If we were to undertake the unpopular task of identifying the areas where India is today possibly worse off than it was at the time of Independence, the stature of our universities would be a primary contender.
We could endlessly debate the appropriate criterion to decide the quality of a university but Indian universities do quite poorly in terms of most criteria. For those who like to use Nobel prizes (other than the peace prize) as an indicator, the last time someone working in an Indian university won a Nobel prize was CV Raman in 1930.
For those who prefer contemporary ranking systems, Indian universities typically come way down the list. And even if we were to occupy the intellectual high ground and go beyond mere rankings to focus on learning as a whole, we do not do much better.
There are institutions that attract bright young Indian minds and provide them some technical inputs, notably the IITs and the IIMs, but they often fall well short of being bastions of original thinking.
Long overdue exercise It is against this backdrop that the comparative and international perspectives on the future of Indian universities that have been brought together in this volume, The Future of Indian Universities: Comparative and International Perspectives , edited by C Raj Kumar represent a long overdue exercise.
The apparently simple task of bringing together diverse opinions on Indian universities is often more difficult than it should be. The deep ideological divides that percolate all the way down to the prescribed textbooks make it more convenient for open discussions to be confined within the boundaries set by those you agree with.
The situation is further complicated when the nationalist credentials of individuals are challenged, as happened in the case of economist and former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan. It does not also help that there are new lines being drawn, such as the one between the inclinations of faculty and those of academic administrators.
This volume manages to brush aside most such divisions with the contributors cutting across ideologies, nationalities and roles within the working of universities. This commitment to comprehensiveness is not without its costs. The wide range of thinkers who contribute to this volume ensures the book cannot be expected to come up with a cohesive view of the way forward for Indian universities.
The contributions to this volume are too diverse to allow room for even broad agreement on the direction Indian universities should take. It is hardly a surprise that the only thing they agree on is that Indian universities are a mess.
And even here the causes for their disappointment are quite varied. The administrators of education lament the extent to which the best Indian universities lag behind the best in the world; others point to specific shortcomings, and yet others find fault with the very notions of a university that post-Independence India has adopted.
Variety of insights The eclectic nature of the book does however allow us to tap into a variety of insights to create our own impression of the future of Indian universities. Among the more valuable of these insights is provided by Shiv Visvanathan, building on the distinction between liberatory and emancipative knowledge. He writes: “Liberation is the overthrow of the oppressor where the oppressed in turn can turn oppressor... Emancipation seeks to examine the possibility of oppression. It realizes that any form of knowledge can turn dominant and seeks to build pluralist conditions against such a possibility” (p 52).
This pluralism would also recognise that knowledge defeated at one point of time could be reinvented to suit another situation. The university then becomes the home of knowledge, including that which is continuously repaired and recycled. Such a university would have to be democracy driven rather than market driven.
This perception of a university undoubtedly makes a worthy ideal, but the question of how do we get there remains unanswered.
Other contributors to this volume set out with less ambitious targets. They come to terms, some of them quite enthusiastically, with the possibility that the market can be the fountainhead of the resources universities quite desperately need. This is particularly true of those who have set their eyes on climbing up the global rankings of universities.
For one, Kanti Bajpai believes that a major reason for the ‘shambolic’ state of Indian universities “is their alienation from the world” (p 168). A seemingly obvious remedy is to increase the role and number of private universities.
But the ownership of universities does not in itself guarantee their quality. The experience of private educational institutions has not always been without blemish. There is sufficient evidence of the growth of private institutions resulting in what Barbara Harriss-White has referred to as “the process of commodification and the supplanting of the public interest by private interests” (p. 247).
We are thus left with the less than heartening conclusion that while it is now obvious that Indian universities are in a terrible state we still don’t quite know what to do about it. But what is somewhat more reassuring is that the book provides a wide range of possible alternatives, and an apparent willingness to talk across the deep divides of Indian academia.
MEET THE AUTHOR
C Raj Kumar is ViceChancellor, OP Jindal Global University; and Dean, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana (NCR of Delhi)
(The reviewer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)