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Through the Looking-Glass: Higher Education in India

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By DR. SATISH C. AIKANT

The point of departure for my writing is Professor B. K. Joshi’s thoughtful and provocative article on the current state of higher education in India (“Against the Grain: On Convocations & the Pathology of Higher Education,” Garhwal Post, 7 Dec.). He has raised pertinent issues about the autonomy of the institutions of Higher Education. As a noted academic and former Vice- Chancellor of a university his cautionary words need to be taken seriously if we genuinely profess commitment to values and standards of education in general and higher education in particular. As rightly underlined there has been a gradual erosion and precipitous decline of academic autonomy and freedom in our universities. Political interference and excessive bureaucratisation of administration are largely to blame for the malaise. As far as the governments are concerned they have been only too eager to control and direct universities, but it is observed that academics themselves have been complicit in their own subordination to politicians and bureaucrats. The close and tendentious relationship between the State and the academia tends to perpetuate the pernicious cycle of unwarranted mutual favours. As early as in 1852 John Henry Newman had dwelt upon the philosophic foundation of the idea of university in his scholarly work The Idea of a University. According to him, the university should be the seat of universal learning. It should represent the diversity in cultures and ideologies. It implies the cultivation of knowledge, wisdom and critical thought which allows the student to lead a balanced intellectual and social life. For Newman, the ideal university is a community of thinkers, engaged in intellectual pursuits not for an exclusively external purpose, but as an end in itself. Based on these general principles each society needs to assess its requirements to frame objectives for its education policy. What the role and relevance of universities in the contemporary Indian society should be is the fundamental question that bothers students, intellectuals and policy makers. University education should enable the students to overcome the barriers of ascribed identities such as caste, class, region, religion, gender and language. In the broader sense, it works as a means of social mobility and helps the deprived to foster a new form of social identity based on achieved status. While the modern university claims to be socially inclusive and unbiased with regard to academic excellence, yet in practice these objectives remain largely unfulfilled. Because power tends to perpetuate itself, a healthy democracy needs countervailing forces (such as the media, universities, NGOs, social activists, and so on) which must be insulated and protected from power. That is why we need regulators like the UGC. But these mechanisms have been completely bureaucratised to the point where they act as subordinate arms of the State or the political groups in power and not as facilitators of vibrant and visionary academic culture. The pursuit of knowledge that may be irrelevant to, or opposed to, market interests is an important reason for maintaining the autonomy of institutions of higher learning. This is particularly true because India does not have a tradition of disinterested philanthropy in higher education, where wealthy individuals and institutions donate resources without wishing to exert direct control on the beneficiaries. In the absence of robust administrative structures and policies most of our universities are not in a position to compete with other top universities in the world. Many institutions of higher education are run by corrupt politicians, indifferent educationalists and white-collar criminals. The control of the administrative bodies by people other than academicians and well-meaning individuals in the society has been a serious bane. In the face of systematic underfunding many public- funded institutions have been commercialised through increased reliance on self- financing courses. The proposed New Education Policy does not involve any binding commitment towards funding on the part of governments. Its definition of autonomy does not envisage optimisation of resources with relative freedom from the market and interference from government functionaries. Public investment in education is abysmally low which leads to provision of relatively poor infrastructure, and insufficient educational and laboratory resources. Various policy measures that entail dependence on the market threaten knowledge creation by undermining core areas of knowledge that may not be immediately marketable. Instead of allocating research funds to institutions, the government is already diverting them to private sector institutions and individual researchers leading to resource crunch to public universities and undermining their autonomy. Relying on the market as the regulator and arbitrariness in deciding who or what is to be funded by the government or the corporate is antithetical to independent thinking and democratic aspirations. University autonomy and academic freedom popularly understood would become casualties in such regulatory regime and governance structure. The Uttar Pradesh Private Universities Ordinance, currently under criticism, stipulates that the government may assume powers to shut down universities if it considers the activities carried out on the campuses to be anti- national, points to a much larger danger. Arbitration on the topics for research, such as the ‘topics of national priorities’ and tagging it on an agenda of a political party, is to destroy the growth of knowledge, and of the mind. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy have been eroded by a culture of bestowing favours on the compliant and punishing those among the academia who express critical opinion. It is unfortunate that discussions on issues are expected to be framed within received ideas and opinions. It appears that it is the political priorities which set and drive educational agenda. Ever since the inception of the universities the disciplines of humanities have had a crucial social role in inculcating and protecting values without losing sight of critical reflection. Their very existence provided the rationale to launch a critique of conventional wisdom. Now the universities have ceased to be the centres of critique. The new role of academia is to service the status quo, not challenge it in the interest of justice, equity, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. Governments are now intent on shrinking the humanities not expanding them. Indeed the humanities are facing real crisis all over the world. If history, literature, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, the universities will be reduced to technical training facilities or corporate research institutes. They will not be universities in the classical sense of the term. We ought to understand that investment in teaching Shakespeare or Tagore does not mean falling behind our economic competitors. Universities are expected to be the cohesive hubs of education and knowledge, with the objective to promote research anchored in the society’s needs. A good educational institution is a body of progressive teachers and thinking students. They are expected to inculcate analytical rational thinking and not be conformists at every step. State support for higher education should in many ways be seen as a way to ensure broad-based support for opportunities. Yet, the politics of higher education has turned such State based systems to become a route to not only politicize education but to also silence and co-opt academics into the agendas of political parties or the State. We do not need populist leaders in the academia. The recent demonization of Jawaharlal Nehru University by the present political dispensation is symptomatic of the contempt for intellectual culture. The university is routinely criticized as the breeding ground of ‘leftists’ as if ‘leftist’ or ‘secular’ is a term of abuse. Any dissent is now seen as anti-national. On the other hand the students need to develop the following crucial abilities: the ability to think well about issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring to neither tradition nor authority. Such an ideal, however, is under severe strain in the present times. The ability to think and argue for oneself looks to many people dispensable. Of course the universities should not become ivory towers or closed enclaves for the academics and students. Imparting education to fit into social and political environments anywhere in the world and establishing international alliances through research and education is part of their mandate. They are accountable to the society at large and cannot get away in the name of autonomy and academic freedom. Instead of remaining insular bodies they must be open to intervention by saner voices whenever and wherever limits are crossed. In 1994 Edward Said, the Palestinian American academic, wrote ‘Nothing is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps an ambassadorship.’ Said might as well have been describing an Indian academic circa 2019.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)