Tuesday, January 4, 2011

University Life in the new Millennium and challenges before CRITIQUE

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

Higher education in India is undergoing fundamental changes. Ever since its beginnings under colonialism, modern higher education has always had a social purpose. If the British saw universities established by them as part of a public sphere under colonial modernity, then to the post-independence Nehruvian elite institutions of higher learning were integral to their project of shaping India into a modern nation-state. Universities of British India aimed to produce civil subjects of a colonial empire, post independence Universities defined their objective as enlightened and modern citizenry. Rarely did reality match proclaimed aims. The civil liberalism of colonial universities could not cover the underlying racial ideology of superior ‘Whites’ and dark natives who were to be civilised, and they produced not only loyal subjects of the Empire, but also nationalists and revolutionaries. Nehruvian universities were one more instance of how in the name of nation building the post independence rulers of the country established, what Amartaya Sen calls, a socialism for the rich. Universities were state subsidised gate keepers to the privileges of bureaucracy, technocracy and cultural elites, while the overwhelming majority of Indians were left out to languish in poverty and illiteracy. Nevertheless, proclaimed aims had a determining influence on formal structures and internal functioning. For instance, the self image of being modern public institutions meant that universities had open committees as final deliberative and executive bodies; from thesis committees supervising individual students to Senate or Executive/Academic councils overseeing university policies and bureaucracy.

The Nehruvian edifice of governance has been crumbling since the Indian ruling classes embraced neo-liberalism more than two decades ago. The new mode of governance and its associated ideology, which emerged with the defeat of socialisms of the twentieth century (of both revolutionary and reformist varieties), are projects in the service of capitalism. Their single motive is to not allow any social concern to regulate, control or confront capital. Their success is proof that the society today is hostage to capitalism and capitalists. Universities are no longer expected to serve social purposes that do not also serve capitalism directly. Fundamental shifts have taken place in the valuation of knowledge worth pursuing at universities. Students are not expected to explore a particular sphere of knowledge, understanding its core, depth, contours, hidden niches, dead-ends and debates, but to quickly master a package to marketable skills. Researchers are not expected to embark on open-ended enquiries, but to produce knowledge commodities that can be patented. Capitalism has higher education under its clutches, and is shaping it according to its requirements and image. The emerging scenario of higher education in India is akin to a mix of sweatshop factories and shopping malls. If students from lower middle and working classes can be found studying in seedy coaching centers and small town colleges run by under-paid temporary teachers, then parking lots of elite colleges and universities are full with student driven Hondas and Marutis. Already a near majority of Indian young women and men get higher education in private institutions, charging exorbitant fees. Conspiratorially lax regulation in a captive market has meant that higher education institutions are a sure bet to earn hefty profits. Political Mafiosi has been joined by builders, real-estate agents, and other shady operators in the honourable profession of selling degrees. Ministers like Mr Kapil Sibal are worried over deteriorating quality. They think that competition from foreign universities and a statutory commission where students can claim compensation from sub-standard institutions will stem the rot. The first is the vain hope of an ideologically bankrupt elite that has hitched its wagon to global capitalism, and is supine even before its second rate products. The second step does not confront the basic fact that public regulation of private enterprises under neo-liberalism is doomed to fail. This is true as much of commercial banking in the US, as of institutions of higher learning in India. It is clear that our education minister is oblivious of a basic reality: institutions of higher learning thrive only in public domain. Even in the US, where some of the best universities are private, these are not run as private enterprises (though neo-liberalism is fostering this tendency) but are largely public (both state and non-state) funded. 

The stench of neo-liberal ‘reforms’ has entered portals of state institutions like the University of Delhi too. It is no body’s case that DU was in pink of health earlier. Complete unaccountability of administrators and teachers has resulted in an examination system which rewards rote learning, rather than encouraging critical thinking. The syllabi are outdated, and teaching indifferent. But an honest concern for these is not what motivates mandarins of the UGC and officials like the current VC. Privatisation, as a solution to crises of funding and accountability, and dumbing down of education from a free endeavour of learning to marketable skills, is what motivates them. Per student reduced subsidy and increased fees are one consequence. Another necessary casualty of neo-liberalism are norms of functioning that were motivated by public concerns of higher education in earlier eras, and were largely democratic in nature. Hence, in the name of reforms university administration has brazenly violated established procedures of broad based consultation and committee decisions. Back-door entry of European Studies Center-Programme in Department of Sociology and introduction of half-baked semester system for undergraduate science courses are prime examples of subterfuge and executive arrogance. 

Attacks on democratic norms sharpen democratic consciousness, which can’t but make a thinking student body aware of inequalities that spread much beyond its immediate concerns. In a country like India, university space is never universal. It is always fissured by boundaries and margins. Foremost are perhaps class distinctions and separations. Delhi University has enough members of the Gen-X, dressed expensively, equipped with fanciest gadgets and driven in expensive vehicles; the cheerful crowd whose photographs at the time of admissions and college festivals appear in news papers like Delhi Times. And then, there is the majority of students from lower middle and working classes, many from mofussil towns, most of whom are first generation university entrants. For them university life can be a breath of fresh air, of widening horizons and bright futures, but in reality is a daily struggle against tight finances and patriarchal constraints. While privileged students eager to learn have avenues other than the university teaching available to them, the thirst for knowledge of under privileged students is a forlorn cry in the dead academic atmosphere of university. For bright young women and men of subaltern classes higher education is often the means to climb the class hierarchy, which also means class alienation and their evolution into inorganic intellectuals. It seems University of Delhi is failing even in this standard function of a university. Rather than opening cross-class channels, the life in university seems to be deepening class divisions. That is how it sure appears from the chasm that separates the smug life of elite colleges of North Campus from colleges in rural Delhi. Class distinctions are overlain with caste exclusions. Life of a dalit student, admitted ‘on quota’, is riddled with humiliations by teachers and fellow students. Students from the so called ‘North-East’ bear the racial burden of looking different and not being enough from the ‘mainstream’. Students and teachers from Kashmir bear the so called ‘anti-national’ tag. Self indulgence of normally abled pushes the numerically few physically challenged students out of the visible public life of university; outside the margins where they are expected to survive on the goodwill of normally abled. International students from Africa, Kampuchea and Vietnam suffer racial prejudice. Nearly half of the student body, composed of women suffer gender discrimination and sexual harassment; they are supposed to pass certain areas of campus and some u-specials with their eyes and head lowered, if pervert teachers touch them in the guise of special favour they are to bear it quietly, if they stay in hostels they are to follow prison camp like rules. Non-heteronormative students are permanent objects of ridicule and gossip. It is clear that rather than providing an enlightened experience of human diversity and difference, life in University congeals and deepens existing boundaries, prejudices and hierarchies. 

Higher education is a privileged activity. The Government of India subsidy per student to DU is comparable to country’s per capita income. University as an institution of privilege survives in a social world, where its weight is born by underpaid workers. Central government regulations have frozen permanent recruitment to the posts of chowkidars, safai karamcharis, mess workers, peons, malis, and office assistants. Whereas university teachers and bureaucracy can look forward to a life of assured employment, health insurance and retirement benefits, those who materially sustain the university as a functioning space are condemned to work as temporary contract workers. More odious is the widespread practice of not giving them even the statutory minimum wage and withholding ESI benefits. That is, University and college authorities, which are principal employers of these contract workers, openly disregard their legal responsibilities, and at places, are mired in corruption in cahoots with private contractors. 

Amid conditions like these, CRITIQUE presents itself as a forum of critical reflection, and strategic counter offensive to neo-liberalism at the level of ideas and sensibilities. It is guided by Marx’s dictum, ‘Doubt Everything’. However, while subjecting every received wisdom to objective criticism, it aims also not to fall prey to temptations of post-modern relativism. For, it is also committed to the thesis that the point of critical thinking is not to interpret the world this way, or that, but to change it fundamentally. Ills and problems of university can not be negotiated away. Their cure and solutions lie in clear headed planning, creative organising, and resolute struggles. University of Delhi is fortunate in having number of organisations fighting against injustice, inequality and for rights of students, teachers and workers. CRITIQUE stands with them in their struggles. To every student and teacher who understands that life in a university like the DU is not a carnival through which students can sleepwalk to cherished pay packages; to every student, teacher and worker who knows that current university as an organisation is unjust, its power centers are systematically undermining available democratic space, and its institutional structures have degenerated to become vehicles of favouritism and corruption, CRITQUE exhorts, questions, and appeals them to write and join. 


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