Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shvetal Vyas Pare - The Indian University System Is Imploding And We All Stand To Get Hurt

Earlier this March, the authorities at Jawaharlal Nehru University announced massive cuts (estimated to be 83%) in the intake of M.Phil and PhD students. This includes departments of social sciences, international relations and language studies among others. Also around the same time, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai removed 25 faculty members, which will result in fewer students finding supervisors for advanced degrees and three Centres shutting down. A few days ago, Punjab University hiked its fees by up to ₹82,000 a year, a decision that will definitely affect students of lower-middle class and poorer backgrounds. Over the last year, Delhi University has been pushing its premiere colleges towards autonomy, which means that the colleges will no longer remain public institutions but become private ones.

With centres shutting down, colleges becoming private, and seats being cut across the board, we are effectively decimating our public universities one step at a time...

Students and teachers at all these institutes have been protesting these decisions, but the general public neither knows about this nor cares. A narrative has been built over the past four years that a lot of people believe: all academics are left-wing intellectuals who brainwash students. These students then become Naxalites or secret spies who plot ways to destroy the country. This narrative also includes a general mistrust of social science research: "Why do you want to study what is wrong with society?" "Why are these people studying about tribal people in India?" and so on. Given this narrative, it is easy to see why people are not going to oppose any of the above decisions and berate the students and teachers for doing so.

Let me present another possibility to you. Instead of thinking of the above events as separate, let us examine the underlying pattern. Public Universities in India are both good and cheap. The semester fees are not high; nor are the hostel fees. Most of them have entrance exams which are quite competitive, and in some of these universities to get a seat at the hostel you have to get a good rank in the entrance exam. This year, the office of the President of India awarded JNU an award for being the best research university. The link clearly outlines the parameters on which this decision was based: "The President said the JNU has shown "outstanding" performance in all key parameters like quality of students and faculty, training of faculty, citations, publications, research projects, foreign collaborations, seminars and innovation exhibitions." Decreasing the number of students at JNU will in turn lead to decreasing the number of teachers, and research outputs will go down. It is difficult to continue being an excellent university without students and teachers.

Education is too profitable to be administered through a public system... the best way to get people into private universities is to decrease the seats in public education.

These changes are not about ideological issues. The undermining of public universities by making them offer the minimum possible is not going to stop only at a few specific universities or for "problematic" disciplines like politics and sociology. Anti-intellectualism does not distinguish between universities and disciplines. We have already had the push to teach Vedic Science in the IITsgovernment ministers who label doctors who advise patients not to follow Ayurveda as anti-national, and an indictment of the Indian Science Congress. With centres shutting down, colleges becoming private, and seats being cut across the board, we are effectively decimating our public universities one step at a time and over a decade or so the cumulative damage will be irrevocable.

By the time the schoolchildren of today are ready to go to university, unless they make the very high cut for a limited number of seats, their only other option would be an expensive course at a private university, with big loans in the offing. Or they can take bigger loans and go abroad. Across different disciplines Indian students regularly go abroad and are able to match the rigour of world-class universities. Not only that, a high number of Indians go on to hold academic positions abroad, and one reason for this is the high standard of Indian education. International students subsidise the education of local students by paying higher fees, and add skills to the economy if they choose to stay back. Given increasing hyper-nationalism around the world, however, it is likely that this option too will become available only to those who can pay the highest prices and jump the tallest hoops for it...
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