There can be no one-size-fits-all formula in matters academic. Which is why the West Bengal education minister’s move to introduce a uniform syllabus in science and technology in universities across the state has caused a flutter in the academic roost. In the manner of Kapil Sibal, the UPA’s HRD minister, Partha Chatterjee also appears to be contending with a turmoil of ideas, the frequent shuffling of Vice-Chancellors being one expression of his whims. Small wonder that his signal of intent has been greeted with expressions of alarm that it is an attempt to curb the autonomy of universities. Not that all institutions are autonomous, but every university does have a free hand to devise its syllabi. This freedom is bound to be denuded with the imposition of state-sponsored uniformity. The other deterrent must be that the quality of pedagogy is never uniform, still less the merit of the students. Each university awards its own degrees, and there is no overarching entity to carry out the task. The dichotomy is stark in the case of St Xavier’s College; while the institution is autonomous, the graduate degree continues to be awarded by Calcutta University. Ergo, to float the proposal of uniform syllabus is to proceed from conclusion to premise. True there has been an expansion of the university network in recent years. But there can be no comparison of the universities in rural Bengal ~ many of them without a proper building ~ with for example Calcutta, Jadavpur and Presidency Universities. Not to put too fine a point on it, there remains a huge gap between the centres of excellence and the rest, most particularly in the rural areas. It is one thing to refashion the syllabi periodically to update knowledge; quite another to formulate a straitjacket to determine the quest for learning. Flexibility for the respective universities ought not to be confused with a uniform framework that the government intends to impose.
Furthermore, framing of the syllabus is the pivotal aspect of the academic engagement, and is best left to the university boards of studies and the Higher Education Council… and not the state government. It would be disingenuous to bridge the gap between academics and financial/administrative matters. While the government can and does have a role in the second, the first is the remit of distinguished brains in the academic circuit, of whom there is no dearth in West Bengal. Regretfully, it is the praxis of the government, from one dispensation to another, that has accorded greater weightage to the ruling party's wishes than to academics per se. The University Grants Commission has put in place a broad framework of what is to be taught, but has stopped short of prescribing a model syllabus. The overarching authority’s prescription lends no scope for meddling by the state authorities.