Updated: December 9, 2019 10:01:53 am
Recently, the extent of subsidies in publicly funded universities has received quite a bit of attention. Not only did JNU propose to roughly double the fees for its PhD and masters students, but even the IIT Council, while doing away with the stipend scheme, has tentatively decided to increase the MTech fees by nearly 10 times. While, the IIT step is ostensibly motivated towards deterring unviable legacy masters programmes of little interest to the industry and move towards more attractive industry sponsored programmes, understanding the provocations at JNU has not been easy.
It is well understood that the burden of high loans limits the choices of graduating students, and narrows the spaces for their intellectual explorations. This, in turn, hurts the society. Post-graduate research is usually fully supported everywhere in the world. Boarding and lodging charges are either directly subsidised, or are factored into the stipend or assistantship. At a stipend of Rs 8,000 per month, which most of the post-graduate scholars at JNU receive, the proposed increases are bound to pinch.
Post-graduate research, especially PhD research, cannot be self-financed anywhere because that will necessitate subsequent remuneration with high salaries, forcing research to be entirely market driven and killing the spirit of free enquiry. Parents supporting post-graduate studies is also a bad idea. One needs independence at that age for any kind of free thinking to be possible. Post-graduate research must be supported by research grants, whenever feasible, either from public or private sources, as is common in the sciences, engineering, economics or finance.
However, it is hard to envisage industry funding research in areas not directly of interest to them, for example, in philosophy, particle physics, topology or geometry or even in climate change, pollution, poverty mapping, history, gender studies or socio-economic understanding of public health, except as philanthropy in a limited way. Developing understanding in topics such as these is crucial for society and humanity, and it is therefore essential to internally support them to the extent possible by publicly funded universities.
This is where JNU plays a crucial role, especially in the areas of social and political sciences. It is a one-of-a-kind post-graduate university in the country that has promoted inter-disciplinary research and a vibrant culture of free enquiry, where learning outside the classroom has been as important as inside, and where it has been possible to challenge every doctrine and discuss it democratically. Moreover, JNU has set exemplary standards for an inclusive admission policy that extends beyond the mandatory reservations to affirmative action for gender and other marginalised categories, including for backward regions. The resulting diversity is enriching and must be celebrated rather than attacked.
Students from JNU have not only moved to conventional careers in the civil services, armed forces, academics and in journalism, but some have also opted for active politics and other forms of activism. JNU can boast of producing a significant number of educated politicians, and there are at least two even in the current central cabinet of ministers. There can be no doubt that there is scope for improvement, including in research, but the same can be said about most other things. It certainly is not the case that JNU is the most broken thing in the country that requires urgent and violent fixing.
Fees and stipends require periodic adjustments in any university. But the sudden raising of fees without adequate consultations, and the continual unduly combative posture of the administration is more indicative of waging a war on what JNU represents, rather than nurturing and shaping it with sagacious insight. The unusual belligerence may have something to do with the unfortunate tax-payers’ perception of JNU as a den of “useless sociologists”, “leftists” and even “anti-nationals”. Such simplistic and illogical calumny is all the more reason for supporting more such publicly funded centres of liberal education and research.
In contrast, the IITs have turned to seek their relevance from university rankings rather than from original impactful contributions in engineering, sciences, public policy and education. Projecting wonderfully multidimensional entities like universities onto straight lines to enforce linear ordering is conceptually flawed, and is a fundamentally mistaken way of seeking excellence that leads to faulty reward models and bio-data engineering.
The IIT system has produced some top-class academics, researchers and students, and they have indeed made sporadic outstanding contributions of both fundamental and applied nature. However, sustained high quality response, either to fundamental questions, or to societal imperatives such as climate change, public health, clean water, pollution, digitisation and society, have, at best, been muted. This is mainly because of faulty metrics and failure to define collective priorities and action groups.
While industry-sponsored research in public universities is crucial, not all research and higher education can be market driven. Publicly-funded universities also have the responsibility to train people to ask fundamental questions not of immediate interest to the industry, but to identify and conduct independent enquiry of societal problems, provide directions, and, if required, raise voices of dissent if policies go awry. Public funding of higher education is thus crucial for any society. And, ultimately, education needs to be free and equitable for all, even if not subsidised.
Of course, the requirements of higher education need to be balanced against the even more fundamental demands of primary and general college education for all. This is where prioritisation and policy making becomes crucial, and the strategic response and guidance from our academic leadership — both in our universities, and in our policy making bodies — need to become more thoughtful. And the education budget, still amongst the lowest in the world (as a percentage of the GDP) needs to go up significantly.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 9, 2019 under the title “What JNU represents.” The writer is associated with the computer science and engineering department and the school of public policy, IIT Delhi
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