The state of India’s education, simply put, is under stress and requires urgent and serious attention. The laboriously drafted New Education Policy (NEP), 2016, invites our attention to this and has not only tried to diagnose the malaise but also recommended administrative and technical solutions to many of them. In this, one may find a large area of consonance except that, for god’s sake, let us not have an all India Education Service and an Education Fund, both of which will take away whatever accountability and seriousness with which the political class sometimes listens to the common man’s woes about education.
In all sorts of discussions, including in this policy on education, it is employability and poor quality that emerge as the core concerns, and rightly so. One must bemoan, as the NEP too does, the extremely sad state of our universities. The recommendations offered, however, do not match the seriousness that the situation deserves.
As Pherojshah Mehta had argued on the Bombay University Bill debate in the Bombay legislative assembly in 1902, it is the universities that are the lynchpin of the education system. They produce qualified teachers, journalists, policymakers, scientists and dreamers. Today any serious reflection on the state of affairs, as the NEP assures it has done, shows how the death of Indian universities has created a state of anarchy. Universities are in a mess because society at large has given up excellence as its commitment. The denigration of the idea of excellence by the political class, in every possible realm of life, affects the universities the most because the central fact about the university’s existence is excellence.
Indian universities, without exception, have increasingly come under the vice-like grip of the local and regional political class, different levels of bureaucrats and so many other elements that one wonders whether they have allowed the idea of the university to even exist. The universities exhibit no soul, no imagination and no independence. Intellectuals are not allowed to talk to power except by being a supplicant: the former secretaries who drafted the committee reports know that so well. Universities today are, as Madhusudan Das talked about the Madras University in 1921, the slaughter house of intelligence.
The proliferation of teaching shops and coaching centres originated at the point where universities stopped exciting the imagination of society. As the number of demotivated students in universities grew and became part of the professoriate too, the problem became insoluble. The ideological capture of teaching jobs in universities, including the recent ones in Delhi University, is an exhibition of such a phenomenon.
On the other hand, graduates of a good university system would have gone to teach at different levels of education with some competence, elan and motivation. The supply of teachers, a major NEP 2016 concern, can be ensured only by a good university. The denigration of the universities also led to the denigration of liberal scholarship: the heart of any enlightened society’s civilised discourse. Today the economically developed states in India, i.e. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra, should have shown the way to encourage liberal scholarship. Liberal studies in history, philosophy, language and political science would have indicated ways to come out of the technical rut that our youth has led itself into and does not know how to get out of it.
A serious effort to diagnose what ails education would have led the committee to such important clues and had saved it from repeating the inanities of our ancient scientists. In a democracy the political class has to lead the way. It would not be out of place to suggest that what is excellent is also relevant and employability is a function of excellence. The committee has touched the wrong end of it. However, catching it right would have allowed it to suggest recommendations such as reserving a number of ambassadorships, a monopoly of the Indian Foreign Service, for university faculty, sending professors to the IMF/World Bank/UN, and giving positions in every ministerial planning committee to the Indian university students/faculty. These would have shown our real commitment to allow the pinnacle of our education system, the universities, to expand their imaginations, feel part of the larger system and try and solve its myriad issues by evolving socially responsible excellent solutions. Only that would invite the youth to its fold to cultivate excellence and excitement.
Rakesh Batabyal is the author of JNU: The Making of a University
The views expressed are personal