( Source: Hindustan Times, November 30, 1997 )

Romancing the past

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Old wine, they say mellows with time. Institutions on the contrary, either decay or become rock solid. But, seldom in India have institutions turned one hundred and fifty that are not just romancing the past but also peeping into the future.

One cannot talk about the tradition of technical education in the country without mentioning the University of Roorkee.After all, though a modern university today, its tradition dates back to 1847 when the British realised the need to train technical manpower locally. Called the Roorkee College for the first few years, it was soon renamed after James Thomason, the Lt. Governor of North Western Provinces. The first enginnering college in the entire British Empire, the college was elevated as a university after independence by the Nehru government that was quick to realise the need for specialised educational institutions in independent India. Over the years, the University of Roorkee, now in the final lap of its sesquicentenial celebrations that started November last, has evolved as a modern institution that takes strength from its past, yet has an eye to the future. Says Prof N. C. Nigam, Vice Chancellor, ‘‘we know our rich heritage but do not want to be judged solely for it. We also have to prepare for the future.’’ Walking around the corridors of the main administrative building, built in 1852, one can sense the urgency to face the challenges of a changing world. Ancient ceiling fans hang from high proofs and the walls are ornated with life size photographs of past principals of the college. Yet, modern technology has made its entry and though their presence amid gothic walls appear incongruous, is also indicative of the desire of the university authorities to be not just inward looking. Says Nigam, ‘‘we can not change our facade but we can definitely reorient our interiors.’’

Shaping the future destiny has definitely been one of the main concerns of the university authorities in its sesquicentenial year. Besides the usual focus on celebrating the past, a lot of effort has gone into trying to relocate a space for the university in a swiftly changing world. With globalisation and structural reforms now a key factor, the emphasis here has been on analysing the recent developments in order to envisage the role and position of the university in years to come.

Vision 2020, a project to prepare the university for the developments over the two decades has been one of the main priority areas for the University of Roorkee in its sesquicentenial year and the final document will be formally released during the curtain downing function on November 25. The document, that provides one of the most comprehensive peeps into the future, takes stock of the role of educational institutions in years to come and the nature of technical education. Says Prof Prem Krishna, chairman Sesquicentenial Celebrations Committee, ‘‘we decided that turning one hundred and fifty was the right occasion to assess our past and decide on the course we must take over the next few decades.’’

There are problems of course. Most vital among them being the fact that by the year 2000 a large number of senior faculty members who joined the university during its massive expansion in the 1960s, would have retired. Finding a replacement for them is definitely going to be a major headache. As it is, the scenario of technical education all over the country is hardly encouraging. With other sectors being more ‘rewarding’, the cream of the engineering and science graduates no longer look at teaching as a ‘priority’ profession. This has resulted in a large number of vacancies in virtually every technical institution, including Roorkee.

Coupled with this is the added ‘problem’ of reservation policy that lays down that at least fifty per cent of the new recruits should be from the under-privileged sections of society. This has resulted in faculty positions not being filled up as the majority of applicants from the reserved category do not meet the minimum requirement of holding a Ph.D, degree, Says Prof. Harsh Simval, Associate Dean, Research and Industrial Liaison, ‘‘there needed to be a time gap between reservation for students and the faculty because you must give time for them to come up to a certain level of academic excellence.’’

Besides the paucity of fresh talent, funding is another major cause for concern. The Vision 2020 documents does talk of a scenario where government funding is going to sharply dwindle over the next few decades. The document that Nigam says ‘‘is just a compass and not a road map’’, explores issues like resouces mobilisation and linkages with government and non-government institutions including the industry both within and outside the country. While the exact strategy is yet to finally devised, it is clear that the next few years will see greater interaction between the industry and the university with the emphasis being on sponsored research.

The University of Roorkee also has a problem arising out of its heritage. As Nigam says, ‘‘we have a lot of baggage that has to be off loaded.’’ Ask him what the ‘baggage’ is, he is quick to respond ‘‘the office of the vice-chancellor. It is so ceremonial. I have to go to so many functions that cut into the time I could give to more productive things. Besides, the university is also steeped in the hierarchial system that has evolved from colonial legacy. But it simple has no place in an academic atmosphere.’’

The University of Roorkee is truly changing. In its sesquicentenial year it probably could do itself nothing better than effecting a total change in the mindset. It is best probable gift the university has given itself.