Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The State of Indian Universities

Rajesh Kumar Sharma
One of the few things on which we Indians have a consensus is the state of our universities. It is a wretched state, though we may politely call it unenviable, or ingenuously describe it as unsatisfactory. Year after year, international ratings remind us and expose us. And year after year we observe some rites of remorse, and let the 'findings' go down under the next breaking news.
            The universities, which should be throbbing with excitement and discovery, have increasingly become intellectually banal and sterile places. Except for a few green patches or a solitary glistening blade here and there, the landscape is barren and gloomy. The well-intended, apparently radical exercises initiated by agencies like UGC and NAAC are quickly absorbed into clever document management regimens and smart presentations, so that an enormous change appears to have happened 'on paper' and yet nothing much changes on the ground.
            Perhaps we have yet to realize that we need more than mere jugaad. That we need vision also, and understanding, and courage. Do we realize that the reigning paradigm of our university education continues to be industrial (Fordist, to be precise)? Yes, we need huge quantitative growth, but that does not mean we can ignore the singularity of talent and skills. We have to move from antiquated mass education delivery systems to customized education meant for specific individuals and groups. We have the technology, but we suffer from severe trust deficit. We lack trust – in ourselves, in teachers, in students. Having cheerfully embraced the post-industrial economy, why do we hesitate to adopt post-industrial pedagogies?
            Not just in the use of pedagogies, in engagement with the current state of knowledge also we continue to lag and act ad hoc. There is hardly any premium on, or professional mandate for, being intellectually up to date. This failure is matched by another of equally sinister proportions: a creative dialogue, from our contemporary locations, with intellectual traditions both native and foreign is conspicuously missing.   
The rapidly changing forces and relations of production over the last quarter century have resulted in certain kinds of social exclusion and marginalization. A whole social class stands no chance today to occupy any tenured positions among the university faculty. One of the consequences is that the interests and concerns of that class are receding farther and farther from the agenda of higher education. How good or bad this can be for society should be anybody's guess. The situation is aggravated by the migration of those into the 'higher spheres' who inhabited or still somehow inhabit the upper boundaries of that class. This migration has to be seen alongside the larger phenomenon of cooptation of 'the salaried intellectual'. This entire pattern of movement – characterized by exclusion, marginalization, migration and cooptation – has actually come to mean at least two things. One is the de-politicization of the academic intellectual. Careerism and social disengagement have thus overtaken the commitment to intellectual vocation and social engagement. The second is that the class which bears the brunt of current changes stands increasingly drained and deprived of effective political and intellectual representation. With the youth already largely de-politicized, the prospects for a turnaround are bleak.
The picture looks even murkier when one notices that whatever credibility the free academic intellectual retains is jeopardized by the rise of a parallel public intellectual whose terrain is the spectacular, contingency-driven media. An audience that has far more exposure to the media than to reading, reflection and the slow mellowing fruits of research is likely to find the new public intellectual's instantly ready wares handier and prettier for obvious reasons. The university is the place where these things should be considered, reflected on and deliberated. In order to continue to be the intellectual conscience of the society of which it is a part, the university cannot afford to forget 'examining its own life' – to use the famous Socratic injunction. The university-based intellectual whose authority derives – as Pierre Bourdieu suggests – from a long-range academic accomplishment cannot try to cast himself in the image of the media-based intellectual who may be required to hop, instant to instant, from canvas to canvas. In fact, the university has to avoid the temptation to be always in the news. It must strategically court obscurity, slowness and distance as essential preconditions of its proper functioning. It should step into the media spotlight only rarely, and gingerly. The urge to get noticed can damage its real, long-term objectives.
Indeed, the university has to be more than a mirror of its world. It is bound to that world through a fundamental disjuncture and ceases to be a university when it is completely integrated into that world.
Where integration is desperately needed is vis-à-vis its feeder institutions, particularly colleges. The university must nurture its feeder institutions if it is to undo the curse of intellectual sterility. It must better pave the roads that lead from those institutions to its own portals.


Daljit Ami said...

I agree with the argument. After working in mainstream media I have realized that Universities' contribution in media is less then mediocre. The mutual appreciation gangs of media and academics are one of the major reasons of intellectual bankruptcy. Universities have reduced journalism to public relation or event management or image building exercise. Media reciprocate favor ... Social scientists have been reduced to grant tapping bureaucrats, how can they engage with society to build critical understanding and scientific temperament? Let them play with insufficient sample surveys and help their children settle abroad. They will talk about society and Punjab in their old age to book tickets for heaven. Hell should be Hell. Heaven should be Heaven.

M. L. Raina said...

Bravo,Rajesh, for a no-holds-barred, head-on collision with the mandarins who mangae our universities.True, our higher education has gone down the tube and our Lords of Misrule still pander to numbers.But there is one area about which you are silent and that is the role played by academic politicians in bringing down the stature of our institutions. I am appalled to see promising teachers,frustrated by the state of affairs, take resort to threats, dharnas and class action whenver things dont go their way.They should heed your advice to reflect and cogitate on their positions.I think why our research has been shoddy is that our guides are shoddy,their intellectual eqipment is shoddy and their sole motivation is a shoddy variant of careerism.I HOLD THE ugc CULPABLE FOR NOT ASKING FOR STRICTER CRITERIA FOR PROMOTIONS AND ADVANCEMENT.There seems to be a partners- in -crime nexus between the academic bureaucrats and the executors of policy. No one now insists on genuine scholarship. All you need to bamboozle selec tors is to pick up stray quotations on author websites and pass them off as your 'discoveries'.I was recently asked to assess a paper in which a quotation from Gayatri Spivak was cited.The quote was a direct lift-off from Spivak's website and the details were wrong.Obviously the author had not bothered to read the relevant text
The keyboard scissor-and -paste methodology has not only made libraries redundant,but also rendered whatever passes for research otiose.How do you expect to compete with world-class institutions when your processes are suspect from the beginning?

Amritjit Singh said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful piece, which I hope will raise some spirited discussion among colleagues at Indian universities.

I agree fully with the quote excerpted below.
/The university has to be more than a mirror of its world. It is bound to that world through a fundamental disjuncture and ceases to be a university when it is completely integrated into that world./

The universities in India or elsewhere have an obligation to shake assumptions, get our students and colleagues out of their comfort levels, and make intellectual debate an exciting not a frightening thing.

T S Anand said...

Well written critique on the state of universities. Rajesh, your power-packed punches in the last stanza of the write-up, I pray, act as eye openers for the powers that be. I like your forthright and hard hitting views. Keep it up.

Subhash Chandra said...

One way to address the issue of increasing mediocrity among the faculty – the result of the undeserving managing to get to high academic positions -- is to ask for the introduction of 'peer review' of the scholarship to determine its genuineness and quality and evaluation of teachers by students.