How India's New Education Structure Is Narrowing the Idea of Dissent

Freedom of expression usually comes with a responsibility but it also comes at a cost which was evident in professor Mehta resigning from Ashoka University.

Developmental economics within a humanist paradigm is conceptualised in the works of thinkers such as Condorcet, Kenneth Arrow, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. They share many affinities with “democratic socialism” which became popular at the time when Wilhelm von Humboldt challenged the metaphysical rationality and theological sovereignty.

India, emerging from the shackles and bondage of colonialism, experimented with the policies inclined towards collective emancipation. Nehru was a firm believer of scientific rationality and humanistic ethics. He greatly emphasised institutions which were meant to liberalise the conservative notions of just and good. India may have failed on the economic front in the initial stage of development but categorically the idea was to develop a free and independent nation with her own value system.

In order to expand the Indian economy, the second wave reform initiated in 1991, called the ‘liberalisation’, ‘privatisation’ and ‘globalisation’ (LPG), which most of the developing countries are practising to fuel their economies while maintaining the affirmative role of government as a welfare state. Later, these two opposing models of development were at crossroads with each other resulting in social, political and economic unrest.

Also read: The ‘Liberal’ Education Envisaged By the Draft Nep Has No Role for Dissent

The market in higher education

The intersection of neoliberal and welfare policies is most glaring in the sphere of education.

Privatisation of education is a natural outcome in the neoliberal trajectory which comes into direct conflict with welfare policies. In a neoliberal state, education is a commodity to be sold and purchased in the market like any other good. In particular, markets are often contrasted favourably against command economies, where both prices and quantities are controlled by the state.

A purely free market would require autonomous institutions with no regulation on market entry; there would be no regulatory limit on tuition fees and the cost of fees would be met by the users. The users would also decide what, where and how to study. Consumer surplus due to reductions in costs (one of the benefits of markets) remains elusive in higher education. However, government funding is reduced and students are required to bridge the funding gap through fee hike.

On the demand-side, students are also constrained in their choices within the free market by their background and social capital as well as more importantly through their academic credentials. Education is an excludable good, i.e., student numbers can be limited by academic selection criteria and tuition fees. On the supply-side universities are constrained by the intervention of high political legislation and party politics. Despite the rhetoric, the market in higher education is still far from “free”.

In the 20th century, neoliberal political apparatus transformed or rather sublimated the value of education to install a new sense of rationality. That very moment post-modern condition appeared as a post-truth epoch where everybody is answering without having any authentic question. Classical liberalism had at least the privilege to ponder upon the question. But neoliberal paradigm erased every single identity of sanity and insanity, justice and injustice, reason and passion. Education in this paradigm is foucauldian in many ways which has a deep sense of love for “certificatory sovereignty”.

Let’s talk about the model university of neoliberal era. Ashoka University emerged as a pioneer in this field where renowned faculty of national and international professors joined the university. But very soon they realised that they were becoming a political liability for the university. Freedom of expression usually comes with a responsibility but it also comes at a cost which was evident in professor Mehta resigning from the university.

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

There must be significant pressure on that voice which was the very foundation of Ashoka, a constructive space for academic freedom and critical questioning with professor Mehta himself being a founding member. Such incidents shed light on the power aspects associated with knowledge in a democracy. This adds to that dimension of India’s status being downgraded to partly free in the recent ‘Freedom in the World’ report.

Professor Mehta has been a constructive critic of the current government and a big name in the field whose resignation shakes the academic world. This brings our attention to the 6000 ad hoc professors of the University of Delhi, who are in an unsecured, deplorable condition. They aren’t provided with social security; their leaves and services are uncertain and they can be terminated at any stage on prior notice of 24 hours without any explanation, on the whims of college principals.

Even the new education policy makes the situation worse for permanent faculties as well. New appointment will be done on tenure track system, where board governors will decide whether to continue their service or not. Time bound evaluation system will be adopted for the faculties of higher education. Culmination of all these initiatives resulted in narrowing the very idea of dissent.

Antonio Gramsci explained the predicament of intellectuals which is relevant in today’s India. Every social group creates strata of intellectuals with itself that are organic to its economic function as well as socio political ones. One of the significant characteristics of any group that is moving towards hegemony is its endeavour to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, and produce its own organic intellectuals.

This is done at the level of educational institutions which act as a pool of human resource supplying other fields such as media, art, academia, etc. Thus power consolidation in a democracy begins with getting educational institutions under control.

As an academician, professor Mehta has rightfully chosen his liberty to critique over other obligations. This gives an idea about how intrinsic liberty actually stands as a concept and is truly liberating in all aspects. However, the ad hoc professors in public universities like Delhi University are still vulnerable for they lack economic and social security.

On top of that if their academic freedom interferes with their employment aspects, it is saddening for a thriving democratic future power like India. We need more such institutional voices in a democracy to keep a power check, periodically reminding the establishment of constitutional principles and public accountability.

Utsav Kumar Singh is assistant professor of Economics at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi.