Saving the public university

September 30, 2016 12:14 am | Updated November 01, 2016 09:47 pm IST

Recent policy prescriptions threaten to push liberal arts education in public universities into oblivion while carving out space for the entry of foreign universities.

A capacious charter:  “Public universities are spaces that serve a larger mandate of inclusiveness.” File photo of students in the JNU library.  Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

A capacious charter: “Public universities are spaces that serve a larger mandate of inclusiveness.” File photo of students in the JNU library. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

The Central government recently announced the setting up of the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA), conceived as a special purpose vehicle to accrue and disburse funds to certain institutions of higher education in the country. This development is an upshot of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Nairobi in December 2015 where decisions on “international trade in educational services” were made. In the interim period, some Indian public universities had to endure attacks on their institutional autonomy and research culture.

All these changes leave us, as liberal arts researchers, with little option but to address the elephant in the room — the pushing of an already marginalised liberal arts education in Indian public universities into oblivion. The fact that we as student researchers have not been made part of larger decision-making for education that have an immediate impact on our academic trajectories is a huge cause for concern. It fails to recognise our position as active stakeholders of policy advances that seek to alter the texture of the higher education space as we know it.

Researching for the public

Public universities have long held the unique mandate of being imagined as egalitarian spaces tailored for democratic engagement with the enterprise of education, in the Deweyian sense. For us student researchers in the liberal arts, they open up a world of interactions that take us beyond narrow societal preferences for a very instrumental, technical education. Liberal arts education, encompassing the broad areas of humanities, social, natural and pure sciences, equips individuals with skills to understand and engage with issues of the world beyond mere black-and-white dichotomies.

For instance, our research on issues such as everyday experiences of corruption, child soldiers in conflict areas, media freedoms in times of impunity, ideas around human sciences, clearly traverse beyond university confines and assume significance for the larger public. This is in contrast to a technocratic approach that perceives education as a “trade commodity” or “service deliverable”. It is in disagreement with this approach that some of the best of us pursue public-oriented liberal arts research, even when the private sector provides unmatched opportunities for those with technical literacy. By caricaturing the liberal arts as untenable, society at large is stymied from constructively engaging with our theoretical and empirical research work. Researching for the public, then, is incumbent on societal recognition of the larger public interest mandate our work entails.

The 2014 elections and the preceding anti-corruption movement were pitched around a burgeoning youth demography. The rhetoric was hinged on a futuristic imagination of an India that would have a place for our aspirations. Strategies like extensive deployment of social media, setting up of start-up incubators, and expansion of certain kinds of technology imperatives are indicative of this trend. However, these efforts have focussed rather wantonly on a particular imagination of our ambitions, without considering any other inclinations and talents we may possess and aspire to pursue. We seek to make inroads into this conflated imagination of the youth with certain aspirations for the entire country that the strategists seem to repose their efforts in. In actively hedging for their own interests, they have negated all attempts made thus far in nurturing other divergent proficiencies.

Public universities are spaces that serve a larger mandate of inclusiveness and social justice. They often are the only option available to those who have to travel a significant distance, literally and otherwise, in reaching the higher echelons of education. Liberal arts research in public universities allows us to engage with the sheer diversity of these experiences, that then allows us to bring deeper understanding, sensitivity and rigour to our own research.

Developments at the WTO-General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) conference last year, the New Education Policy and the recent mooting of the HEFA indicate a preference for privatising the public university — through corporate social responsibility interventions, long-term loans and structural adjustments in areas of technical education and certain kinds of scientific research, lack of quality indicators for foreign universities that can enter the Indian education “market”, and no pronouncement on the social justice mandate of public universities. The already marginalised liberal arts face a double whammy in the form of the recent approval of the third phase of the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme, by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.

Public universities do not operate in a time warp — they are hierarchy-laden and bureaucratic. Older issues and their newer articulations call for introspection every so often. Accessing high-quality journals is a very expensive affair, financial support to attend international conferences is haltingly limited, and digital and remote library facilities are still a mirage, especially in times when we look towards Digital India.

Moreover, the market-oriented shifts fail to capture larger and more pragmatic questions of pedagogy. Universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad and Tezpur University occupy the top spots in the first-ever government ranking. Over years, these universities have adopted and practised certain pedagogic approaches to public education, accentuating their relevance in recent times. How, then, do we as student researchers respond to such changes? We approach the public university as a shared space for cooperative learning and dialogic peer-group pedagogy, through collaboration and co-learning. Public universities, then, have the larger responsibility of guarding and nurturing such spaces. This would mean transcending disciplinary boundaries and traditional conceptions of teacher-taught relationships. It would call for working with technology innovators, and humanising their spaces towards further collaboration. It also demands that the larger society, including those holding public office across semi-/institutional setups, take cognisance of our research.

Sharing the global spotlight

The inherent understanding that bringing in foreign universities in itself would drastically alter and improve standards of education in India is misplaced. It does not take into account the quality research that is already underway in many of our public universities. It only feeds in to the preference for foreign degrees, to the disadvantage of those who have expressed enough commitment to and trust in the Indian public education system.

We would do well to draw lessons from current articulations and cynicism amongst the youth on costs of higher education and student debt in the U.S. In a similar vein, other European experiences with public education offer interesting ideas that we could examine, even as we appreciate our own systemic challenges and achievements. Building larger Global South solidarities and advancing them at multilateral fora are ways to engage with education reform. A better approach to sharing the global spotlight, then, is to pay heed to the urgent need to showcase research from Indian public universities on a global level — especially from the liberal arts — instead of shying away from it. These efforts alone would leave us with a sustainable higher education system.

Aparna Vincent and Preeti Raghunath are doctoral students at the University of Hyderabad.

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