India has been internationally known for its great learning centres but many of the State universities face serious decline today, disappointing students and teachers. Many are performing poorly and do not have adequate opportunities to do research . Others that are better in research and performance face delegitimisation for being ‘different’. Universities generate ideas, inform citizens and form the basis of a democracy. They need urgent and appropriate attention.
All Indian governments — past and present — claim human resources and knowledge are precious assets. But when it comes to investing in these universities, they are lacking.
One problem is that successive governments use public universities for political and personal patronage. The political class has always tried to usurp university positions ‘for their own,’ starting from the top positions. The ‘open position’ is often seen as a placement opportunity for favoured clients of politicians, political parties and powerful individuals. Good universities have tried to resist this, but have not always succeeded. This has often led to a choice of candidate who has a patron as opposed to the one who has better teaching abilities. The earlier power elite did this, the current one believes that their turn for this ‘fix’ has finally arrived. So it goes on.
Why blame the politicians only? Public universities are often held hostage by the bureaucracy in the form of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and other bodies. Many committees have been appointed to look into courses, appointment guidelines, scholarship exams, qualification criteria, etc. The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (Yashpal Committee) made some good suggestions such as giving more autonomy to teachers and students, increasing funding, bringing state and central universities on a par with creative measures, bringing liberal arts into technology institutes and assisting more research in universities. It also recommended that the UGC be replaced by a national higher education authority, since it was felt that it was beyond reform.
Similarly, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) suggested an independent regulatory authority for higher education which would ensure the autonomy and freedom for knowledge creation and dissemination and avoid conflict of interest . All the good, the controversial and the valid suggestions of these various committees have been shelved. Now another education committee has been set up.
The Supreme Court set up the controversial Lyngdoh Commission to curb student activism and elections in campuses. The belief that the rot in universities comes from student politics is mistaken. Student activism is part of the national political activism as long as it is balanced with academics. Leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, AB Vajpayee, Sitaram Yechury and Arun Jaitley — to name a few — were honed by student activism. So to put unreasonable curbs like being elected only once appear rather draconian.
Now the most major assault on universities comes from a set of ideas — termed neo-liberal — that propose: Cuts in social and public spending on education; outsourcing research to non-teaching research institutes and think tanks while the universities’ focus is put on teaching. Even though teaching barely counts for purposes of promotion or accreditation, the emphasis is on skills and vocations in tandem with downgrading social sciences; rejecting critical thinking and dissent, and making an attempt to reverse autonomy; emphasising technology without looking at the philosophy of science; encouraging expensive private and foreign universities; and so on.
Indian universities face an attempt at homogenisation that includes injecting ‘neo-nationalism’ into syllabi, as if the former was anti-national. The truth is that most of the university syllabi has been reviewed by generations of scholars though some may need upgrading. There is also a prevailing false consciousness that assumes social sciences is subversive and thus we hear arguments like: “Make JNU into IIT”. Funding support for technology and not science, skills and management courses is a ploy to depoliticise, control critical thinking and dissent. If this view prevails it will undo academia as a whole.
Great thinkers and teachers from Socrates to Einstein have stood for autonomous universities. Nobel laureate JM Coetzee and Henry Giroux argued that a university “is nothing if it is not a public trust and social good”. And if a university loses its critical insights, modes of questioning, struggles for social, economic and other justices, it loses its reality.
Indian universities can be revived if development is on our agenda. For this universities should be made accountable to the public. This accountability has to start from vice-chancellors, directors, principals of colleges and education bureaucrats to each layer of the academic system. Universities must have autonomy with social responsibility. They must expand to include the marginalised in terms of gender, caste and communities. They need funding and support. The VCs and principals should be agents of the university/college and not of the political regime.
There should be no externally dictated agendas on university functioning. Higher education needs to be expanded, the Knowledge Commission had recommended a 100 new universities. Let us start with at least 20. The private universities must come under public scrutiny with regard to standards.
Old reports on education should be looked at and the best suggestions should form a consensus by the political class and public as a whole and be implemented. This is the only way to save universities and save democracy.
The decline of universities is an attack on the young people and the nation. There is a need to revitalise Indian universities. Reconstructing the university to suit a particular brand of politics is a rejection of the centuries-old accumulated wisdom and plural heritages. This will not be forgiven. The rethinking on universities must be a collective responsibility.
Anuradha Chenoy is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The views expressed are personal