30/03/2017 7:05 AM IST | Updated 31/03/2017 10:09 AM IST

The Indian University System Is Imploding And We All Stand To Get Hurt

Let’s be true patriots and do something about it.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Earlier this March, the authorities at Jawaharlal Nehru University announced massive cuts (estimated to be 83%) in the intake of M.Phil and PhD students. This includes departments of social sciences, international relations and language studies among others. Also around the same time, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai removed 25 faculty members, which will result in fewer students finding supervisors for advanced degrees and three Centres shutting down. A few days ago, Punjab University hiked its fees by up to ₹82,000 a year, a decision that will definitely affect students of lower-middle class and poorer backgrounds. Over the last year, Delhi University has been pushing its premiere colleges towards autonomy, which means that the colleges will no longer remain public institutions but become private ones.

With centres shutting down, colleges becoming private, and seats being cut across the board, we are effectively decimating our public universities one step at a time...

Students and teachers at all these institutes have been protesting these decisions, but the general public neither knows about this nor cares. A narrative has been built over the past four years that a lot of people believe: all academics are left-wing intellectuals who brainwash students. These students then become Naxalites or secret spies who plot ways to destroy the country. This narrative also includes a general mistrust of social science research: "Why do you want to study what is wrong with society?" "Why are these people studying about tribal people in India?" and so on. Given this narrative, it is easy to see why people are not going to oppose any of the above decisions and berate the students and teachers for doing so.

Let me present another possibility to you. Instead of thinking of the above events as separate, let us examine the underlying pattern. Public Universities in India are both good and cheap. The semester fees are not high; nor are the hostel fees. Most of them have entrance exams which are quite competitive, and in some of these universities to get a seat at the hostel you have to get a good rank in the entrance exam. This year, the office of the President of India awarded JNU an award for being the best research university. The link clearly outlines the parameters on which this decision was based: "The President said the JNU has shown "outstanding" performance in all key parameters like quality of students and faculty, training of faculty, citations, publications, research projects, foreign collaborations, seminars and innovation exhibitions." Decreasing the number of students at JNU will in turn lead to decreasing the number of teachers, and research outputs will go down. It is difficult to continue being an excellent university without students and teachers.

[E]ducation is too profitable to be administered through a public system... the best way to get people into private universities is to decrease the seats in public education.

These changes are not about ideological issues. The undermining of public universities by making them offer the minimum possible is not going to stop only at a few specific universities or for "problematic" disciplines like politics and sociology. Anti-intellectualism does not distinguish between universities and disciplines. We have already had the push to teach Vedic Science in the IITs, government ministers who label doctors who advise patients not to follow Ayurveda as anti-national, and an indictment of the Indian Science Congress. With centres shutting down, colleges becoming private, and seats being cut across the board, we are effectively decimating our public universities one step at a time and over a decade or so the cumulative damage will be irrevocable. By the time the schoolchildren of today are ready to go to university, unless they make the very high cut for a limited number of seats, their only other option would be an expensive course at a private university, with big loans in the offing. Or they can take bigger loans and go abroad. Across different disciplines Indian students regularly go abroad and are able to match the rigour of world-class universities. Not only that, a high number of Indians go on to hold academic positions abroad, and one reason for this is the high standard of Indian education. International students subsidise the education of local students by paying higher fees, and add skills to the economy if they choose to stay back. Given increasing hyper-nationalism around the world, however, it is likely that this option too will become available only to those who can pay the highest prices and jump the tallest hoops for it.

[T]he only research that a corporate university will house will be research that gets funded, not research for innovation or human benefit.

What is at stake here is this: education is too profitable to be left alone or be administered through a public system. There are all sorts of private universities opening up in India, and these universities charge much more than public universities for even the most basic of degrees. And the best way to get a majority of the population into private universities is to decrease the number of seats available in public education. If these changes that are underway continue unchecked, what sort of educational model are we going to have in a decade? We are moving towards the American model, especially in two specific ways: a) students have to take exorbitant student loans and graduate deeply in debt and b) the only research that a corporate university will house will be research that gets funded, not research for innovation or human benefit. The American university system is floundering and failing its constituent stakeholders, but given the potential for profit, there is pressure on universities across the world to follow suit. Most social science research will happen in private universities, by people who can afford those fees or are eligible for those loans, thus shutting out the actual underprivileged while researching them. Students from underprivileged sections of society can do vocational courses, or compete for the few scholarships on offer.

Education in India is still relatively equitable. Yes, not every marginalised person gets access to the public universities, but the students at the public universities come from different socio-economic backgrounds. If we take this equity away, we actually create a far greater potential for political conflict. What is happening at Indian universities today is about much more than student politics and ideologies. What is happening affects all of us, and will affect our children in the future. It is good to remember in this context that universal university education is, historically speaking, a recent phenomenon. In earlier times, higher education was for a privileged few. Nor do I believe that one can only gain education at a university. It is possible to go to the best universities and remain uneducated, and it is equally possible to be knowledgeable and wise without ever stepping foot inside a university. At the same time, we also know that not having a degree, even when having the knowledge, can hamper a career in a million different ways. We all need to speak up for more seats in public education, for more places across universities and rise in employment rather than reduction, in short, making space for more students and teachers to enter public universities rather than be shunted to private ones. This is one way to do something substantial for your country today; this is one way of being patriotic today.

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