Saturday, January 1, 2011

Higher Education in India: A Ticket to Secession

Dr. Sanjay Kumar 

(Note: This article was published in the November issue of CRITIQUE - the monthly of NSI Delhi University Chapter ) 

If the current Government has its way in Parliament and the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill becomes a law, then India will become one of the few countries in the world allowing Universities from other countries to set shop and give degrees in higher education. Is this a sign of the forward march of globalization, now in the portals of higher education, after its successes in markets and culture? There is no denying the fact that higher education and research world over are taking place in a more and more globalised culture and work spaces. New technologies, like the internet, circulation of intellectual workers, both students and faculty, and the emergence of a world wide lingua franca for higher education and research, namely English, are the key enabling elements of this process. A research paper in sciences from anywhere in the world these days is first placed on the internet archive of the Los Alamos Laboratory, and becomes immediately available to the worldwide community of researchers, before it gets peer reviewed and published in a journal.
In this environment, one would expect large inter-mingling of institutions of higher learning. Exchange programmes within institutions are indeed on the upswing, yet one does not hear of a Harvard opening a campus in France, or a Cambridge opening a campus in Germany. It seems, the institutional structure of higher education and research remains spatially rooted and autonomous in character. Nor can it be argued that the presence of foreign universities is necessary for transfer of better pedagogical methods. Such transfers were successfully managed in India during the formative years of IIT’s, within the framework of public education. So what explains the excitement of Indian elite about this bill, as shown by the celebratory claims of the HRD minister?  

An important clue is provided by the headlines of English language newspapers on this issue. Nearly all of these were seen screaming ‘No Quotas’ in big letters. So this indeed is one main reason, why Indian elites welcome foreign universities. Reservation in institutions of higher learning is the only form of Affirmative Action the Indian state has adopted to encourage students from oppressed castes and economically and socially weaker sections of the society. There can be arguments about whether reservation is the best policy to further the interests of weaker sections and promote equality. However, to celebrate its absence as a dis-encumbrance is an entirely different sentiment. This in fact, is a sentiment of secession, a desire to abjure any responsibility of contributing to the society that provides you privileges and a life of comfort. It is a widespread sentiment among the English educated Indian elites that they would rather be somewhere else than in the dirt and mess of India. If today some developed country were to announce an unlimited number of emigration visas for Indians, nearly all Indian elites will be seen queuing up for it. There are discotheques in Delhi which do not allow anyone dressed in an Indian dress, say a salwar, a saree, or a kurta. Yet there are Indians enjoying themselves in such places. Gated communities, hotels, shopping malls and resorts guarded by security guards, and an exclusionary culture are symbols of an enclave life-style. Soon, foreign university campuses are going to be added to the list of such enclaves, where Indian elites can let the world of their desires soar free from any strings from Indian reality. SEZs take this enclave process to another dimension. Here, Indian capitalists can exploit Indian resources, environment and labour, without any encumbrance from the fiscal and social legalities of Indian state. One can ask what is so new in all this? Have not ruling aristocracies in the entire history of humanity shielded themselves behind castles, palaces, and ‘forbidden cities’. Well, the trouble is that India also claims to be a democracy. Messrs Manmohan Singh and Kapil Sibal rule in the name of Indian people. 

Demands for exclusive domains in higher education for elites, from promotion of privatization to inviting foreign universities, come couched in the language of market. If our minister is to be believed, foreign universities will enhance choice, increase competition and provide a benchmark for quality. The chief economic advisor to the prime minister, Prof Kaushik Basu, who has returned for national service after serving Cornell University in the USA (and who before that, was recognized as one of the best teachers Delhi School of Economics has ever had) is also of the same opinion. It is a grave fallacy to view these gentlemen as ‘agents’ of private interests, World Bank, Western governments, etc. as some on the left tend to do. These people realize that Indian higher education is in crisis. Its quality and output is pitiable. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity on this score. It is when they begin to think of solutions, that their class prejudices and lack of imagination get better of them. Their sphere of imagination is circumscribed by a fundamentalist belief (fundamentalist because even clear counter-evidence will not make them question this belief) that markets are a solution to every problem. Markets may be wonderful for high end consumer goods, their competition giving consumers choice and quality. But, is the ‘enterprise’ of higher education identical to producing high end consumer goods. Markets’ record in promoting equity and access is dubious. The only way this concern ever gets addressed in market ideology is via the horrendous notion of ‘trickle down effect’, which means the poor should wait till the rich have had their fill. Markets are great germ fields of scams and self delusional speculation. If anybody needed proof of this, the global financial crises of 2008 are right in our face. Markets quantify and segregate, that is the only way they can discriminate among goods, humans and environments. Markets provide a garden of opportunities for human desires, desires of individuals to own and possess. Humans have been engaged in the venture of invention ever since natural selection separated the genus Homo from the so-called animal world, and gave it the capacity for reflective thinking. Markets give individuals the possessive title of a patent over their inventions. Markets shape humans and societies in very specific ways. 

Is the world of higher education and research such that its problems can be solved by markets? Do humans enter this world merely as buyers and sellers? How do issues of equity and access get addressed in this world? Which aspect of primary human agency gets encouraged in this world, of humans fulfilling desires or engaging in critical reflection? History of modern universities and research bodies gives unambiguous answers. Modern universities in Europe emerged after the easing of religious control over higher learning. Universities were perceived as integral to an emerging pubic sphere that stood as a counter to the world of aristocratic privileges. They were public bodies; that is how they addressed themselves to people at large, and work in them was seen as public engagement. Openness to public discussion and debate, and acceptance of the protocol that veracity of an idea is more important than the prestige (or wealth) of the person asserting it, led to an explosion of ideas, discoveries and inventions. Universities brought together some of the best minds of a country, young and old, novice and experienced, and provided them a fertile ground to interact and grow. Strong pedagogic and intellectual practices were developed in the process, practices that lose their significance if removed from their context. Best of the universities in the world remain public and open, despite creeping trends towards privatization after reduced state funding. But what gets admitted as a dire necessity at an Oxford or Cambridge is trumpeted as a virtue by controllers of higher education in India. Vice-chancellor of Oxford University recently asserted in an interview to Times of India that his university is not a hamburger to be franchised. It seems however, that Indian elites do not get the point. They would be much happy, not just by a franchise, but by crumbs too. Then, what else can one expect from an elite that is bereft of imagination and initiative, which is intellectually and morally bankrupt, an elite breeding in self-hatred, that always wishes to be somewhere else than be in a society which sustains it and over which it lords. Secessionist elite. 
Dr.Sanjay Kumar is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, St. Stephens College, University of Delhi 


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