The Assault on Higher Education

Prabhat Patnaik

WHAT we are witnessing today is an assault on higher education the like of which we have not seen since independence. This assault must be defeated if our country is to retain a degree of creativity and independence of thought and not slip back into a state of complete intellectual parasitism upon the advanced capitalist countries, reminiscent of the colonial times.

This assault on higher education is occurring at four distinct but interrelated levels. The first is an assault at the epistemic level, which seeks to give an official imprimatur to the idea that evidence does not count for establishing the truth-value of a proposition about reality. This entails an obliteration of any distinction between science and prejudice, between mythology and history, and between “fact” and fiction. The prime minister’s remark at no less an event than the Indian Science Congress that Ganesh’s trunk shows that ancient India knew plastic surgery, exemplifies this epistemic affront, amounting to an epistemic assault, on thought, and hence upon the sphere of higher education that is supposed be dealing with thought. This was not just a casual remark, an aberration, a mere slip which one could ignore. A whole host of political bigwigs of the ruling party have been busy making such outlandish remarks. And since the RSS which is the ideological parent of the ruling party has its own version of history which it advances in justification of its project of Hindu Rashtra, but which also has complete scorn for any historical evidence that goes against its version, this epistemic assault cannot be taken as merely coincidental. It prepares the ground for a destruction of reason which is central to any communal-authoritarian project.

This attempt at a destruction of reason by the political leadership becomes particularly worrying because of the second factor, namely an attempt at political control over the sphere of higher education. While political interference, and greater political say in academic matters relating to education, have been increasing for quite some time, even before the current government came to power, the current government is pursuing this path with a single-minded ruthlessness that was absent earlier and that also has a distinct purpose now, of advancing the Hindutva agenda.

The proposal to do away with the University Grants Commission is the culmination of this pursuit. The role of funding universities which the UGC currently has will now be taken over by the HRD ministry directly (though because of the widespread criticism this has generated HRD ministry’s funding, though decided by itself, may have to be routed through some “front” committee); and the supervisory role of the UGC will now be exercised through a Higher Education Commission of India.

Of the twelve members the HECI will have, only two will be functioning academics; the rest would be bureaucrats of one kind or another (including two vice-chancellors that are unlikely to be any different), who would be more or less committed to doing the government’s bidding. And the HECI’s jurisdiction for interfering in academic matters like course-content, and in administrative matters like the nomination of deans and chairpersons, will be far greater than the UGC’s has ever been, with non-compliance with its directives being even considered a criminal offence, punishable with imprisonment for up to two years for the concerned university authorities.

As if this was not enough, there will be an advisory council above the HECI which will be presided over by the HRD minister and will influence the activities of the HECI. In short the legislation to replace the UGC that is in the offing is trying to take over the running of higher education institutions from the hands of academics to those of the political rulers, which, when combined with the epistemic predilections of the current political rulers, portends an abysmal future for our higher education system.

This politically imposed destruction of reason is facilitated by the third factor I want to draw attention to, namely a change that is occurring in the social composition of the student intake into higher education institutions, which entails an exclusion of students from dalit communities and other deprived and marginalised groups. The policy of reservations which was in force until now in government institutions is losing its effectiveness, both because the higher education sector itself is getting increasingly privatised, and also because even in government institutions reservation provisions are being violated with impunity. In the case of the so-called special “paying” courses in public universities, reservations are in any case violated; but even for normal courses where they used to be effective, public universities have now started paying less attention to them, as the Hindutva assertion that has gained ascendancy inevitably takes the form of an upper caste assertion.

Under the policy of reservations, a stratum of students from dalit and other marginalised backgrounds had entered universities earlier and they had a certain commitment to keeping a reason-based academic discourse going, for that was a means of sensitising society to the plight of the groups from which they were drawn. With their growing exclusion the social constituency for reason within the universities tends to shrink. Of course their exclusion is reprehensible on other grounds too which have rightly been highlighted, namely, that it denies social justice and is fundamentally anti-democratic. But what is often not appreciated is that such exclusion also removes a social bulwark within the university system against the destruction of reason, against the attempts to pass off mythology as history and prejudice as science.

This politically-imposed destruction of reason occurs in tandem with, and complements, a fourth factor, namely the commoditisation of education, of which the current privatisation of higher education is the obvious manifestation. Instead of education being provided almost free to students drawn from all segments of society so that it can fulfill a social role, we are now moving towards a system where private entrepreneurs are engaged in providing higher education at a suitably exorbitant price to students who can afford it, in order to earn a profit for themselves.

There are three types of justification for such profit-making institutions which are advanced by its defenders. All these however are completely false. The first is that they cannot be called profit-making since all the profits that such institutions earn are ploughed back as investment into the institutions themselves. This argument is obviously false: just as a corporate entity’s character as a profit-making institution does not get altered just because its profits are ploughed back as investment into the entity itself, likewise the profit-making character of an educational institution does not change if it ploughs back all its profits into the institution itself.

The second falsehood is to say that all private institutions, even in advanced countries, are profit-making institutions in this sense. This is wrong since a distinction must be drawn between institutions started by philanthropic individuals and groups through endowments and bequests and profit-making institutions. The former have been with us for long and Christian missionary educational institutions belong to this category. In countries like the US there are renowned universities like Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, which are private, established through endowments by philanthropic individuals; but they do not belong to the category of profit-making institutions that are coming up in India. This is for two obvious reasons. One, all such institutions, including the Christian institutions in India, involve substantial cross-subsidisation within them: some students pay high fees so that others can be subsidised. And two, relative to any standard, whether the minimum income of an employed worker in their respective countries, or even the fees charged by comparable public educational institutions in their respective countries, the fees charged by the private profit-making institutions that are coming up in India are far higher than in universities like Harvard or Stanford. The fees in India are truly exorbitant and they are not being used to cross-subsidise anybody.

The third false claim is that such exorbitant fees will not deter students from poor or marginalised backgrounds from entering such institutions, since they can study on the basis of loans which can be paid back when they complete their education and start earning. This claim is false because we live in a society far from full employment; a student who completes education in one of these exorbitant-fee-charging institutions is not assured of employment, because of which the student’s ability to pay back the loan is not assured. This very fact would deter the student from wanting to study on the basis of a loan. These institutions in short are intrinsically exclusionary.

But it may well be asked: what is wrong in having a higher education system based primarily on such institutions? What in short is wrong with the direction in which we are moving? A basic and obvious answer is its being exclusionary. We are in short building a higher education system that is fundamentally anti-democratic, socially regressive and hence repugnant.

But there is also a less obvious aspect to the commoditisation of education that needs recognition. Education gets commoditised because the products of the education system, into whom education enters as an input, themselves become commodities. And a commodity is something which for the seller represents pure exchange value, i.e., simply an amount of money that he can obtain. In other words, commoditisation of education creates a system where the products of the education system see themselves in terms of the amount of money they can command in the market. They become devoid of any social sensitivity, of any concern for others; they become completely self-centred individuals with little interest in society.

They also become persons who despite having received an “education” have little appreciation of the grandeur of the world of ideas. They have little inclination towards questioning of any kind. A commodity is a finished packaged thing; and this particular commodity, education, has to be imbibed as an input for raising one’s own value in the market. Questioning comes in the way of this imbibing. Likewise those receiving such education have little inclination towards exploring their own potential creativity.

Commoditisation of education can at best impart some skills to the recipients but it does not make them into socially sensitive, questioning or creative human beings. It detaches the acquisition of skills from creating “organic intellectuals of the people” which should be the objective of higher education in societies like ours. Not that there should not be the acquisition of skills but this acquisition must be informed by a social sensitivity rather than by the mere drive to convert the skilled person into a commodity. What the higher education system that is in the process of being commoditised will create, instead, is only a pool of skilled manpower for international capital, which happens to be cheaper than what it can hope to get in the metropolitan countries; and at the same time it will serve to create a set of “organic intellectuals for international capital”.

This is a fundamental betrayal of our struggle for freedom. When Gandhi had asked students to give up studies and join the civil disobedience movement, Tagore had asked him why he was doing so in a society where there were so few educated people. Gandhi had answered that the colonial educational system produced only the servants of the Raj. What he wanted instead, to use the terminology of Antonio Gramsci, was a set of organic intellectuals of the Indian people, for which he had set up a number of institutions himself. After independence the entire educational system of free India had to serve this purpose; to reconvert it into a means of turning out servants, not of the Raj any longer but of international capital, with little social sensitivity, is thus a betrayal of our freedom struggle.

Since commoditisation ironically is proceeding much faster in India than even in the advanced capitalist countries, the destruction of creativity here will only make us parasitical on ideas emanating from the West. And a country that is intellectually parasitical compromises de facto on its freedom.

Commoditisation of education and the politically-imposed destruction of reason complement one another. Both lead to the creation of products of the system who do not question hierarchy, who do not dissent and who obediently follow the dictates of capital in the economic realm and of Hindutva elsewhere. These products will be the counterpart of the corporate-communal alliance that constitutes the ruling alliance in our country today.

                                                                  

 

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