Are Public Universities and the State Destined to be at Odds?

In light of the recent protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, we explore the EPW Archives to gain a better understanding of the public university as an institution and its relationship with the state.  

On 11 November, protests by students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to contest fee hikes, curfew timings and dress code restrictions escalated as the police detained students and used water cannons on the assembled crowd. The protests have been provoked by the imposition of changes by the current administration. These changes are seen as not only exclusionary in nature, but also as going against the inclusive spirit of JNU. It is reported that the recent fee hike, coupled with additional fees, is likely to impact 40% of the economically marginalised students in JNU. The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) said that the “varsity is facing an academic emergency.” 

The bureaucracy of JNU has come to be seen as emblematic of the state attempting to alter the very fabric of the university. Against this backdrop, we explore the EPW Archives to understand the idea of the university, what its ideal relationship with the state should be, and the reality of universities in contemporary India. 

1) What is a university?

Taking the example of the Visva-Bharati set up by Rabindranath Tagore, Manash Bhattacharjee argues that university spaces, by their very definition, operate outside prevailing structures. With critical thinking and resistance woven into the fabric of their construction, the raison d’être of universities is to instil into students the ability to challenge dominant views and learn to coexist with differences. 

A university is a place where students learn to resist all that is forced upon them, all that does not taste like liberty. A university is a place where a future is born, and it is called future precisely because it refuses to resemble the past. Resistance is the universal responsibility of university education. Only resistance is truly universal. A university is a place where you put forward your best political argument for a cause and measure it against the arguments of others. It is, by extension, no place where you can try scuttling ideas by appealing to primal and regressive instincts like murder.

2) What is the university’s relationship with the state?

Tracing the philosophical roots of public universities, Sudhanshu Bhushan concedes that as a space supported by the state apparatus and embedded in society, universities are bound to be sites of conflict. However, it is in the state’s interest to allow these conflicts to be resolved within universities as it is these very spaces from which the state draws its legitimacy. 

The university is a place where discourse on nationalism with ‘mere slogans,’ by internal or external elements, needs to be settled within the walls of the university among students and teachers as part of the learning process, and the state should protect the freedom of discussion until it becomes a law and order problem. The state would not benefit if reason itself is blocked off. It should not be forgotten that the state itself is the product of reason, which free, equal, and independent persons used in order to give legitimacy to the state.

Additionally, public universities and the government are conceptualised to be in a reciprocal relationship. That is, universities produce knowledge and thinking citizens who critically engage with existing systems, enabling governments to enact public policy for the benefit of all; governments in return support universities by ensuring that they have a conducive and free environment to function in. In such a case, “granting” of autonomy to universities becomes a moot point. 

No government does any favour by ‘granting’ universities autonomy. It is a government’s obligation, part of its responsibility of protecting democracy itself. Promoting autonomy could mean state supervision, but not in the form of imposing syllabuses and research agendas, and definitely not by appointing stooges of ruling parties in important positions and disciplining university life through the law-enforcing machinery.

3) What is the reality of universities today?

In recent times, however, the ability to grant autonomy has been abused by the Indian state to bend the public university into subservience. This can be seen as a breach of the reciprocal relationship that the two institutions should ideally share. 

What is today being parroted as granting ‘autonomy’ is the very reverse of what the government’s role ought to be in its relation to public universities. It is, in fact, an abdication of all responsibilities towards citizens. The recent announcement of the human resource development minister of implementing ‘graded autonomy’ is a mere euphemism for withdrawing public funding from the higher education sector. This means that to be financially viable, university departments will have to submit themselves to the mercy of market demands. This not only amounts to an attack on public universities, but is also a violation of the social contract from which a democratically elected government draws its legitimacy.

Thus, threatened by the diverse solidarities present in democratised university spaces, the Indian state has made sustained attempts to tighten its institutional grasp on universities. Satish Desphande asserts that today’s public university is a “unique and historically unprecedented space from the point of view of the democratisation of society” as it is the only place where students from all walks of life are accommodated. This has added to its intimidating persona as a challenger of current hierarchies. The state, in response, has wielded its institutional capabilities and influence to cut off the university’s air supply, and discontinue its very ability to be diverse.

Part of the proximate background to current events are the repeated uncoordinated attempts to ‘reform’ higher education. These have been made through the sudden, top-down imposition of schemes and initiatives requiring wholesale changes. In the process, not only have these reforms made a mockery of autonomy, they have actually used it as a shield against both internal and external accountability. Internal structures of democratic governance have been thoroughly destroyed and the University Grants Commission (UGC) is now more a conduit for government edicts than the buffer it was meant to be.

He goes on to observe that the modern university currently faces threats on three fronts: violent interventions by on-campus parties such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad that presume insults to “indian culture,” direct state oppression through the police against alleged seditious activities, and threats by individual citizens against the campus and its students. However, despite the threats that loom large, the democratic space of the public university is most primed to provide viable alternatives to current political and social structures. 

My central argument is that it is the public university that has produced Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar and many others like them awaiting discovery. The immense potential that these figures represent is a product of the decades spent in claiming and nurturing the democratic space of the public university. Their importance lies in being able to leverage the solidarities that can only be built within the campus to pry open fresh political possibilities outside the campus. That is why our campuses must be defended—from the uncomprehending resentment of ordinary citizens, from the frustrated rage of powerful political enemies, and from deadening reforms that will turn our chaotic but vibrant universities into mindless training institutes.

Comparing JNU’s present academic positioning with University of Rajasthan’s past glory, K L Sharma traces history and observes that it was high state interference that eventually drew the curtains on the high quality scholarship being produced at the University of Rajasthan. Sharma writes that the state’s current interventions in JNU are destined to have the same fate, and this has implications for the overall status of higher education in the country. Thus, it would be prudent to learn from past mistakes, and allow modern universities, which have been enshrined with principles of secularism and democracy, to function independently. 

The state and its political and administrative organs need to think about the decline of higher education in India in general, and of the great universities of the yesteryears in particular. For sample, the University of Rajasthan enjoyed a very high academic reputation in the 1960s. Exodus of eminent scholars from there to JNU in the first half of 1970s is evidence of the attraction for JNU and disenchantment with the Rajasthan University. This was mainly due to political interference and lack of concern for the autonomy of the University of Rajasthan. Unionism, casteism and political interference influenced the functioning of the university. Today, even the traces of the past glory are invisible. Studies and research have gone into the background and politics of students, teachers and karamcharis is in the forefront. Instead of attacking JNU, the government needs to see why and how the rot has occurred on the campuses in India.

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