines but had a very strong grounding in general education as well.

History is evidence that universities were centres for creating and spreading knowledge in various areas of study and had a very broad base for study and research. Over time some of the departments or schools began to overshadow other departments in the university due to their work. This trend has continued to exist even today and many universities are known by either the school of engineering, school of law, school of business, etc. So it was always possible that universities could attain the status of a centre of excellence in certain areas of specialization and still retain the character of as an interdisciplinary university.

The question that we need to address at this point is that if the general definition of a university allows for any area of study to create a centre of excellence within the university and become known for it, then, what the need for specialized universities is. I can understand specialized institutions such as Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. However, these are not Universities but are specialized research centres of the country.

One of the most important concern for specialized universities is the method of funding them. Those that are in the public sector will have to be funded by the government and those that are in the private sector have to be self-financed. It is very evident that the number of degree programs and thus the number of students in specialized universities will be very limited. It will be almost impossible for specialized universities in the private sector to generate sufficient funds for their operations. So the trend has been to see many private specialized universities spreading their wings to offer degree programs in areas other than their specialization by twisting the name of the degree programs so as to attract more students. In the public sector, these specialized universities will become a drain on the State treasury and will land up being in the same financial mess as other public universities.

The worst part of the idea of creating specialized universities is the loss of the interdisciplinary character of universities. I do not foresee any future for such universities in India and they will continue to be a drain in the public sector and in the private sector, many specialized universities have already started asking to be converted into a university with general status.

I hope the government has a re-look at this concept and does not destroy the very fabric of a good University System.

Prof Kamlesh Misra

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