Wednesday, November 2, 2011
In Search of the Indian University
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(Published in The Daily Post of October 26, 2011)
What can we do to redeem our universities from the curse of sterility, banality and mediocrity that has befallen them? Before we ask this question, we might ask – what is the Indian university?
We speak of the American university, the French university, the German university, the British university, and now even the Chinese university. But the Indian university? It existed once upon a time, in places like Nalanda and Taxila. The distinctive modern Indian university just does not exist. The idea, the concept of the modern Indian university is just not there. Indeed, the university does not exist because the concept does not.
Until we begin to conceptualize the Indian university, nothing will help. Like a dim shopper who does not know what she wants, we will continue to run from shop to shop stuffing our bags with whatever the clever shopkeeper manages to sell to us. And we will feel cheated and disappointed at the end of the day.
In the 90s we turned to the private sector to redeem our higher education. Today we are looking to 'foreign education providers' from America and elsewhere. As if they will perform some trick and transplant a fertile patch of excellence amidst us. We forget that excellence is finally a homegrown thing.
In truth, we are tricking ourselves. We are deluded. And not innocence but pure vested interest is deluding us. We have chosen to deceive ourselves for our greater selfish good.
The policy makers may have their own reasons for trying to push up the low Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education. But their exercises in privatization have so far amounted to little more than statistical enlargement and a complicated wretched apology in the name of education. Is it not time, then, to set up an independent commission to assess the consequences of privatization before the foreign education providers arrive and add their own shit to the existing mess?
Over recent years, you will have noticed a great transformation in the education scene. Universities and colleges have begun to look like hotels and shopping plazas. I have sat in a university canteen which displayed, amid large video screens running non-stop dance numbers, the backlit image of a young couple locked in a passionate kiss. The overhead speakers played music so loud that it allowed no conversation over the table. The student is out, the consumer is in.
Elsewhere, the good old coffee house – the quintessential intellectual space for free dialogue – has been shut down. The new eating places discourage those who want to sit down and sip coffee over a simmering conversation.
The universities are ceasing to be the places against which you could see the surrounding world and its ideological landscapes and compromises.
Once I went to inspect a college which had an air-conditioned lobby that seemed partly like a hotel reception and partly like a private bank. The multi-level ground floor had classrooms with glass-sealed windows and inlets for future air-conditioning. An average-sized room functioned as a library with some newspapers, a few magazines for housewives, a school children's dictionary, and some almirahs with third-rate, second-hand books. The librarian, a middle-aged woman from a neighbouring village, looked haggard and dusty but spoke gratefully of how the four thousand she took home every month really helped her family.
In contrast, the laboratory equipment shone under its fresh packaging, which had not been removed yet. And someone whispered it would probably never be removed, for the inspection teams do not stay for ever neither do they conduct surprise checks.
If the Principal's office was a picture of luxury, the Chairman's was the very architecture of opulence. But the teachers, all young, looked like faded flowers. Made to drudge from nine to five and beyond, required to 'fetch' a certain minimum quota of fresh admissions, not permitted to talk to each other and penalized if seen to be reading anything other than the course materials, they got anything between six to fifteen thousand a month, depending on the competition in this market of excess supply.
Private higher education in India has become an extremely profitable business for everyone except students and their parents. Owners of rice shellers, wine contractors, property dealers, all are getting into it as it promises many rewards. You become a philanthropist and yet make profits. You are rightly placed for political, bureaucratic and business networking. You shake hands with educators and justices. And you obligingly nurture the young.
Bankers are happy because doting parents and youthful dreams, mortgaged to them, are safest investments. Governments are content because rebellious young minds are kept occupied with things which do not ultimately matter.
A young man working with a company in NOIDA recently told me that during four years of his degree course he had received really nothing worth the name of education. I thought of misplaced expectations. What he saw as the failure of education, I saw as its very success. Until the young man perceived this 'success', he would not grasp how the education machine operates today and to what nefarious ends.
It is criminal to reduce education to part of the economic activity. Education cannot survive without autonomy which, albeit relative, must be protected against all kinds of economic fads and ideological winds. The most telling metaphor of erosion of the university's autonomy is the changing architecture of the university. In several campuses, buildings with glazed exteriors and central air-conditioning are mushrooming which resemble the looming towers of multinational corporations. The already notorious ivory towers are changing into towering ecological monsters, insensitive to the world around.
Crisis of the university's identity could not have proclaimed itself louder. How deaf and blind we must have become that we refuse to notice even the stark symbols made actually of concrete, steel and glass.
How long can we disavow the truth? How long can we evade confronting the festering crisis of identity of the Indian university? Kapil Sibal's statement – that with the entry of foreign education providers a greater revolution awaits education than that which swept the telecom sector – may have the flourish of a theatrical utterance, yet it makes little sense. Except, no doubt, that it shows how cheaply the word 'revolution' is nowadays sold. And, of course, one may also wonder how much bigger will be the scandals and scams of the 'revolution' to come.
Why are false remedies being tried even as the crisis festers? The answer is obvious. The resolution holds no promises. It assures no profits. False remedies do.
In a country where gallons of ink have been spilled over tonnes of paper in pursuit of lesser truths, is it too much to ask for a comprehensive report on what our existing universities are specifically doing, in what ways precisely, with what exact degree of success or failure, and why?
The lineaments of the Indian university will begin to emerge as we put together the findings of such a report and try to make sense of it. The empirical truths gleaned across this vast and diverse country will deliver what we urgently need – a concept of the Indian university.
We must look inward, and microscopically, if we want to redeem our universities from the curse we have brought upon them.