Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Building Universities Should Not Be About University Buildings?

India is building new universities, at least at a rate of one a week. Same is true for many emerging countries. Building universities is seen as the panacea for lack of modernity. The route looks ever so simple: More universities will mean more people in Higher Education, which will mean better skilled workforce and higher productivity, and hence Higher GDP - and everything else will follow.

India is also a great example of what could go wrong with this formula. The universities are being legislated into, but most become weaklings at birth, most with only a few students, limited number of disciplines, almost no research activities and no industry linkages: The prospect for future GDPs don't look that bright. If anything, they hardly herald a promising future and rather stand as monuments of wasted opportunity. 

However, anyone will be impressed if they visit these new institutions. Some aberrations aside, they are mostly shiny new institutions with adequate infrastructure. Visits to these institutions are often like visits to industrial parks, the customary tour of the premises go on for ever. The commitment to building an university becomes clear in the vast array of buildings and facilities, Tennis Courts, Gyms, Swimming Pools, one gets to see: It is only the lack of conversations about usual things, ideas, students, values etc., if noticed, may explain the problem.

But it is supposed to be that way. The regulators, in India, elsewhere, give huge emphasis on building and infrastructure: Indeed, building universities must start with university buildings. Often, the regulatory norms are more about students per square foot than ideas and conversations. And, this is not an Indian problem: The conversations in and of the universities in the West are often the same. However, it is one thing for established universities to be in the real estate game, and quite another to equate budding ones with them. But this is exactly why the regulatory frameworks seek to do.

Where is the problem? I came across the clearest statement of the problem in Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, or more precisely, a quote from Jane Jacobs included there. This is what Jane Jacobs says:

"Only operations that are well-established, high-turnover, standardized or highly subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings...

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings."

Nothing against the shiny new buildings then, but it somewhat explains why these new monuments of modernity across the developing country landscapes are dumb tombstones of disaster. The obsessions with new buildings are often the reason to hand over something that was supposed to be about ideas and conversations to the men who are only interested in square feet. The very nature of the buildings perhaps legislate out 'uneconomic discussion' of the kind universities were supposed to be made of, and turn them into coaching factories. And, by so doing, university making does not concern itself with creation of a new generation of thinkers, but an army of industrial workforce who will soon be out of use by the advancement of technology.

This question has relevance for the Vice Chancellors and University Administrators in the developed countries too, where facilities management and real estate play are often a large part of what they do. But they can still satisfy the 'established operation' qualifier in Jacobs' formulation. The developing country regulations, which has effectively handed over university making to the Real Estate players, are indeed inexcusable: Ironically, it is they who are in the need of new ideas.

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