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Updated: January 25, 2011 16:43 IST

A wake-up call on higher education

P. K. Doraiswamy
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This is a compilation of lectures delivered before different audiences and at different points in time. Consequently, there is some overlapping and repetition of points and arguments. The lectures cover a wide area related to higher education, from the state of universities to the making of an inclusive society to social theory and social science research.

Taken overall, the book is a sociological study of university, prompted by the strident demand for equality, on the one hand, and the persistent inequality, on the other. It also highlights the consequences, even if unintended, of the reckless expansion of universities, driven mainly by social and political expediencies rather than academic imperatives.

Coming as they do from a man of eminence and stature like Andre Beteille, the views and comments on the higher education scene carry enormous weight and demand greatest attention.

To put briefly what Beteille has to say on universities and the state of university education, the earliest universities were, in theory, open institutions but they did not work for social inclusiveness. It was only after Independence did governments think of reducing inequality in education through starting more universities and providing for caste-based quotas in admissions and appointments.

Maintain standards

As a public institution, the university has to be socially inclusive. In fact, drawing upon a larger genetic pool, it can attract diverse talent. But as a centre of learning and research, it must also maintain academic standards. In India, the two objectives, important in themselves, could not be harmonised. This is because the government did not do enough at the school level by way of enabling the students from the disadvantaged sections and those in the rural areas to equip themselves for higher education.

As a result, while attempting to achieve inclusiveness, the academic standards got short shrift. The government failed to realise that equality demands not just the removal of disabilities but the creation of abilities as well. Those in charge of running the universities meekly submitted to pressure by relaxing standards in order to fulfil the quota requirements.

In consequence, universities proliferated and grew in size, but could no longer conform to the original concept of a self-governing community of scholars — they are neither self-governing nor do they have a sense of community or scholarship.

Beteille puts forth a strong case for the government taking steps to expand and improve school education and to ensure that students from the disadvantaged sections are well groomed for higher education.

Arguing against mindless quantitative expansion, he wants universities to be compact entities, each one having its own core of disciplines, with a supplementary list of studies chosen to suit the resources available — academic, financial, and infrastructure.

On the question of social inclusiveness and diversity, he says that, once the standard of school education is raised to the desired level, the responsibility on this score could be shifted to universities, without any interference from the government, as is the case with foreign universities. Affirmative action with academic autonomy should be the goal.

Self-defeating

While social discrimination is despicable and needs to be ended, in matters academic there has to be differentiation on the basis of ability, aptitude, and performance. Without improving the social and economic status of individuals, he argues, any attempt to achieve equality through identity politics (which is electorally attractive) will be self-defeating in the long term.

Discussing social science research, Beteille says that, after Independence, it got linked to the government's development programmes. Social science should not be confined to economic development or areas where funds are easy to come by. It should go beyond contributing to policy formulation and help create an informed citizenry. Training in social theory helps one to step back and look at problems dispassionately and in a holistic fashion. Institutions of higher learning should encourage such a perspective in social science research.

In essence, the book seeks to impress on the government the need to correct the lopsided emphasis that is being placed on identity politics as a solution to social inequality in higher education.

To those in charge of universities, it is in the nature of a wake-up all. It calls upon them to recover their ‘nerve' and do everything to preserve academic autonomy and protect it against erosive elements.

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