Why 'Autonomy' in Higher Education is a Socially Exclusivist Enterprise

Because knowledge is the basis of social formation, the fragmentation of knowledge, pushed by corporate interests and upper caste elite, will lead to the fragmentation of society itself.

One of the biggest questions facing higher education today is: “Is ‘autonomy’ a genuine reform?” “Autonomy” which is ostensibly for the benefit the teaching community and the academic profession at large, permits the academic institution in question to design its own courses and syllabi, conduct its own exams, and administer itself more or less independently of any regulatory body (currently the University Grants Commission (UGC) in the case of higher education). The stated objective is to encourage ‘excellence’ through a proliferation of choices and institutional competition, as if these are in themselves guarantors of excellence. Furthermore, ‘excellence’ will no longer be measured by the quantity and quality of the knowledge produced or imparted by an institution, but by how popular the institution and/or its courses are; how well its students are ‘placed’ (preferably by it) after graduation; and possibly also how socially exclusive it can be in the process (in terms of caste, class, region, perhaps even religion and sect). The examples of major private universities in the National Capital Region are corroborative of this.

Inevitably then, the market and its demands will direct and shape almost all these institutions and, the market in turn will be fed by a combination of (a) the poorly educated from poorer institutions (b) poorer students who exit a course (with a lesser degree) after a year or two because of financial constraints, and (c) students of middle class parents who take on crippling education loans and (d) socially exclusive elites who can buy a privileged education, thereby reinforcing the market’s power to create socially structured economic inequality. But in all cases, the former vision of education as a crucial instrument in social transformation, toward greater equity and mindfulness, is supplanted by a desiccated and instrumentalist idea of education as a means to a job and status quoism.

Since the courses and syllabi are oriented towards the demands of the market, and because these institutions will inevitably seek to carve a niche for themselves in that market by offering sector-specific knowledge and training, there will be a greater and greater emphasis on ‘specialised’ knowledge or market-based specialisations; these will, however, become redundant as soon as the market ceases to require that specialisation. This will lead inexorably to the creation of a larger and larger pool of educated unemployed – indeed, unemployable, beyond their limited specialisations.

Illustratively, let’s assume that English departments are told (so much for academic autonomy) that literature courses cannot be monetised sufficiently and that there is a greater market for language and writing skills. Consequently, they are told to offer courses in editing, business communication and technical writing rather than the study of carefully curated literatures from around the world (as if language can be truly taught without literature and, as if literature is taught without acute attention to language). It is a simple truth that a student trained in literature can do a piece of technical writing with aplomb, but the reverse is not the case. It is also true that the student of literature is capable of getting gainful employment in a range of industries and sectors (from management to journalism and more), while a student trained in technical writing is far more constrained, and will go just that far. If some years down the line, the student wants to change jobs or loses her job, the sector-specific knowledge that s/he has gained under autonomy, will minimise his/her job opportunities dramatically.

Worse, the knowledge redundancy resulting from say, technological and administrative changes, will in turn lead to changes in the economies of the sector. The employee then has to be re-trained or retrenched. In such cases, the latter then becomes the ‘obvious’ (cost-cutting) choice, and the individual must absorb the costs of retraining him/herself. So, even if we do not consider the severe impoverishment of the student that accrues from neglecting to cultivate his/her mind, we see that the teaching of literature is vastly more ‘useful’ than the reduction of it to language skills. Similar arguments may be made for other disciplines as well. Such destructive measures in education can come only from fundamental misconceptions about the field, an alarming ignorance about the disciplines concerned and myopic self-interest.

But they have serious long-term financial implications for both students and their parents. Under ‘autonomy’, the cost of training is transferred onto the students, who will pay high fees for ‘specialist’ courses that have been designed with direct market-input, for the market. Students are already being encouraged to take ‘education loans’, with the implicit assurance that their designer courses will get them designer jobs, with massive salaries. But when that designer course ceases to be relevant to the market, the student is out of a job, and stuck with massive debts. This condition already prevails in the US, the UK, and other such countries where higher education has moved strongly towards privatisation. The costs saved by the various sectors of the market, are actually paid for by the student, who is basically forced to pay to bind him/herself, his/her opportunities and his/her employment future, to the vagaries of market-demand. This ‘autonomy’ policy, therefore, has a huge social cost, which will only keep growing.

This ‘autonomy’, then, does not benefit the student; nor does it help improve the quality and quantity of knowledge production and dissemination. The beneficiaries are two: the corporate sector and a ruling elite, who are actually pushing for and underwriting this change; and college and university administrations and managements. With ‘autonomy’, both of these will be freed from (a) the social obligations that are otherwise inherent in the creation and imparting of higher education, and which in fact can only be ensured through public funding and state regulation; and (b) work and service conditions that will preserve the rights and dignity of the teaching and non-teaching communities. These labour rights, which are being whittled away, have been very hard won, the fruit of more than 200 years of international struggle, political thought, philosophical argument, and jurisprudence. They have at their heart the idea of a dignified, autonomous, rounded and progressive human subject and not an abject and flattened one. And that is and should be, the ideological driver behind higher education – the creation of dignity, equity and creativity. It is, therefore, cause for concern that many of these managements are closely associated with, or part of, business groups, or some other socially exclusivist enterprise.

‘Autonomy’, in fact amounts to deregulation, and provides management with more untrammelled powers over their staff and students, leading to the complete de-politicisation of both. By ‘de-politicisation’ we mean the inability to either understand the source of (one’s) disempowerment, and/or redress it, since the institutional mechanisms and the moral impulse behind these have been distorted or dismantled. The graduating student will thus pay, hugely, to become minimally qualified, legally deprived of redressal options, divested of any enabling understanding of the injustice against him/her and others like him/her; and to, therefore, become psychologically and politically incapable of resisting, challenging, confronting or otherwise seeking justice for him/herself. One hears of new moralities of blind obedience over the inquiring spirit, of money over mind, of information over knowledge and of technique over creativity. This is happening here despite the fact that even in the US the humanities are being rediscovered. As far back as 2013, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences Report (US) observed that a utilitarian education leads to severe loss of creativity and, therefore, to a compromised nation. It also notes the importance a “thorough grounding in these subjects (the humanities and social sciences) allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process—as voters, informed consumers, and productive workers.”

How and why is this policy change coming about? Over the last couple of decades, the state has gradually relinquished control over higher education. Before that, as long as it served the needs of the upper caste middle-class – and served, in fact to make and shape it – and as long as that upper caste middle-class could retain control over politics and administration, higher education remained the concern of the state. At the same time, the same state-controlled higher education also began to facilitate the gradual upward mobility of lower castes, especially with the implementation of reservations, thereby seriously threatening the relative homogeneity of this upper caste elite.

The state, now heavily at the mercy of powerful corporate interests, seeks to move out of higher education, rendering both the middle-classes and the lower-classes deeply precarious. Credit: Reuters

When the process of liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation (LPG) began in the 1990s, then, many sections of this same upper caste middle-class perceived it as beneficial, for two reasons: one, because their almost exclusive access to that same state-funded education had made it economically possible for them to benefit socially and economically from LPG, e.g. through venturing into private enterprise. They, therefore, pushed for LPG in all sectors, little realising that LPG itself was designed to accelerate and intensify inequality to the point where this middle-class itself would become, as it has, a precariat.

It is important to remember here that the market effectively exacerbates the exclusivity of opportunities and resources that it is based on in the first place; such opportunities and resources as it might create, it renders even more exclusive. The higher education sector is no different – which brings us to the second reason. Even before ‘autonomy’, this upper caste middle-class had begun to actively participate in the introduction and implementation of LPG, precisely because, by doing so, it hoped to keep the lower caste lower-classes disempowered. It has actively sought to disadvantage them by steadily surrendering the powers of the very state into which it was now being forced to allow lower caste access, to the corporate world. Thus, the state, which is now heavily at the mercy of powerful corporate interests, itself seeks to move out of higher education, rendering both the middle-classes and the lower-classes – albeit to vastly differing extents – deeply precarious, and increasingly, without the psychological, intellectual, ideological and political wherewithal to fight this change. The upper caste middle-class, led by the visions of rapid wealth, power and upward mobility promised by the LPG regime, betrayed its social and political obligations to the classes and castes below it; it is now, in its turn, being slowly betrayed by the corporates whose entry it so avidly facilitated. It has thus conspired in compromising itself, and rendering itself vulnerable to these pressures.

Finally, the parts of the state that are not at the mercy of corporate interests, remain at the mercy of upper caste interests, who foster communal antipathies to retain their upper caste hegemony. They often use state machinery to do this. It is now well known that (private) education, from school to higher education, is increasingly getting communalised as a way to retain social control over a deeply vulnerable, anxiety-ridden and precarious populace. This precariat is regulated and controlled ideologically through the promotion of communalised social values, and even communal militancy in many cases, as we increasingly see. It is controlled viscerally, experientially, and in a deeply gendered and sexualised way through the promotion of cultures of communal violence. The upper caste middle-classes now seek to bolster such communal politics, in the hope that they will thereby manage to retain at least some ideological control and cultural supremacy.

Both, the corporate forces as well as the communal powers thus have the upper caste middle-classes in a vice – a vice that they have rushed into, in a desperate bid to keep the classes and castes below them disadvantaged and at their mercy. Now, equally desperately, they need to revise that understanding – to learn from history, and work along with, rather than against, the lower caste lower-classes.

‘Autonomy’ will therefore lead, not just to the break-up of higher education as we know it. But because knowledge is the basis of social formation, the fragmentation of knowledge will lead to the fragmentation of society itself. When we reject ‘autonomy’, therefore, we are not only fighting against elitism and for social justice; we are calling for nothing less than the preservation of the Indian nation itself. Higher education needs reform, certainly, and through that the reform of the nation; but it does not need ‘reform’ that will, in the end reformulate the nation itself.

Karen Gabriel is an associate professor at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. P.K. Vijayan is an assistant professor at Hindu College, Delhi University.

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