The threat to the idea of a public university

Education is a right, not a privilege reserved for the select elite

Updated - November 20, 2019 12:32 pm IST

Published - November 20, 2019 12:15 am IST

NEW DELHI, 23/03/2018: JNU Students protesting over the issue of compulsory attendance and other issues in New Delhi on March 23, 2018. 
Photo: Special Arrangement

NEW DELHI, 23/03/2018: JNU Students protesting over the issue of compulsory attendance and other issues in New Delhi on March 23, 2018. Photo: Special Arrangement

Even though Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I teach, is in turmoil because of an incompetent administration incapable of communicating with the students and teachers, the larger crisis confronting the idea of a public university needs to be understood. From Jamia Millia Islamia to Jadavpur University, from Visva-Bharati University to Aligarh Muslim University, and from the University of Hyderabad to Delhi University, we are witnessing an organised attack on the fundamentals of a creative centre of learning: critical pedagogy with deep politico-ethical sensibilities; epistemological pluralism; and a minimalist and enabling administration nurturing a transparent and democratic milieu for students, researchers and teachers to flourish as active participants in the cultivation and dissemination of foundational knowledge traditions. With politically appointed vice chancellors, philosophically impoverished techno-managers, new technologies of surveillance, and the militaristic notion of discipline and punishment, it seems some of our finest universities are dying.

The purpose of education

To begin with, it is important to realise that if public universities with good quality, affordable education begin to crumble, the spirit of egalitarian democracy will be in danger. In times characterised by the market-driven principle, where there is commodification of education and reduction of higher education into market-friendly technical skills; where there are fancy private universities and all sorts of institutes of technology and management; and where teachers are seen as mere ‘service providers’ and students as ‘consumers’, education becomes a mere utilitarian/instrumental transaction. And this sort of education can by no means be emancipatory; it is inherently non-democratic, conservative and status quoist.


If, as a nation, we are really eager to resist the process of asymmetrical distribution of cultural capital, and the resultant reproduction of social inequality, we have to nurture creative, sensitive citizens through an environment of life-affirming teaching and an egalitarian practice of socialisation. And for this, we have to keep the dream of a public university alive. As I look at JNU, I feel that its promise was essentially the fulfilment of this dream — possibly, some sort of a Nehruvian dream of a welfarist state. With an innovative admission policy; heightened sensitivity to heterogeneity; a blend of critically nuanced social sciences, cultural studies and foundational sciences; and a reasonable degree of autonomy regarding teaching, research and evaluation, the university made its presence felt as a liberating site. It embraced all: a tribal girl from Manipur, a Dalit boy from Maharashtra, a young leftist from Kerala, a radical feminist from Delhi, an Ambedkarite from the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, and a young wanderer from Germany or Sri Lanka. JNU aroused hope about the possibility of excellence with social justice and equity. It is sad that the present administration is preparing the ground for the death of this grand dream.

Repression of alternative voices

A deeper understanding of the crisis would enable us to see the changing nature of politics — the Machiavellian play of the ruling regime. As the doctrine of hyper-masculine religious nationalism tends to become hegemonic, we see the repression of what I would regard as alternative voices — or a different reading of nation, culture and identity. It is obvious that young minds and researchers who have seen beyond placement and salary packages, and have engaged with Marx and Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore, and Foucault and Butler, would interrogate the dominant ideology of nationalism — its patriarchy, its hierarchy, its aggression and its indifference to cultural pluralism. This is why JNU has been castigated as “anti-national”, this is why a bunch of zealots seek to invade Jadavpur University, and this is why the curriculum of Delhi University is under scrutiny.

A new politics of knowledge

Furthermore, because of a mix of technocratic rationality and right-wing nationalism, a new politics of knowledge begins to emerge. It suspects the criticality of social sciences or reflexivity of liberal arts and quite often, the young minds pursuing research in these disciplines are seen as a ‘burden’ — something that, as noisy television channels propagate, taxpayers cannot afford. For instance, when one sees the enthusiasm of the JNU administration to remove aesthetically and politically enriched posters from the walls of the university, and their urge to introduce schools of engineering and management, the message, I believe, becomes obvious.

Yes, students are angry, restless, and unhappy. However, what is really pathetic is that the administration sees it merely as a ‘law and order’ problem. Instead of reflecting on the roots of the crisis, and engaging meaningfully with students and teachers, the administration relies heavily on all sorts of coercive measures. The JNU administration is known for issuing show-cause notices and charge sheets to its students and teachers. With a non-dialogic administration, the presence of police and paramilitary forces, and surveillance, the culture of learning has been severely damaged. Is it the assertion of the profane, and the death of the sacred?

As a teacher with a keen interest in culture and pedagogy, I believe that the larger society has to come forward to save our public universities, particularly at a time when the corporate elite or the market-driven aspiring class refuses to see the significance of any shared, egalitarian public domain, and the dominant political force fears creative and critical ideas. For instance, when JNU students protest against the hostel fee hike, they are essentially reminding us of the need for the state to fund public universities so that higher education becomes accessible to all. The message is that education is our right, not a privilege reserved for the select elite. Or when the students of the University of Hyderabad expressed their concern over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, it was an attempt to remind us of the danger of violence — physical as well as psychic — that stigmatised students from marginalised sections are often subject to.

Students and teachers have to be immensely careful and alert. Never should they allow their struggle and resistance to degenerate into a reactive violent act. And the university should not be seen as a war zone. It is really sad to see the administrators asking the police to give a ‘tough’ lesson to the students. We need a spirit of communion and dialogue. However, what is worrying is that it is not easy to educate our vice chancellors and other academic bureaucrats. Quite often, because of their obsessive indulgence with power and psychic insecurity, they miss what characterises a mentor: the art of listening, the skill of persuasion and the ethics of care.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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