JNU Is Reinventing Itself and the IITs Should, Too

Whatever the reasoning behind JNU’s decision to diversify into engineering and management, it seems about time.

JNU's School of Physical Sciences building. Source: jnu.ac.in

JNU’s School of Physical Sciences building. Source: jnu.ac.in

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s premiere institution for postgraduate studies in the humanities and social sciences, is seeking to diversify and introduce new programmes in engineering and management. University officials have already submitted a proposal for the same to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the country’s premier higher education regulator, and made a presentation of their case.

Since this initiative has come under the leadership of vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar, an electrical engineer from IIT Delhi, the foray into engineering may not seem very surprising. Incidentally, his home institution also runs management programmes.

JNU’s attempt to diversify into engineering and management is likely to be widely criticised by the dominant left-leaning JNU students and faculty since the initiative has come from a vice-chancellor appointed by the current government. However, criticisms of this initiative will also be based on the reasoning that the introduction of engineering and management is a deliberate, masterful ploy aimed at diluting the left-heavy student and faculty bodies on the university campus. With the coming of students and faculty in engineering and management, who are definitely not known for their affinities to left-wing ideas, it is quite certain that JNU as we know it will cease to exist. The expansion, if it happens, will definitely transform the culture and ethos of JNU, which may or may not be a bad thing.

Whatever the reasoning behind JNU’s decision to diversify into engineering and management, it seems about time that the institution reinvented itself. Some good things will be lost in the process, of course, but overall, the university will gain more.

Though founded primarily as an entity focused on the humanities (esp. foreign languages) and social sciences (esp. international affairs), JNU today already includes environmental science, life sciences, physical science and biotechnology, among others. Adding engineering and management will further diversify the student and faculty profile of the institution and add to its strength.

The expansion into engineering and management will also help make JNU a better institution in terms of world university rankings since they favour universities with good science, engineering and medicine departments. JNU is already accredited with an A++ grade, the highest possible, by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). It is also placed among the top 10 institutions in national rankings. With the addition of engineering and management, it will likely overtake some of the IITs that currently rank higher.

The reinvention of JNU should be followed by the reinvention of other eminent institutions in the country as well. The IITs in particular must look beyond engineering and try to become more comprehensive institutions. Some IITs, notably the ones at Kharagpur, Delhi, Guwahati (among the older ones) and Gandhinagar (among the newer ones), have already made limited forays into other areas and disciplines. Such diversification must become more widespread across all IITs.

As with JNU, the issue is not one of diversification for the sake of it. There are good reasons to favour the diversification of IITs and even IIMs.

First, higher education institutions, much like state or societal institutions, must evolve with time. The IITs were created at a particular time in history and those times have changed. Their failure to evolve has also meant that they no longer resemble the institutions after which they were modelled, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), most of which run undergraduate and graduate programmes across the natural sciences, technology, humanities and the social sciences.

Second, the IITs (and IIMs) underutilise their resources, especially and including land (this is true for JNU as well). By introducing other areas of study, whether law, business/management, arts and social sciences, and thereby admitting more students, the IITs would make better use of the hundreds of acres each campus occupies.

Another compelling reason for JNU, the IITs and the IIMs to diversify is that these institutions are islands of excellence in a higher education sector that is otherwise quite ‘broken’. By adding more programmes and admitting more students, they will be doing a service to India’s young people, who are desperate for good quality college and university education.

Finally, by diversifying in terms of their programmes of study, premier institutions such as JNU (as well as other central universities), the IITs and the IIMs will only become better institutions – not just in terms of university rankings but also through the strength of diversity in student and faculty numbers.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.