How it is funded or administered does not decide whether an educational institute can become a centre of excellence. But facts show that the state government’s control has led to the decline of some of West Bengal’s academic institutions which have had a glorious past. The worst case, of course, was of Presidency College during the long reign of the Left Front. It is rather curious that M.K. Narayanan, the governor, thinks that it would be a “loss” for Bengal if the Bengal Engineering and Science University at Shibpur is upgraded to a Centrally-funded institute. Mr Narayanan, who is the chancellor of the state universities, obviously has some of his facts wrong. First of all, the Besu, formerly the Bengal Engineering College, was never in the same league with Presidency College. But the two institutions had one thing in common under the Left regime — the academic standards of both declined irretrievably. In fact, this has been the case with almost all state universities or state-run institutions in Bengal. Contrast this with the state of affairs in the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management or the Indian Statistical Institute. If these have remained islands of excellence, it is not merely because these are funded by the Centre. A more important reason perhaps is that the state government has no control over either their finances or their administration.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister, seems to have grasped the facts about state-run institutions better than Mr Narayanan. Her keenness to see the Besu upgraded to a Centrally-funded institute is more important for the prospects of the old institute’s academic regeneration. Interestingly, Ms Banerjee is not worried about the state’s “loss” if the Centre takes control of the Besu’s funds. She obviously does not think that the issue of reviving the Besu should be turned into a turf war between the state and the Centre. Her attitude is a refreshing change from that of the previous government, which was more anxious to keep its control of higher education intact than to preserve or improve academic standards or freedom. The governor’s remark on the Besu’s new status is unwarranted for another reason. Mr Narayanan is aware of the chief minister’s position on the issue. By publicly airing an opinion which contradicts Ms Banerjee’s, he raises avoidable questions on his understanding of his role as governor.