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Ashoka University Row: Political Seepage In Higher Education And Its Impact On Liberal Society

The recent resignation of an economist from Ashoka University following the political backlash to his research paper on manipulation in the 2019 elections raises crucial questions about the state of higher education

Illustration: Chaitanya Rukumpur
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“As they say in India,” the economist Pranab Bardhan wrote in an influential paper on corruption, “in the US corruption is in the process of ‘making’ laws, in India it’s mostly in ‘breaking’ laws.” While Bardhan cites legally approved paths of US campaign finance that would be illegal in most countries, this makes me think of the great historic justifications of imperialism, territorial aggression and global wars that western powers have traditionally carried out in the name of progress, peace and prosperity. Hindutva groups in India have been trying hard to glorify their distorted historiography, but I don’t think it has gathered even a fraction of the legitimacy that say, the idea of Empire still enjoys in British public opinion.

There is supreme irony in the way the structural forces of history and deliberately orchestrated attempts at suppression are standing out in ironic opposition to each other in western and Indian universities right now. Historical realities, partly to do with demography but also with finance, have led to severe erosions in universities in the US and the UK. In India, where precisely those things are in the country’s favour, individuals and politicians are going a great job in squandering away what could have been a golden period of higher education in the country.

Economically ambitious Asia is caught in a trap. They are in the quest for innovative, interdisciplinary higher education but without the moral and political freedom that comes with it. The desire for, and the eventual collapse of, the Yale-NUS collaboration bears witness to this contradiction. A great ambition for broad, multidisciplinary, liberal education is written all over in India’s National Education Policy 2020. But the central government has shown entrenched opposition to intellectual and political freedom throughout campuses, and in the lives of disciplines beyond them. The stark opposition between economic openness and political restriction in parts of East and Southeast Asia—and now, increasingly, in South Asia—explains the contradictions experienced by the project of liberal arts education in these countries.

Economically ambitious Asia is caught in a trap. They are in the quest for innovative, interdisciplinary higher education but without the moral and political freedom that comes with it.

Individuals, groups and ideologies in India are working hard to destroy these natural advantages. The destruction of public universities through political interference and suppression is already a well-known fact. The new wave of digital and investment entrepreneurs created the natural space for financially independent private universities—profiteering outfits as well as genuine philanthropies. But repeated turmoil in my own institution, Ashoka University—over a petition against military atrocities in Kashmir in 2016, against the resignation of a public intellectual critical of the government in 2021, and most recently, attacks on an economist’s research paper documenting irregularities in the 2019 general elections—have foregrounded the precarious position of critique even in spaces financially independent of the government. Ideological differences between university trustees—often champions of private wealth—and university faculty dedicated to a life of scholarship are often a given. The crucial issue is whether a private university can maintain due separation between its two functions: fundraising on the one hand, and teaching and research on the other.

Two recent instances of institutional evisceration have intriguingly mirrored each other across the Atlantic. At Norwich, the University of East Anglia declared a projected deficit of £45 million for the next couple of years. Unable to control forces beyond its control, notably, the lingering effects of the Coivd-19 pandemic and the steep drop in student applications, the university decided to go for what looked easier—to reduce staff by 48 people. The university’s eventual decision to cut 31 positions in the arts and the humanities, including its successful creative writing programme, sent ripples of anger and resentment in the arts community in Britain already pushed to a crisis by the Tory government’s continuing onslaught on the arts and the humanities.

In a nation with a booming population yearning for higher education, agents of political and institutional corruption are destroying possibilities for all but those who can afford to seek it overseas.

Meanwhile in Morgantown, West Virginia, the flagship university of the State, West Virginia University, also facing a $45 million shortfall, decided to eliminate 9 per cent of its total majors—32 in all—which would lead to the termination of employment of 169 faculty members, 7 per cent in all. This includes the entirety of the department of world languages and linguistics. According to their news rel­ease, the university has been reviewing plans to eliminate the language req­uirement for all majors and is exploring “alternate methods of delivery such as a partnership with an online language app or online partnership with a fellow Big 12 university.” Other programmes on the chopping block include the Ph.D and the Masters in Mathematics, the Ph.D in higher education and the Ed.D in higher education administration, the Masters in public administration, the Bachelors in environmental and community planning; the Ph.D and the Masters in musical arts in composition; the Masters in acting; and the Masters in creative writing.

Even though the Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US have contributed to the ideological disavowal of the humanities, the larger reasons behind these crises seem almost historically inevitable. The biggest of these is the decline of the college-age population, projected to reach a crisis in the US in 2025. The other reason is the astronomical rise in the cost of college, most radically in private institutions in the US but also elsewhere in the Anglo-American world, which certainly hasn’t helped a general decline in the faith in the relevance of college education to people’s lives. Back in the 1980s, Peter Drucker, observing the rapid transformation of manufacturing cultures in the US to what he had termed ‘knowledge society’, to which a college education was indispensable. That indispensability is under serious scrutiny now.

Lack of college-age population and high fees—these are two problems India certainly does not have. An exploding youth population, many of them seeking urban life and upward mobility, ensures that even the shoddiest outfit going by the name of an educational institution fills up its seats in no time. Witness the massive profits made by unscrupulous online content deliverers such as BYJU’s, and now the millions of examinees wondering about the vagaries of placement following the new arbitrarily structured Central University Entrance Examination mandated for college admissions nationwide. The second problem, that of high fees, is also something that has been historically absent in this country, thanks to a broad landscape of affordable public universities, admittedly of uneven quality. Even the fees of the new private universities are negligible compared to fees overseas; for the nation’s large middle- and upper-middle-class, they are affordable local alternatives to education abroad. These two conditions, combined with the high value placed by middle-class India that provides high-quality students and committed teachers, should have ushered in a golden period of higher education in India, as indeed it seemed possible in the early 2010s.

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In a nation with a booming population that is yearning for higher education, agents of political and institutional corruption are destroying possibilities for all but those who can afford to seek it overseas. Perhaps one can argue that the rise of intolerant fundamentalisms around the world is also a historical inevitability, but as an educationist, particularly as one who has moved between worlds, what I see here is the greatest missed opportunity one can possibly imagine.

(Views expressed are personal)

Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana

(This appeared in the print as 'Illiberal Education')

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