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The lost voice of the Indian university

A view of Jawaharlal Nehru University administrative building at the JNU campus in New Delhi on March 19, 2018. 
Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A view of Jawaharlal Nehru University administrative building at the JNU campus in New Delhi on March 19, 2018. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Indian universities emerged as institutions where a privileged generation of colonial subjects trained to serve the colonial regime and further Western political ideals. Some graduates went on to serve the colonial state, while others contributed to the nationalist movement.

Reforming higher learning

In the 20th century, the growth of nationalism, liberal education and the process of de-colonialisation offered universities with an opportunity to revise the curriculum and to define new goals. Over the years, these institutions gradually discarded their elitist character and became more representative. In the initial decades after Independence, the government was conscious of various social, economic and financial challenges. It strongly supported these institutions, encouraging them to further develop an academic rigour that would shape a new generation and contribute to the nation-building process. The Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management along with other distinctly envisioned institutions of academic excellence like the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Statistical Institute, and Jawaharlal Nehru University emerged as model institutions that defined the new academic ethos and the vigour of the modern Indian nation.

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The institutional and academic autonomy offered to these institutions was central to their emerging as premier institutions of higher learning in India. Other universities in India also took the lead, revised curricula and set about the task of reforming the university as a space for healthy academic engagement. These changes were marked by the growing importance of various large representative institutional bodies like faculty committees, committees of courses, board of studies, university senates, academic councils and executive councils. These bodies oversaw the administrative and academic functioning of the university and ensured a collective decision-making based on serious academic deliberation. It was here that academicians contested each other’s claims over ideological positions, scholarly beliefs, collectively shaped curricula and defined the fertile learning space that these institutions of higher learning espouse. This healthy scholarly debate shaped the process of nation building in independent India. It inspired individuals who went on to contribute to the growth of the economy, politics and shaped various social movements that transformed the nation in the first 50 years of the republic.

A new intellectual regime

From 2005 onwards, these changes that infused a new vigour in institutional academia were undermined by government policy that displayed an eagerness to impose a new intellectual regime. The constitution of the National Knowledge Commission and a very strong emphasis on privatisation of education undermined the deliberative and independent character of these institutions of higher education. Administrative and academic decisions were imposed from above and discussions within various academic bodies were discouraged. The imposition of the semester system across India and the introduction of a four-year undergraduate programme in many public and private universities were hallmarks of this new era of bureaucratic centralisation. The government of the day undervalued the academic achievements of scholars from Indian universities, romanticised American academia and undermined all the progress, new academic traditions and culture that had shaped Indian universities since Independence. It justified governmental intervention arguing that Indian academia had stagnated. Those in positions of authority within the universities were encouraged to undermine academic bodies and limit their role in revising and regulating matters pertaining to curricula, teaching and academic life in their institutions.

These changes made it possible for a new wave of governmental interventions starting in 2015. The imposition of the ‘cafeteria system’ associated with the Choice Based Credit System and renewed attempts to privatise higher education linked to an emphasis on rankings were highlights of this new thrust. It became apparent that the government’s desire for intervention now included the determination of minute details pertaining to academic curricula, the teaching-learning process and the parameters that governed academic research within the university. Academicians were disenfranchised of their role in designing curricula and their own academic work was removed from the regulatory gaze of peers to that of the government bureaucracy. During this period, the university emerged as an extension of government.

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Bureaucratic centralisation

This trend intensified with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The manner in which the Central government and the University Grants Commission have imposed themselves on the daily functioning of all higher educational institutions (Central, State and private) represents a new government-oriented bureaucratic centralisation. Decisions about the conclusion of academic term, the modalities for evaluation and the conduct of the teaching-learning process have become exclusive government prerogatives overnight. The various academic bodies that had original jurisdiction over these matters and were being subjected to decisions by higher authorities in the last few years have, in the last few weeks, been made redundant. How and whether examinations are to be conducted has become an issue of contention between State and Central governments. The general public now no longer appeals to the administrators of these institutions. The university administration has been replaced by the Education Minister and his bureaucratic apparatus.

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In the last 15 years, the government and Central regulatory agencies have systematically transitioned from being external facilitators to becoming decision-makers within institutions of higher education. Many blame this on the growing tendency of delayed (in most instances absence of) decision-making in these institutions, but history shows that this is rooted in the aggressive interventionist policies of successive governments. At a time when global politics is undergoing a systemic transformation and being infused with new ideas, institutions of higher education, which ought to be fertile intellectual spaces that can inform and shape society, are increasingly being undermined in India. The time has come for institutions of higher education in India to recover their lost voice and restore the fertile academic space where ideas are discussed and debated rather than suppressed and dismissed.

Mahesh Gopalan is Assistant Professor, Department of History, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi


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