Many universities and colleges seem unable to stop ideological conflicts from degenerating into violence. Violence against oneself is also no longer uncommon, indicating despair among youth. Indifference towards opposing viewpoints is not new in our campuses, but it seems to have mutated into a general feeling that it is pointless to debate on certain matters with certain kinds of people. An atmosphere permeated by the futility of discussion does not augur well for the future of higher education. If this is a sign of crisis, it is surely neither new nor incidental.
Not many people recognise the magnitude of the damage that the system of higher education has suffered during the recent decades at the hands of successive governments. In official circles, there is no consensus whether it was damage at all. The general public also seems unaware of the damage although many older citizens can recognise — and they sometimes complain about — a decline in standards.
In any case, only a small proportion of the population is directly concerned with higher education. For most parents, higher education has importance because it gives eligibility for higher status jobs. They don’t know that most colleges and universities are silently coping with a crisis caused by financial starvation, neglect and decay. As for the young themselves, their discontent does occasionally turn into protest, but their highly-politicised organisations turn every protest into an ideological conflict, thereby neutralising its potential for inspiring reform. The same can be said about teachers’ organisations.
Higher education is called “higher” because it has an intellectual role to play in social life. It provides and manages the space where common curiosity can lead to specialised inquiry and ideas can be debated imaginatively and freely. Accommodating divergent positions and permitting dissent from the dominant view are important functions that institutions of higher education are supposed to play. But many universities and colleges have little capacity left in them to perform this role today. They are unable to provide and nurture an intellectually stimulating environment, even inside the classroom. Young people who feel frustrated or bewildered by this situation need to learn about the past few decades during which the intellectual functions of higher education gradually diminished.
Comparison with the past is seldom valid, but it is useful because it gives us a perspective. By today’s standards, India’s higher education system in the 1960s was rather small and socially quite narrow. Teaching was the focus of university life; research was perceived as a professional achievement, not a requirement for academic employment or promotion. Nurturing an open, reflective mind was not a conscious agenda. Many teachers promoted it, struggling with the constant pressure of an entrenched exam culture. Administrators knew that they were in charge of an oasis, and some of them actively protected its privileges as a liberal space.
By comparison, universities today serve a socially-diverse clientele even though their ethos is not exactly inclusive. Few administrators perceive their institution as a liberal space. Change in the social and political milieu has eroded the university’s confidence in its role and relevance. The State’s perception of its financial responsibility towards higher education has radically changed. Government grants now constitute a small proportion of the budget in a vast number of state universities. Most of them are clueless about ways and means to fulfil their basic needs with dignity.
Explaining the loss of institutional autonomy and teachers’ intellectual dignity is not difficult. Forced reforms have played a crucial role, and a new financial regime has facilitated them. Imposition of the semester system was resisted across the country, but State authorities interpreted the resistance as an assertion of inertia. Undoubtedly, international pressure to follow the global trend was strong enough to drown any reference to local conditions and essential needs.
Nowhere in the world does the semester system work with centralised exams, but this contradiction was ignored. The stick of diminishing budgets forced one university after another to capitulate. Combined with brutal cuts in library resources, semester-wise exams pushed both teachers and students to forget about engagement with knowledge. The policy of withholding regular recruitment further injured the dignity of teaching and institutional efficiency. As if all this was not enough, Delhi University pioneered the enforcement of a four-year undergraduate course under widespread criticism and demand for caution, but no one listened. The experiment ultimately collapsed when it faced the loss of political patronage.
This brief history might help college youth to form a realistic estimate of what they must expect to cope with. The atmosphere surrounding them is charged with artificial polarities and a culture of fast reaction. No debate can proceed far without falling victim to personalised accusations and acrimony. Tools of communication are indiscriminately honing the edge of every conceivable argument. Depletion of memory and patience make reflection virtually impossible.
Both society and State have adopted a cynical attitude towards liberal ideals like institutional autonomy and freedom to think. Colleges and universities are no longer perceived as communities based on knowledge and learning. No one seems to believe that such a community has relevance or a role to play. In this situation, we are tempted to isolate the violence that erupted in a college in Delhi or the gagging of opinion that occurred in another. These incidents should remind us that institutional recovery is not a matter of fixing a few wrongs.
Krishna Kumar is former director NCERT, and professor of education, Delhi University
The views expressed are personal