Jamia VC Must Remember That Education is Not for Sale

What professor Najma Akhtar seems to have overlooked is that to reduce the university into a training school for the industrial work force is to attack the core principle of higher education.

Under the rule of corporate time, the classroom is no longer a public space concerned with issues of justice, critical learning, or the knowledge and skills necessary for civic engagement. As training replaces education, the classroom, along with pedagogy itself, is transformed because of the corporate structuring of the university.
Henry Giroux

Jamia Millia Islamia has found its first woman vice-chancellor. Yes, as students, teachers and educationists, we are eager to see the way professor Najma Akhtar imagines the idea of a university and strives for its implementation, particularly at a time when public universities are in deep crisis, and the rationale of the neoliberal market – driven by the accelerated growth of private universities – transforms education into a commodity for sale.

However, her initial statement isn’t very promising. She feels that there are courses which are ‘old fashioned‘, and have lost their relevance. Moreover, she feels that the courses have to be developed ‘in consultation with industries‘ because ‘we have to learn to earn‘. She is not happy about the fact that ‘central universities have been spoon-fed by the government’. Hence, universities have to earn something on their own.

Well, I do agree with her that from time to time we ought to reformulate, update and revise the courses we teach. A university grows only if it is willing to innovate and experiment. However, the danger is that in her tone I find the celebration of an instrumental orientation to the culture and practice of higher education.

Where is the intrinsic value of education?

To begin with, let us reflect on the notion of ‘relevance’. If you allow the market or the industry to define what is ‘relevant’ and what is ‘worth-learning’, you destroy the very idea of a university: its idealism, its epistemological pluralism, its quest for foundational knowledge and its longing for higher values.

Najma Akhtar. Credit: Facebook

A university ought to be a place where you should expect a professor of, say, Urdu literature conversing with a researcher in bio-technology in the cafetaria. A university ought to be a place where poetry, philosophy and theoretical physics are celebrated even if these branches of knowledge have no direct relationship with the industries. A university ought to be a place where students and teachers can dare to see something beyond ‘callous cash payment’.

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Take a simple illustration. A graduate in ‘hotel management’ might get a job quite smoothly. But then, a PhD in ancient history might not assure instant placement and a good salary package. Does it then mean that history as a discipline is less relevant than hotel management or fashion designing? In fact, what professor Akhtar seems to have forgotten is that if knowledge is defined purely by ‘instrumental’ interests, we lose ‘hermeneutic’ and ’emancipatory’ possibilities in education.

To reduce the university into a training school for the industrial work force is to attack the core principle of higher education. Education – say, writing a book on Jamini Roy’s painting, or doing a thesis on the poetry of Walt Whitman – has its intrinsic value: beyond what the industry regards as a ‘profit-making’ enterprise.

Yes, jobs are important. But then, we have to ask why the establishment does not create jobs for students of literature, philosophy, physics and mathematics. Why is it that teachers and researchers are not recruited adequately? And why is it that there are not sufficient fellowships and rewards for those who work in the domain of classical studies, literature, philosophy, art and aesthetics? And why is it that the state seeks to withdraw from the realm of education, and asks the university to find its own resources?

Professor Akhtar, sadly, is not asking these questions. Instead, she seems to be suggesting what techno-managers do: measure the ‘outcome’ of a course in terms of its economic feasibility, prioritise the needs of the market and reduce learning into ‘training’ – training for the ‘skills’ that the corporate world needs.

And hence, as a young learner, I must get the message: I have to pay heavily for the market-friendly ‘relevant’ courses, and I should not bother much about the other pursuits in the university. Premchand is irrelevant, Tagore is too poetic, Marx is a ‘problem-maker’, Foucault is an ‘intellectual type’ and Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit are just historical memories – not relevant for the age that values techno-science, commerce and management.

Sing in tune with the market. Don’t expect anything higher from education. Is this the message that professor Akhtar is conveying?

How not to fall into the trap of ‘relevance’

I have a deep sense of gratitude for the vision of a public university. Yes, in the process of my growing up, I saw that it was affordable. There were spirited teachers, and we got an education in a much broader sense of the term. Apart from specialisation in academic disciplines, we began to value the oceanic current in a university: its cosmopolitanism, its plurality of perspectives, its political debates and its constant reflections on poetry, aesthetics, cinema, religion and philosophy. Idealism was not dead. Not everything was measured, calculated and marketed.

Also read: The Myth of Value-Neutral Teaching

These days, when I look at what I regard as the growing industry of ‘education shops’,  I experience the absence of this quest. With the corporatisation of education, marketisation of knowledge and the dissociation of ‘skills’ from politics, ethics and critical thinking, these institutions transform a learner into a consumer, a teacher into a service provider and a course into a set of measurable utilities.

In an environment filled with techno-managerial smartness, I see ‘information technology’, ‘corporate law’, ‘business management’ and ‘clinical psychology’ as attractive ‘packages’ – almost like ‘branded’ products.

No, in those education shops you would not find Tagore conversing with Einstein, Mrinal Sen talking about Charlie Chaplin, a historian reflecting on the exchange of letters between Andrews and Gandhi and a poet talking about Allama Iqbal and Mirza Ghalib. Because the market has already declared these strivings as ‘useless’ and ‘non-productive’.

Yes, professor Akhtar, you ought to contemplate and resist the temptation of falling into the trap of what the corporate lobby regards as ‘relevant’ education. There is no reason to think that a vice-chancellor has ceased to be an educationist.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of Sociology at JNU.