I did my economics honours from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College between 1973 and 1976. I was clear that I would sit for the civil services exam. But those days it was very tough to score well in civil services with economics as the main subject. Students who did well in,I did my economics honours from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College between 1973 and 1976. I was clear that I would sit for the civil services exam. But those days it was very tough to score well in civil services with economics as the main subject. Students who did well in economics from the Delhi School of Economics did very poorly in the civil services examination. Therefore, I decided that I would switch over to international relations. I applied to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and got admission in the School of International Relations (SIR); I spent two years there.Those two years were a very unique period of my life. It was a great learning experience and actually in those two years I learnt more about the world and evolved more as a person than I did during the three years in St Stephen’s College. It was a fascinating experience at JNU. It was the post-Emergency period. There was a lot of vibrant politics on the campus. Many students from JNU had gone to jail. There was a lively energetic atmosphere on the campus. There were students following Left, Extreme Left and Extreme Extreme Left ideology. There used to be heady debates and discussions in the hostels, which used to start after dinner and continue till dawn. There were different shades of Marxism all over JNU. I recall attending several of those debates and greatly benefitting from them. The university used to host a number of great speakers from divergent schools of thought.There were also several active groups of free thinkers who were fully aware but not politically committed to the Left ideology. I was one among the free thinkers. The SFI was very well entrenched in the campus. I recall how Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechuri and Jairus Banaji brought in a high level of intellectual discourse during the electioneering process. Issues of ideology, global and national politics dominated these debates. That’s why the learning experience at JNU was vast and varied. The reception area of the main JNU buildingWithin the university, the academic circle was quite vibrant. There were some phenomenal teachers. One of the iconic teachers in the School of International Studies was Professor Ashok Guha who taught me economics. There were other doyens such as Professor Anand who taught international law, Professor S.D. Muni and Dr Pushpesh Pant. There was a whole set of outstanding teachers who helped students to learn and evolve. The quality of teaching was very high.JNU was in the old campus then. After classes, we would go to the library. Next to the library, there was a dhaba where we used to spend time debating and discussing. I used to stay in the Periyar hostel; it had an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. My sensibilities in arts, culture, dance and music evolved in JNU. Inside the JNU libraryJNU, in many ways, was a microcosm of India. There were students from all parts of India. The campus was very compact then. Various departments and schools were not as spread out as they are now. The students from one school used to interact with others. The meeting point was either the dhaba or the library. This is something I don’t see happening now, as the different centres are located far from each other. There is very little interaction between students of different schools. As soon as I finished my masters, I sat for the civil services and I was selected. So I left JNU after two years. If I have to summarise the JNU of my time, a few things stood out — it had outstanding faculty, the students enjoyed a lot of freedom and it had a lively and intellectually vibrant atmosphere. JNU was a great leveller, as it attracted students from a diverse milieu. The kurta-jeans culture, which students wore all the time, brought everyone down to a common denominator, making each appreciative of the others social and economic background. In fact, I made friends from varied backgrounds who have remained my friends till date. That was also a period when a lot of JNU students opted for government services with the commitment of transforming the country and doing something for the downtrodden. In fact, JNU helped students to clear the civil services because of its multidisciplinary approach. That’s where JNU has an edge over others. From the same floor in my hostel one friend, Asif Ibrahim, became the director of Intelligence Bureau (IB), another, Alok Joshi, became chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), yet another friend, S. Jaishankar, became the foreign secretary. Several of my classmates made it to the IAS and IFS and have contributed significantly to India’s growth and development. India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is also a distinguished alumnus of the university.In my time, the vice chancellor, the faculty and students in JNU used to work in cohesion. Quite often, we could see the faculty and students protesting together on some national or international issue. The students used to get arrested regularly. Many of them used to be regularly taken to the Tughlaq Road police station. But the university administration and teachers always supported the students. There was no political vendetta. The VC and the faculty ran the university. It was an epitome of autonomy. I find that the cohesion of my time is missing now. Often, students are on one side, the management on another while the teachers take a different position altogether. The three components must work in close coordination. They must have a common vision on where they want to take JNU in the future.The system of selection of students in JNU has to be improved. The selection system has become very lax over a period of time. The selection must be merit-based. JNU should also start its courses only from the post-graduate level. Only in the School of Languages should they allow undergraduate courses. But the selection process needs a complete overhaul.Whatever be the situation, the university must produce the best students. They have to be best products of the Indian education system. So its very important that the quality of intake is very high and that can happen with a stringent selection process. JNU students must excel in every walk of life. JNU was designed to be a centre of great excellence.To make that happen, the focus must be on high quality research as well. There is a need for focused research and more publications from JNU. There is very little research work being done at present. The number of published research papers is very low.We must ensure that the best teachers from across the world come to JNU. It cannot remain an isolated institution living with its own ideology in its own world. The administration must ensure that students following different ideologies coexist in the university and flourish. JNU must be exposed to the worlds best universities. We must see collaborations with top universities such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT and Oxford.There was a time when BHU was perhaps the best university in India. A Tamilian, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, was appointed the VC of the university only on merit. He went on to become the President of India. Another such university was the Allahabad University, which had several outstanding teachers from South India. This meant that meritorious teachers from across the country were brought into the centres of academic excellence. The selection of teachers was purely on merit. From the mid-seventies, caste, religion and region replaced merit in the selection process. Political intervention started increasing. That resulted in many of these universities losing their old glory and legacy.The rule of merit must be brought back. If JNU has to maintain its legacy, it must improve the quality of its teachers and students. Teachers leave a huge imprint on students. We can build a secure and better future for India by selecting the right kind of teachers.Finally, JNU must work on its strength — a multidisciplinary approach. It cannot be only about politics. We need arts, culture, music and sports to flourish too on the campus. Its many schools must emerge as the finest institutions of higher learning in the world.The writer is an alumnus of JNU and currently CEO of NITI Aayog.