The fundamental disagreement in the clash of the titans, Amartya Sen and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, appears to centre on the question of whether political interference in universities today is more egregious than in the past. Mehta claims that there is nothing unprecedented about this, “even in its scope or scale,” and Sen responds with impeccable logic that that does not make it acceptable. It could nevertheless be argued that Nalanda — with its short history tainted by allegations not all of which have been convincingly refuted — is scarcely the most alarming example of all the attempts, past and present, to control academic institutions.
Both Sen and Mehta seem to share the somewhat optimistic assumption that academic institutions in this country once were or could potentially be autonomous entities that are constitutively free of governmental and/ or partisan political control. Neither acknowledges the black hole at the heart of any debate about higher education in India, a fact that has to do with the very nature of the beast itself: that the modern Indian university has, from colonial times to the present day, been viewed as properly yoked to the state project of the moment.
Every major commission on education in India over the last 60 years — from the S. Radhakrishnan Commission to the National Knowledge Commission — has sought to harness universities to state projects of, variously, constitutional values, nation-building, development and the creation of a 21st century knowledge society. It is only the particular state project to which universities were hitched that has changed from time to time, not the fact of such a harness, much less the legitimacy attached to it.
Partisan politics of one sort or another has undoubtedly made this worse, but this is at best an exploitation of the opportunities provided by structural weaknesses in university governance. Fundamentally, universities are not, and have never been, autonomous. Even as we recognise that public funding is incontrovertibly essential for higher education, we neither have institutional mechanisms for securing public accountability while safeguarding university autonomy, nor an archive of past institutional practices of this kind available for retrieval. To confine governmental power to domains of university functioning in which it is appropriate, and to resist its relentless encroachments into domains in which it is not, calls for serious reflection on how to strike this balance.
The Napoleonic model of the university as a department of state, with faculty treated as (lesser) civil servants, has long thrived in India. Centralisation and bureaucratisation have serious implications — curricular and pedagogical — for universities. Indeed, a major concern of the university community today is the clumsy attempt, initiated by the last government and being energetically promoted today, to standardise the curricula of the central universities, ostensibly to give students more choice.
Ironically, this so-called choice entails the sacrifice of diversity and greater control through homogenisation. This is certainly among the most serious challenges facing universities today, along with the stifling of dissent, the packing of leadership positions with individuals whose calling card is loyalty rather than academic credentials, and the pathetic attempts to infiltrate the intellectual life of the academy armed with faith and myth rather than objective standards of scientific achievement.
It could be argued that there is, in any case, little scope for autonomy in academic institutions whose primary function has, since colonial times, been seen as the transmission of knowledge and the certification that such knowledge has been duly transmitted. The Indian university has increasingly and exclusively become a source of credentialisation for a society in which certification matters more than what is learned. Two current obsessions — that of fake degrees and of 100 per cent marks in school-leaving examinations — are poignant symbols of this.
The view that the purpose of the university is to transmit knowledge rather than to produce it led, in the early years after Independence, to the creation of standalone institutions for research, in the social sciences and even more in science and technology. The accomplishments of some of these institutions were surely impressive, but an unintended consequence was the arrangement of research and teaching in a hierarchy that privileged researchers, or the producers of knowledge, over teachers as its transmitters. The introduction of research and publications as a formal requirement for recruitment and advancement in universities is a relatively recent phenomenon that has, in both design and implementation, ill-served the objective.
In the states, where the bulk of Indian universities are located, talk of nepotism, cronyism, and even corruption in appointments — from lectureships to vice-chancellorships — is commonplace. In the “elite” Central universities, many conform to the Napoleonic model fortified by the self-conscious virtue that comes with association with the higher purposes of state, and sometimes also the power and that results from such association. Others live out the fantasy of a Humboldtian community of scholars engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This wishful imagination may be the source of elitist islands of scholarly excellence, but let us not forget that it inhabits a meta-institutional hyper-reality.
In the end, what we have is a highly uneven and differentiated university system in which there is little reflection and no consensus on what a university is for. Even the arriviste private liberal arts college has come to us from the United States and not from the British Isles where Cardinal Newman articulated the vision centuries ago. But colonialism did not give us universities modelled on Dublin or Oxford. It gave us institutions modelled on the University of London, essentially affiliating institutions formulating syllabi and conducting examinations.
To entertain greater expectations of the mass of Indian universities is to be deluded, because this is and has always been their purpose: to transmit received knowledge, conduct examinations and award degrees, all of these functions performed by state personnel called faculty under the watchful eye of a micro-governing state.
Jayal, professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, is writing a book on the death of the public university in India.