There is a heightened sense across media outlets that one of the largest university systems in the world is undergoing a sustained attack. The violence unleashed by members of the ABVP upon students and teachers gathered at Delhi University’s Ramjas College for debate and discussion on February 21 and 22 has intensified the sense of foreboding about the future of institutions of higher education.
Given the spectacular expansion of the higher education sector and the fact that an ever-increasing number of young people seek a university degree — under the illusion that these enable economic and social mobility — it is worthwhile reflecting on the nature of our universities.
The bald fact is that, apart from a handful of institutions, neither now, nor in the recent past have Indian universities been spaces of critical thinking, competent teaching or anything that looks like rigorous research. The historical development of our education sector has been in the direction of consolidating stark differences between select metropolitan universities and the vast majority of those that dot the regional landscape. This gap has created a vast educational and cultural wasteland.
Our universities churn out an enormous number of doctorates, the majority of whom have received little or no training in independent thinking. There is now a large, hapless army of formally qualified young women and men whose degrees and diplomas provide no indication of their capacities and skills. One of the world’s largest higher education sectors is also one of the most blighted.
There are several reasons for this state of affairs. These include declining government expenditure on higher education, the institutionalisation of “coaching” and competitive exams, the vicious politics of language (with English at the apex), the valourisation of technical and professional education, the denigration of the social sciences and humanities, and the rise of private universities as profit-making businesses.
Add to this the mass exodus from small towns of committed students and teachers, unable to function in the patron-client milieu of regional universities, and you have the perfect storm. The clientalism — stretching across jobs and relationships between students and teachers — has played an overwhelming role in crushing any independent thought and critical inquiry.
Given this, it is unsurprising that threats to the idea of the university witnessed across a small number of campuses spread over India have elicited limited contestations from other existing universities . University cultures of free and fearless thought are complex creatures that emerge from a number of factors. They cannot be wished into existence by invoking that idea.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to think about how the idea of a university might be propagated in an everyday manner, in the face of social and historical constraints. This requires re-thinking the relationship between those at historically privileged institutions and those beyond them.
In order to generate sympathetic opinion about the consequences of attacks upon the idea of the university, it is important to build the grounds for such opinion across the majority of university spaces. This may require new alliances. One of the most significant of these might be with NGOs that have developed strategies of working on otherwise taboo topics, such as gender and sexuality. One taboo topic is a bridgehead to another and greater academic involvement with, say, feminist NGOs, could open the door for engaging young people in open-ended discussions about nationalism and patriotism.
A broader coalition of voices against the bigotry and repression of the times would also require far greater interaction between students and faculty of historically privileged institutions and those at places constrained by regional histories and politics. The recent workshop at JNV, Jodhpur, that came under attack for propagating “anti-national sentiments” served to integrate the Rajasthan university with its prominent Delhi counterpart, including it in the dialogue that characterises the latter.
This is not to offer a model of noblesse oblige, but, rather, to think through strategies for our times and our history, the challenges of which might not present the same manner in other parts of the world with similar higher educational systems The task is to create the idea of a common future across different campuses. The idea of the university is unlikely to bear fruit if the burden of cultivation is left to a tiny minority. Majoritarian indifference is the blight that easily destroys that harvest.