Unemployment, skyrocketing prices and other governance-related problems are not the failures of the Indian higher education system

This is in response to Justice Markandey Katju’s article that appeared in The Hindu on September 3, 2012, entitled “Professor, teach thyself.” At the outset, let me say that a number of issues that he has raised in his article are justifiable criticisms of India’s higher education system and hence deserve further discussion even if one were to ignore the highly condescending tone of the article. However, Justice Katju’s arguments also suffer from several serious logical and substantive flaws.

He is critical of the fact that while a great amount of money is pumped into the higher education sector in India, money spent on primary education is negligible. It is the latter sector that needs resources, he argues, because the huge amounts of money spent on higher education in the country are “for the benefit of foreign countries.” Even if one were to buy this highly skewed and factually incorrect argument, one is at a loss to understand how the “professors” are responsible for this state of affairs. Surely, it is not the university fraternity that makes decisions regarding budgetary allocation in this country. Just because the government’s policies do not prioritise primary education, it does not follow that we stop funding the higher education sector; that is indeed a curious argument. Funding the country’s primary education sector, which is indeed a priority, need not be at the cost of India’s higher education sector.

The ‘state-of-the-art’ myth

On the one hand, he argues that the Indian university system should produce Nobel laureates and “Fellows of the Royal Society,” emulating the universities in advanced countries such as Australia. On the other, he also complains about the Rs.150 crore that is annually given to universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He also complains about the “state-of-the-art” campuses and “air-conditioning” provided to institutions of higher education in India. Has Justice Katju ever made an effort to inquire about the facilities and infrastructure available in western universities?

Most universities in India still do not have access to the latest journals; and when we think of “state of the art facilities,” we only have in mind clean toilets, and electricity to run our computers. The fact is that most Indian universities do not have the funds to air-condition lecture halls or provide air-conditioning even in the chambers of senior professors; that is certainly the case in JNU. I wonder if Justice Katju would be able to work out of a non-air-conditioned office and lecture in furnace-like lecture halls for hours together in Delhi’s sweltering heat!

The ‘highly paid’ myth

Justice Katju writes that the professors are given “huge salaries and fine houses to live in.” This is yet another factually incorrect argument. If he wishes to understand how much professors get paid for their work, he should compare their salaries with the salaries of those holding equivalent ranks in the government or the judiciary. While I tend to agree with the spirit of this argument that a large number of academics do not engage in high-quality research and that their publications are “mostly poor,” I wish to point out that there are several structural reasons why academic research in India may not be policy relevant. Those of us who teach/research international relations or India’s foreign and defence policy, for instance, are aware that the government’s unwillingness to declassify and open its archival records on defence, security and foreign policy matters to public access even after 30 years of a particular policy decision is one of the major reasons why it is almost impossible to produce authoritative academic assessments in these fields. When we do write, policymakers would discard it saying it is inaccurate and speculative, and they are not entirely wrong in saying so. However, if a considerable amount of academic writing in India on foreign policy and national security is widely considered to be based on guesswork, please don’t put the blame entirely on the professors. The government’s archaic secrecy laws have to take part of the blame.

The objective of higher education

I also fail to understand how IIT and IIM professors are to be blamed if their students get employment abroad and prefer to leave India. If anything, the very fact that IIT and IIM products are chased after by the international business houses proves that their professors are actually doing a fine job of giving them world-class education. Moreover, it is patently misleading to suggest that the government should stop funding higher education because of the brain drain from the country.

Finally, there is a larger substantive question that Justice Katju’s article raises. He asks whether the higher education system in India has managed to raise the standard of living of the poor Indian masses who are struggling with massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, huge problems of health care, housing etc. I have fundamental issues with this line of argument. First of all, massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices and such other governance-related problems are not the failures of the Indian higher education system: these are systemic failures and pinning that on the Indian higher education system is grossly unfair. Second, the primary job of the universities is to teach students and guide their research, not to tell the government how to run the country. Third, even when the universities produce research-based studies on ways of improving various aspects of governance in the country, the government hardly ever takes notice of the research outputs of universities. If the babus don’t listen to the professors, why blame the professors? Finally, Justice Katju’s “instrumental” understanding of education is deeply problematic. He seems to argue that the sole objective of higher education is to help the governance of the country. Going by that argument, any intellectual or academic pursuit that has no direct instrumental value for governing the country is a useless enterprise. Hence, the production, accumulation and transfer of knowledge on philosophy, ancient history, African tribal societies, Victorian drama and aesthetics have to be considered as a waste of time since they don’t contribute to solving governance problems in India!

(Happymon Jacob teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

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Professor, teach thyselfSeptember 3, 2012

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