Autonomy, Democracy and Introspection: The Concerns for Higher Education in India

If India wants to have a sophisticated higher education system, it has to adopt a new model of mixing fantastic private and public universities while updating the curriculum to meet the demands of a fast-changing 21st century.

In 2015, professor Amartya Sen, in his book, The Country of First Boys, had expressed his displeasure with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s move to intervene in the academic matters of Nalanda University. It was only one example among many about how democratically elected governments have scant regards for disagreement. Sen has been a very consistent critique of religious fundamentalist forces and a defender of the liberal-democratic tradition. He was humiliated and was almost compelled to quit the chancellorship of the modern Nalanda that was to recreate the values of ancient India’s quest for learning from heterogeneous sources. It is now common knowledge that democracy is not only about the simple principle of the rule of the majority. Democracy’s substantive elements also comprise of the values of plurality and dissent, which are essential to achieve excellence in any domain, including the university.

Government intervention in academic affairs in India’s higher education has become a common practice with regards to recruitment and policy decisions. It jeopardizes the making of a diverse team of academics in the everyday functioning of universities. Autonomy and democracy in Indian universities have been the casualty in the last few decades.

In West Bengal, the erstwhile Left Front government ensured that several party loyalists were appointed as vice-chancellors, teachers and non-teaching staff. Such practice, on many occasions, ignored several deserving candidates. At present, the ruling party is meticulously carrying forward the legacy of an unhealthy practice of the Left Front government in the state. Such a method is in the form of maintaining a close liaison between several institutional heads and the ruling political leadership.

The institutional head must be like an umpire or a referee, keeping a safe and respectable distance from the political leadership. On the other hand, the political leadership must also refrain from meddling with the academic and policy matters of the university, including the governor, the chancellor of several universities in Bengal.

The institutional head of a university must be like an umpire or a referee, keeping a safe and respectable distance from the political leadership. Photo: Harini Calamur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The tax payer’s money is used to run publicly funded universities and research institutes in India. Thus it is only fair to demand public scrutiny, accountability and transparency. However, campus violence in the last few decades in some reputed Indian universities has vitiated the academic environment of the higher education scene. Violence is an end to politics; getting rid of politics. Politics should be concerned about the idea of good for the many instead of the few. One takes refuge to violence only when there are no substantive arguments to convince others. Political leadership, over the last few decades, has lacked confidence and has often taken the interventionist route to capture university campuses.

In recent years, student protests have often turned into violent protests without any sense of substantive politics based on clarity of thought in articulating democratic demands. In many cases, such violent and uncivil protests are equivalent to low-level anarchism and lumpenism. Off late, such rude form of protests is arising from the post-liberalisation generation that is increasingly becoming self-centred with an impulsive behavioural pattern. It is a generation that is desperately looking for instant success and has a stiff attention-seeking syndrome.

However, it reflects upon the teachers of educational institutions as well. As teachers, are we also not supposed to own up what students do? Are we only teaching the syllabus and nothing more? There is an immense need for collective introspection within Indian universities. Such introspection is also required for institutional heads and the political class to separate academics and government intervention.

A brief anecdote from Sen’s autobiography in the Les Prix Nobel would summarise a model of a fascinating educational institution. Sen writes that as a student, he applied to Trinity College, Cambridge because “three remarkable economists of very different political views coexisted there. The Marxist Maurice Dobb and the conservative neo-classicist Dennis Robertson did joint seminars, and Trinity also had Piero Sraffa, a model of scepticism of nearly all the standard schools of thought. …The peaceful—indeed warm—co-existence of Dobb, Robertson and Sraffa was quite remarkable, given the feuding in the rest of the University.”

File photo of economist Amartya Sen. Photo: PTI

Later, Sraffa told Sen “a nice anecdote about Dobb’s joining of Trinity, on the invitation of Robertson. When asked by Robertson whether he would like to teach at Trinity, Dobb said yes enthusiastically, but he suffered later from a deep sense of guilt in not having given Robertson ‘the full facts.’ So he wrote a letter to Robertson apologising for not having mentioned earlier that he was a member of the Communist Party, supplemented by the statement…a rather ‘English’ statement – that he would understand perfectly if in view of that Robertson were to decide that he, Dobb, was not a fit person to teach Trinity undergraduates. Robertson wrote a one-sentence reply: ‘Dear Dobb, so long as you give us a fortnight’s notice before blowing up the Chapel, it will be all right’.”

That was Cambridge in the early 1950s, less than an hour train journey from London. Why should our public universities not look for such heterogeneity and heterodoxy along with gentle humour?

Both Oxford and Cambridge along with the Russel group of universities, the private Ivy League universities and many great American universities do care for plurality. If India wants to have a sophisticated higher education system, then it has to adopt a new model of mixing fantastic private and public universities while updating the curriculum and make it suitable to the demands of a fast-changing 21st century. Along with building select elite universities, the importance of skill enhancements, navigation with new technologies and innovation in learning and teaching methods that will make students capable for getting 21st-century jobs will be the vital contribution for policymakers of higher education in India.

Years before the COVID-19 pandemic, London was full of cycles so that bikers could move from one place to another without polluting the air. That was a great initiative to minimise air and noise pollution. After all, cars and buses, run on fossil fuels, are potential pollutants for any city along with growing populations and spatial limitations on urban roads. Alternative ways of running public transport with alternative energy are still far from reality in India. At this moment, trying out a cycle is a Luddite, economical and a useful way of staying healthy. Going to the workplace by cycling is still a high possibility in a post-COVID world once things become normal after a vaccine becomes available for the public. In Bengal, ordinary people are used to cycling for decades. The current regime in Bengal gave the clamour call that their motto is to transform Kolkata (the postcolonial change of name from the colonial name, Calcutta) to a global city like London. Can’t Kolkata take apt lessons from London?

There are initiatives in the West to cut down on automobiles and encourage bicycles instead. Photo: Pexels

The colonial rulers packed their bags by 1950. The brown sahibs were still hovering around in the 1950s and 1960s. Linguistic nationalism in these decades coincided with the decolonial age and the rapid decline of the English educated brown sahibs. In the political realm, decolonisation was first expressed in the form of linguistic reorganisation of the states in the mid-1950s and later as a volcanic upsurge against the country’s oldest party by late 1960s. These were regional protests often orchestrated by local vernacular elites against the centralised, dynastic and Anglicised elites of the Congress party, directed explicitly against the Nehru-Gandhi family and their faithful and sycophant fixers. West Bengal was not an exception from such an anti-Congress and decolonial political trend.

By the time the Left Front came to power in Bengal in the late 1970s, another struggle was already shaping up in the form of imposing compulsory vernacular medium of instruction in the school and the universities. It was a genuine attempt to democratise universities. But in the name of democratisation, a form of crude egalitarianism emerged in the domain of higher education. Such crude egalitarianism later became the general template of public universities in India in the past three decades.

But what is remarkably noticeable is that at present, a majoritarian nationalist regime with an authoritarian leader at its helm, backed by a fascist force, is enmeshed into an ideological vengeance in the form of taking revenge against all kinds of progressive academicians and student activists. The first casualties of such a vindictive attitude were various public universities and research institutes with the active intervention of the Union government after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Bengal is still far away from Delhi’s ire. But it is caught between managing new district-based universities and the vernacular medium of instruction that has created a jumbled up lingua franca of mixing English and vernaculars not only in content but also in form while writing and speaking. There has been no systematic effort with a grand vision to build proper public and elite private universities in Bengal in this century that could be seen in parts of North and South India. Bengal still has great potential to not only uplift the quality of the existing public institutions but also create a new private elite university that could be a game-changer in the higher education sector in India.

Do Kolkata’s regional capital, India’s big capital and the Bengali cultural capital together have the appetite to take the risk of creating a world-class elite private university in Bengal that could fulfil the demands of surviving and thriving life skills in the 21st century?

Maidul Islam is a political scientist based at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.