One legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru that has been systematically dismantled over the years: his instinctive understanding of higher education.
The financial outlays to higher education have increased. The clamour for more higher education has been growing. But we have failed to create the capillaries that can sustain and nourish a vibrant higher education system. It is a sector peculiarly resistant to reform. This has one reason, which Nehru recognised well. Education, more than any other sector, depends on the accumulation of a lot of soft skills and tacit understanding, which if lost, are hard to recreate. This is reflected, for instance, in his deep concern about the quality of academic leadership in education. It is a concern we barely seem to understand. Nehru’s weakness on primary education was, in retrospect, a great failing. But he was more clear-headed on higher education. He realised that independence in thinking and technical capacity was a necessary correlate of political independence. While it was necessary to be open to ideas from everywhere, it was also important to develop an independent locus of thought. Above all, this has meant that we have an elite that is not content with the idea that much of our research and higher education can be outsourced. But, though we do not say so, implicitly, we are quite content with outsourcing higher education to the United States. We cannot “make in India” if we don’t “think in India”.
Nehru realised that higher education is also the main instrument of a new form of sociability. It should be a site where group identities can be transcended. Just read his speech from the Aligarh Muslim University convocation, in which he warns against the dangers of aligning reason and identity. But sectarian universities have become even more ghettoised. Nehru also realised that an indigenously educated middle class that has not seceded is necessary for an enlightened vanguard. He was perhaps overly optimistic about how higher education could produce it, but the aspiration was not off the mark.
But higher education is going to be hard to reform. As a culture, we have lost a sense of the appropriate relationship between political structures and education institutions. It is hard to get across the idea that the political class ought not to be micromanaging higher education. The idea that universities should be at the beck and call of ministers, on everything from canteens to exams, curriculum to degree structures, is preposterous. Independent regulatory bodies, like the UGC, which commanded enormous respect from Nehru, have become worse than bureaucratic conduits for state power. These days, it is near impossible to even explain what a different culture of the relationship between state and academia would look like: those habits that Nehru cherished have long been lost.
This malaise has afflicted all political parties. There is nothing more than bad faith in the Left and Congress’s crocodile tears over the decimation of higher education. It is an interesting fact that in almost all other sectors, we can point to examples of innovation in the states, dynamic chief ministers who have set something right. But except some marginal differences in the nature of private education acts, it is hard to think of any chief minister who has left a lasting impression on higher education.
A few exceptions apart, academic cultures in a large number of universities have deteriorated to the point where it is hard to see how they can be retrieved. Politicians have often stepped into the self-abdication of academics who have let them in, without resistance, for their own partisan squabbles. The social credibility of the academic profession, by which Nehru set so much store, is in serious jeopardy.
Credibility is earned; it can never be commanded. The balance of respect has tilted in favour of the state. One of the saddest facts about higher education is that tolerance for a diversity of institutional forms, each with its own identity and strengths, is low among academics. Even academics proposing reforms often make the mistake of thinking that all institutions must correspond to the same template.
The Nehruvian sensibility we have lost is the idea that higher education is something more than instrumental. The instrumental character of education is manifested in two ways. First, the effective control of education has gone into the hands of those who come to the sector for extraneous reasons: the nature of regulation ensures that, with a few exceptions, there is adverse selection in the kinds of entrepreneurs that enter higher education. This private lobby, which has benefited from the decimation of public institutions and a low-quality equilibrium, has done much to ensure that few meaningful reforms take place. A genuine not-for-profit sector has an enormous role to play in higher education. And some interesting experiments are now underway. But the maturation of this sector is a long way off. There is as yet no happy alternative between bureaucratic logic on the one hand and commercial logic on the other.
Second, there is, rightly, a new emphasis on skilling and employment-oriented courses. But it is an intellectual mistake to think that even these can be divorced from a larger culture of intellectualism. Nehru was himself clear that a culture that thinks of education only instrumentally would not be well educated in the long run. There is an odd assumption many economists make: that manufacturing requires a low-level of skills, that a mere tinkering at the edges of skills will somehow produce an employable workforce. Even manufacturing has to now be nested in a far greater diversity of cognitive attributes.
In the Nehruvian imagination, there was nothing embarrassing in thinking about universities as places for the cultivation of intellect and humanity. The idea was that the university was a space where faculty was trying to retrieve a modicum of intellectual order in a chaotic universe. This consideration, above all else, defined a university’s mission and identity. There are glimmers of hope. India now seems to be experiencing a minor turnaround in science and technology. But this turnaround is very fragile and will not be sustained without a drastic reorientation in the approach to research. There is also now a yearning for new forms of education. But this has not yet found adequate institutional articulation. But the Nehruvian ideal of the public university as a space defined by the highest intellectual values lies in ruins. It will be a tall order to recover it.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ email@example.com