The hierarchy of higher education
How government intervention in Indian universities has undermined academic freedom.
The suspension of Delhi University Vice Chancellor Yogesh Tyagi on 28 October 2020 over allegations of 'dereliction of duty' has thrown light on the extent of political intervention in India's largest public universities. Following Tyagi's suspension, Kolkata-based English-language daily The Telegraph published a timeline revealing that Tyagi was the tenth vice chancellor of a central university to be suspended, dismissed, forced to resign or sent on punishment leave in the last five years. This further reveals the customary pattern of government intervention in educational institution's autonomy.
Tyagi's suspension and the continued differences between Vice Chancellor and Pro Vice Chancellor PC Joshi has been opposed by many, including the Delhi University Teachers Association which questioned "Is this is about justice for the teachers and the University or part of the muscle flexing being witnessed over the last week or so?" Similar questions about educational freedom and political invasions in India's academia have been raised after the death of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), followed by the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests in 2016, which resulted in sedition charges levelled against some students, and more recently, after the attacks on Jamia Milia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University in December 2019.
According to a 2020 report by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, which compiles a global dataset on academic freedom in countries around the world, India registered a low score of 0.352 out of 1 in the Academic Freedom Index (AFI), which placed it among the 30 countries with the lowest AFI score. Remarkably, the figure for India dipped by 0.1 points over the past five years. Though the report is not the ultimate benchmark of academic freedom, it is definitely suggestive of the environment of these countries in ways that are important to study.
While the AFI score takes contemporary events into account, India's low scores are not a direct consequence of these events alone. The areas in which India has not fared well, including institutional autonomy, campus integrity and constitutional protection of academic freedom, clearly indicate an array of structural faults in its academic machinery. If India hopes to address its current state of academia, it would need to look beyond contemporary politics and reexamine the institutional history of its governance since the very year it gained autonomy – 1947.
The apathetic state of India's academia was not a consequence of the past five to six years alone. While the radical nature of political transformations introduced by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) makes it tempting to think that this is the case, it would not do any good to set 2014 as a benchmark for study. The roots of the problem can be traced to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the country's apex body for higher education in India, which was officially established in 1956, following the recommendation of the University Education Commission (UEC) headed by the scholar Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (who went on to become India's second president). The first loophole in the UEC's approach was the selection of its members. It was a ten-member committee out of which three were foreign nationals, an indication of the continued adoption of colonial academic structures. The Committee had no female representation at all and there was no one from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes communities, the groups that form the majority of Indian population.
The UEC visited 27 universities over seven months (13 December 1948 – 19 July 1949) for the preparation of a report which would form the foundational framework for India's postcolonial educational system. Out of these, not one institution was from Central India or the Northeast. Issues like India's diverse religious background, the caste question, women's participation in the education process, the curriculum, and likewise many other areas required detailed research and analysis. But these were not adequately addressed, with the committee saying that they had time limitations. If these important decisions were taken on the basis of the tour of just 27 universities, the question to ask is whether the perspectives and interests of a large section of people were suppressed or compromised in doing so.
The hierarchy of higher education was, therefore, set – one which emphasised only certain select institutions. The Commission did not accommodate or understand the struggles and realities of smaller cities which were far from metropolitan urban centres, leaving several universities behind. Even today, there are only a handful of universities that are able to communicate directly with the central government and add to academic and national discourse, while the situation of universities in states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, leave much to be desired.
It was the Congress Party which set the tone of independent India's academia. The interim government of 1946 had many members from the Congress Party, including public figures like Jawaharlal Nehru. India's freedom movement was powered by ideas of Indian nationalism promoted by Congress. Like-minded individuals were given positions of importance in myriad government institutions. The party patronised a class of intellectuals, which later scattered from academia to journalism and bureaucracy, having mastered subjects like literature, linguistics, history and sociology. The party could have assigned a team to assist with the formulation of the committee's report – but it did not.
The committee said that they talked to and had discussions with the ministers of education, vice chancellors, members of teacher associations and administrative bodies of universities and principals and professors in the existing universities. They also mentioned in their acknowledgements that they were thankful to political activist and poet Sarojini Naidu for hosting them at the Government House, Lucknow. It is clear that the only people who were accounted for were the elites and already existing participants of the 'educational circuit.' The aspirations, needs and wants of the people outside this circuit were completely sidelined while formulating the UEC's report, given the minimal amount of data collection.
After proudly explaining that science's aim was not utility or success, but, like philosophy, the pursuit of truth, the UEC report went on supporting the borrowed European idea of bisecting disciplines. "Broadly speaking, the three divisions [of sciences, social studies and humanities] deal with facts, events and values. Their methods are different, though they are used in all studies to different degrees." Instead of opening up conversations on interdisciplinarity for holistic understanding, the committee demarcated and created hierarchies in academia.
Elitism and education
All the later educational policies of our country echo the same structure as laid down by the committee, paving the way for elitism in education. But this elitism was not limited to these consultations. It was multifaceted, irrigated by varied social, economical, regional and political factors that enabled access and mobility for one section of the population while stagnating the growth of the rest of the country.
Post independence, the government invested in and promoted high quality institutions that were set up in big cities. In times when education remained significantly underfunded (it amounted to as little as 0.6 percent of GDP in 1951) the promotion of education remained limited to high-end institutions. Universities and schools set up by missionaries became the archetypes for centres of knowledge. These centres that held the reins of academia were highly filtered, as they remained occupied by a homogenous, urban cluster. The poor from the villages and small towns had neither the means nor the support of the government to be able to participate in it, relying on manual labour or small jobs to make ends meet.
The technical education sector received support from the then Congress government which laid the foundation for many institutes dedicated to these disciplines in the form of IITs and AIIMS. In her book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Harvard University Ajantha Subramanian explains that this funding was "justified as the necessary cost for producing an elite cadre of nation builders." IITs, exempted from caste-based affirmative action, manifested the ideological commitment of the state to modernity and technological advancement more than equity and social justice.
The educational sector effectively prevented people from the Scheduled Castes, including Dalits, from breaking through their systemic social backwardness because they lacked economic and social capital. Jurist, politico and social reformer Dr. B R Ambedkar was an exception, but such exceptions were rare. It was because his father and grandfather had both served in British Army that he was able to create a space for himself and articulate the struggles of his community – something that was unusual for Dalits of the time.
Even today, higher education remains a far-fetched dream for many – just around 10 percent of people living in rural areas have completed education at the graduate level and above, according to a report by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation for the year 2017-2018. This lack of access has allowed for urban, upper-caste elites to determine the academic landscape.
This was true also of ostensibly progressive or left-leaning academic circles. In the 1980s, the Subaltern Studies Group, a group of Southasian scholars who adapted the Gramscian term for the title of their collective, started rewriting history 'from below'. Though their work helped develop a deeper understanding of the colonial exercise, we cannot deny that they often came from upper-caste families in urban centres. This highlights the contradiction that is rampant even today. English became the dominant language for imparting education at the highest levels, from universities in Delhi to Madras, Bombay and Karnataka, obstructing the mobility of education for a long time. This elitism was tackled regionally in some cases, for instance by the Dravidian movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the country's south. But north of the Vindhya range, the academic framework was made so fragile and fractured in regional universities that it subdued any possibility of reform, thus sustaining Brahminical hegemony.
The conservative reaction
Post liberalisation, new vocational courses and disciplines such as the Masters of Business Administration, the Bachelor of Business Administration and Mass Communication emerged while technical education continued to receive support. These new market-friendly disciplines consumed most of the government's grants thereby pushing the social sciences and humanities to the periphery of academia.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) experienced national power for the first time in 1999. The academics from Congress did not work for the new party in power, and this remained a reason for constant tussle in administering public education. The BJP realised that spaces occupied by higher-level studies and the pedagogy of social sciences helped shape nationalism to a large extent. They needed their own set of 'like-minded individuals' in educational spaces.
In their second tenure, the NDA under the leadership of Narendra Modi was more careful about building its own coterie that could ideologically support what the party stood for, following the pattern of the Congress party. The appointment of Y Sudarshan Rao as the Chairman of the government-funded Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and actor Gajendra Chauhan as Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and the promotion of Jagadesh Kumar as Vice chancellor of JNU are all testimonies to this fact. Kumar was accused of tampering with faculty selection and partisan appointments to various departments in JNU including historical studies, the centre for comparative politics and political theory, and the centre of law and governance. It is a matter of debate whether or not these individuals were qualified for the jobs they were appointed to, but it is certain that they were loyalists to the causes which appointed them.
With the growth of privatisation in academia, government grants for research have reduced significantly in social sciences and humanities. Financial support granted to MPhil and PhD students who had not taken the National Eligibility Test (which helps determine eligibility for the post of assistant professor and/or Junior Research Fellowships) was terminated in October of 2015 leading to the "Occupy UGC" Movement. JNU student's union president Kanhaiya Kumar had been constantly fighting for the cause. Only a few months later in 2016, sedition charges pushed him behind bars.
In the academic year 2015-16, 70 percent of the Post Matric Scholarship Scheme funds, which are meant for economically marginalised communities, were not released and from 2016-17 no funds were released, pushing Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribal students to the margins. Rohith Vemula's death by suicide on 17 January highlighted such casteism prevailing in academic spaces. Through drastic policy changes, the UGC ushered in 'reforms', which in reality imposed a clampdown on intellectual freedom. It substantially reduced the number of PhD and MPhil seats. In JNU alone, these seats were reduced by more than 80 percent to just 194 seats.
Since 2014, specific attempts have been made to suppress the social sciences, distort history and gag discourse. Student unions of various institutes that spearheaded research in social sciences like JNU, HCU, Jadavpur University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have tussled academically with the present government and its policies. As of today, this has only resulted in increased hostility from the state, as the government continues to push the country towards a homogenous imagination of India.