'Doomed University': What Ails Our Publicly Funded Higher Education?

Today, we may think of several of the publicly funded higher education institutions as constituting a new category called the 'doomed university', where academic freedom and privileges are misused.

According to regulatory bodies, higher educational institutions (HEIs) are classified as public-central universities, public-state universities, private universities and deemed universities. Some of this segmentation will disappear with new policy implementation. Then, there are ‘institutions of eminence’ and ‘institutes of national importance’ as a version of the Ivy League system (the latter, much derided by localists who claim an affective connection to local interests but seek nothing more than a grant from the Ivy League!). But, as a kind of “look back in despair” (apologies to John Osborne), we may think of several of the publicly funded higher education institutions as constituting a new category: the doomed university.

The features of such a doomed university primarily derived – often satirically – from the state of liberal arts practices and the state of this endangered discipline in higher education institutions have been sketched in these and other pages, so this is an end-of-the-year flashback on the university that was.

Performance apathy

Higher education institutions and their academic managers fear evaluation of performance more than the COVID-19 lockdown of institutions. Despite the numerous ranking and evaluation mechanisms and the increasing disillusionment with democracy, higher education institutions are democratic in that they are great levellers. All performances – be it high, low, and even non-performance – are levelled so that the best researcher and the non-researcher are both rewarded equally. Heads of institutions, assuredly chased to death by the non-performer group, pretend there is no ‘higher’ performance possible or, even more dangerously, necessary.

Performance apathy in the age of global rankings generates disillusionment, and may, over the next few years, drive the performers away from public higher education institutions towards the private for handsome pay packages and privileges, producing, in a vicious cycle, an even lower institutional rating for the public higher education institutions.

More importantly, higher education institutions that empower the non-performer and the plagiarist, the indifferent and the incapable, drive our potential students to foreign shores and high-fee structure institutions as well, just so they can receive a life-saving education.

The doomed university emerges from the state of performance apathy with entrenched modes of lowering quality and accountability to fit the non-performer.

Loss of academic freedoms

In a recent essay, one of the world’s most significant Humanities scholars, Judith Butler, ponders on the state of academic unfreedom:

What we can also discern is the political fear of academic work precisely when some of us in the academy were wondering what effect we might now have on the world. The act of censorship, as we know, attributes power to the one who is censored or to the ideas that they are seen as promulgating. The viewpoints opposed are thus imagined to be enormously powerful and destructive, even when what they seek is knowledge or, minimally, a space for questioning and open-ended inquiry.

Neatly turning the question of the homo academicus’ relevance, Butler argues that it is in the curbing of freedoms of the university professor that we discover that we do have some relevance and power: that the professor instils a sense of disquiet.

The recently released Academic Freedom Index states baldly: “almost two out of five people worldwide live in countries where academic freedom has declined substantially during the past ten years”.

Arrests, trumped-up charges, censorship apart, academic freedoms are severely compromised in terms of a forced homogenisation of curricula, the non-state actor policing of classrooms, pedagogy and assessment. Admittedly, universities were set up, from Leiden to Oxford, to further a national(ist) cause and generate a sense of identity. Except that in the very same space of the university, the very national(ist), identitarian, political and social foundations of the institution have always been subject to question.

Also read: Rethinking Academic Freedom for a Turbulent Time in History

The doomed university arises from the very structure of stifled academic freedom – the freedom to speak, think and teach in a voice that is divergent from the majoritarian, the oppressive and the monolithic.

The cult of homogeneity

Hurtling towards horrific idea(l)s of homogeneity and purity, the feature of higher education institutions where ‘nothing is beyond question, not even the very idea of the university’, its diversity of voices and the rigour of analytics and interpretation are put to the sword.

Representational image. Photo: Pixabay

It is also worrying to see the rigid and atavistic frames of interpretation – national glory/pride, a communitarian and majoritarian agenda, the possessive pronoun adhering to ‘culture’ to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – imposed on curricula, pedagogy and research. We return again to Judith Butler who comments on how the oppressive state apparatus ‘frames’ – and here we use the term in all its splendid connotations – the dissenting academic voice:

…being fired, censored, threatened, or expelled takes place through a sequence of events where interpretations and judgments have been made and executed, and the injustice of these acts is established through narrative means. Understanding how censorship and expulsion works requires an ability to construct a narrative and conduct an interpretation.

The legal system has interpreted writings and actions in certain ways and drawn certain conclusions. But in order to understand how such ‘framing’ is undertaken one needs the Humanities academic to work through, and teach, interpretations rigorously:

An interpretation based on evidence is crucial not just in a court of law for the purpose of illuminating an injustice but also in a humanities classroom, where the point is to learn how to work with a text, to understand how it communicates what it does, the kind of evidence it supplies for its claims, and what relationship to the world it seeks to open or close.

In literary studies – the queen of the Humanities – when we teach protocols of reading, we teach reading not for ourselves and about people like us but for the Other, the one who is different from us, and this is precisely what generates the sense of the world out there.

A doomed university arises from the imposition of frames of interpretation that allow no difference, plurality and dissent.

The redundancy of public good?

Higher education, particularly the Humanities, is no longer, perhaps, deemed a ‘public good’. Instead, alongside the endorsement of the STEM disciplines as the only subjects worth studying, we see the reduction of study time for disciplines, with a greater emphasis on fragmented courses and programmes like diplomas and certificates.

By openly endorsing high-fee and completely autonomous private and foreign institutions, we have gifted the very system of higher education to the highest bidder. This of course is not surprising when we have decided the best public good can come only from the private sector, at high costs.

There is indisputably considerable cultural capital of the professoriat. Pierre Bourdieu would underscore the hierarchies of professions and faculties – after Kant, calling it “the conflict of the faculties” – when he writes in Homo Academicus that

University professors are situated rather on the side of the subordinate pole of the field of power and are clearly opposed in this respect to the managers of industry and business.

But as “holders of an institutionalised form of cultural capital”, they are higher and more powerful than writers and ‘freelance’ artists. It is through the thoughtful engagement of such cultural capital, notes Bourdieu, that requires “independence from temporal powers’” and the

adoption of political positions of a very new kind, that is to say, at once external and critical, is incumbent, above all, on the professors of the arts faculties and social science faculty, but in a very unequal way according to their position in this [HEI] space.

This “external and critical” political position can only come from the faculty in these fields themselves coming to understand that they serve the public good, that their role is a notch above just doing basic rote learning methods and serving a democratic idea(l) of difference and plurality.

In other words, the sense of their own purpose – vocation – of ensuring the higher skills of interpretation, the assimilation of evidence and the respect of difference being steadily eroded when the higher education institution is reduced to just an outpost of the regime, marks the rise of a doomed university.

But it would be wrong to say that an oppressive regime and/or a rapidly expanding private sector in higher education institutions are responsible for the rise of the doomed university. In most public institutions, we have crafted a doomed university from within too.

The fully autonomous Homo academicus

The misuse of academic freedom is a key factor in the rise of the doomed university where the faculty’s refusal to rise above the mediocre, upgrade their knowledge or diversify their interests has ensured the destruction of a system of accountability of the public higher education institute.

Accountability is the obligation on the part of an actor in any system to explain or justify her/his conduct to the system. In a public higher education institution, this explanation has to be directed at the public from whose funds salaries are paid.

Also read: With Academic Freedom, Comes Academic Responsibility…Or Does It?

In the name of autonomy, the faculty is empowered to commit any kind of dubious act, from crowd-sourced teaching to the lack of skills in the researcher(s) s/he has supervised and therefore unfitting them to the job market. The fact that these are fee-paying students and therefore can demand accountability has not yet been factored in when we assess institutional and individual non-performance. Hence the call for greater accountability and transparency of public higher education institutions that we see today. With greater pay does not, it would seem, come greater accountability for the public HEI faculty.

Steven Mintz in a scathing piece in Inside Higher Education best summarises this renewed call:

It’s high time to hold institutions accountable for learning, completion, affordability, equity, student satisfaction and program outcomes…A big impediment to reform is that there is virtually no accountability. Unless a program lands on the Wall Street Journal’s front page, a university and its faculty and administrators suffer no professional, legal or reputational consequences.

Oddly, in India, such devastating reports about degrees for sale, plagiarised research, chronic faculty absenteeism, and harassment have made the front pages, but the fully autonomous homo academicus gets away, again and again. Hence, as Mintz notes in the case of American higher education institutions, “the worst punishment is embarrassment, which a HEI can brush off by claiming (as NYU did) that the situation is improving”.

More pressure, it appears, to be accountable, is inevitable. As a recent essay puts it:

…accreditations and rankings are also often named as pressures that ensure and improve quality and the academic and educational offers made by … Key stakeholders … are students and their parents, especially when making education choices, and administrators, who perceive these instruments as important for their institutions’ future, such as access to funding opportunities.

With falling enrolment being reported in multiple higher education institutions across the country, and drop-out rates soaring, the question to be asked is of accountability: is the discipline doing its best to attract and retain students, or is the teaching so mediocre that students drop out (admitting that there are likely to be other factors, such as funding and poor infrastructure, that cause drop-out)? Have higher education institutions reneged on their social accountability in order to indulge their faculty?

The doomed university arises from the misuse of academic freedoms and privileges where faculty have seen the higher education institutions as a sinecure and/or retirement home. The doomed university is clearly on the rise.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.