Last year, in keeping with the University Grants Commission’s suggestion, Calcutta University decided to go ahead with the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS). Misgivings were expressed as to whether the university had the wherewithal in terms of faculty and infrastructure to implement such an ambitious agenda for undergraduate studies as envisaged in the CBCS, and if the majority of students could claim to have the proclivity to study so widely different subjects as Psychology and Physics. Calcutta University confidently rose to the occasion and has made it to the top 10 in 2019. It has moved up by several notches from last year to rank fifth in the National Institutional Ranking Framework carried out by the Union HRD ministry. However, there is no scope for complacency; the latest status tag ought to prompt a bout of reflection.

The rankings are based on a number of parameters ~ teaching, learning and resources; research and professional practice; graduation results; outreach and inclusivity; and perception. The grandstanding over the coveted status cannot wipe out the grim facts and one is led to believe that the university, which once had an internationally reputed faculty, highly acclaimed alumni and quality research work has sadly lost its past glory.

The three universities established in the three Presidency towns are the oldest among the 25 that existed in India at the time of Independence. The eminence of Jadavpur University is embedded in the contribution of Professor Triguna Sen. Calcutta University flourished under the guidance of Asutosh Mukherjee. Going by the latest assessment, Jadavpur University has been adjudged next to Calcutta University. Comparisons are odious. The point to consider is whether an institution can be rated as the best. “Advancement of Learning” is the motto of Calcutta University. At a certain point of time, it became merely a huge degree awarding institution with a large network of undergraduate colleges affiliated to it. The country’s premier centre of learning stopped pursuing excellence and started catering to the lowest common denominator. Standards could not be maintained and research languished.

In the 1970s, the university became incredibly sluggish. It took a year to announce the undergraduate results. The decline was further accelerated by the then ruling party in West Bengal. It decided to run the university from the party headquarters. All appointments ~ from that of the Vice-Chancellor to faculty positions ~ were made at its behest. Loyalty to the party was more important than academic merit for securing a university appointment. The infrastructure crumbled. Calcutta University sank to the level of mediocrity. The decadence has been vividly described by former vice-chancellor, Santosh Bhattacharya in his book, Red Hammer over Calcutta University. As often as not, university appointments assumed scandalous proportions. The selection for a professor’s post in the Department of Geology in the 1990s is still regarded as an example of politics determining the quality of education. The appointment was made against the advice of experts and the appointee was neither as qualified, nor as experienced as other candidates. In 1996, three controversial appointments were made to prestigious chairs in the Department of Chemistry. The politicization of such appointments was the norm. In terms of criteria and suitability, there was little or no difference between the appointment of a professor in a university and that of a Class lV employee in the municipal corporation. Thus began a phase of faded and forgotten glory. A look at the merit list of IAS and Central services will bear this out.

Nothing could be more damning than the Governor’s suggestion at the ceremony on 150 years of Calcutta University that retired teachers be re-inducted in an effort to restore trust and to take extra classes. Perhaps he was of the opinion that the present generation of academics is not able to hold a candle to such legendary teachers as Sushobhan Sarkar, Tarak Sen and Bhabatosh Dutta. They were dedicated to build up a generation of students in the Fifties and the Sixties, and not ignore them in the pursuit of other interests.

In the same year, the university disgraced itself by taking examinees for a ride. Questions in the B Com exam were almost a word-for-word repetition of the ones that had been set in a previous year. The exercise illustrated an inexcusable dereliction of duty, absence of supervision and the collapse of what is considered a critical aspect of the examination system ~ moderation. Also in the same year, a team from UGC, on a visit to Calcutta University, found that the institution which they had recently granted the status of a potential centre of excellence, had an awefully dirty campus.

It must be acknowledged that over the past decade, Calcutta University has effected a dramatic turnaround and has even excelled in the overall perspective, notably in such indices as the quality of instruction, examination schedule and academic administration. NAAC has praised the university for its efforts to maintain high academic and teaching standards despite several constraints, but has hauled it up for failing to improve facilities for students.

More recently, the poor results in the undergraduate examination of 2018 in both Arts and Science was a case in point. The slip is showing. The failure of no fewer than 43,000 students in the general stream and the resultant denial of promotion resulted in a stalemate. Ignoring their foremost duty of studying and refusing to respect the rules of the institution, they expressed a misplaced sense of entitlement by demanding their promotion to higher classes.

Excellence cannot be thrust upon an institution. It has recently been acquired by Calcutta University through considerable perseverance and tenacity of purpose. The process of attaining excellence involves the recruitment of outstanding faculty, providing them with resources and facilities in terms of laboratories, libraries, and research amenities. Interlinking its 160 affiliated colleges and strengthening its global networking should be the institution’s priority. Excellence also presupposes the creation of a proper academic ambience that will encourage both the teachers and the taught to strive for the advancement of learning.

Once acquired, excellence becomes integral to the functioning of an institution and then has to be nurtured. Now that Calcutta University has retrieved its lost excellence, it is time to strive further and recover its past glory.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)