In Universities at the Crossroads, in his assessment of the higher education system, eminent sociologist Andre Beteille proved prescient. Although written over a decade ago, some of the scepticism and anticipation expressed in his book are more than relevant in the current decade, with the quality of teaching and research in major public universities in dire straits.
Education does not eliminate inequality. At best, it can diffuse divisions. Or it may facilitate social and economic mobility. This has been the primary justification behind the creation of universities or the expansion of existing ones in post-colonial India. In principle, by offering similar training and opportunities, universities make it possible for students from various social strata to step on to the same platform. So, in any developing society, the intent of upscaling and upsizing universities is a step in the right direction. It is also necessary to make centres of learning accessible to the masses. This can be achieved by reducing the caste-class monopoly over knowledge.
But Beteille reminds us how the rapid and reckless expansion of universities tends to overlook the limitations of the equalising impact of universities, particularly in a society with accumulated inequalities. Educational institutions are not insulated from the inequalities that prevail in society at large. The advocacy of equality has not eradicated the practice of inequality. The production of more graduates and distribution of more degrees has not ensured equality. Rather, it has created ‘trained incapacity’ and a reproduction of inequalities.
The double mandate of inclusivity and diversity stumbles when admissions and appointments are hijacked by the traditionally privileged caste-class nexus. Misplaced ideas of ‘merit’, ‘ability’, and ‘performance’ crumble due to the inheritance of cultural capital. So, what is supposed to be open is actually not so open. Though, comparatively, it is more open than the previous learning traditions that were even more confining, exclusive, ascriptive, and patronising. What is the reason for the equalising agenda to have got compromised in post-Independent India?
For Beteille, it is due to our lack of commitment towards bettering standards of elementary education. An inefficient schooling system, while raising ambitions, fails to train well. This chasm between high aspirations and low quality arising primarily out of poor schooling places universities on a slippery slope. Universities cannot survive without good schooling. The middle classes —the initial claimants and beneficiaries of education— have ignored the requirements of quality primary education for all because they had taken it for granted since colonial times.
Extreme disparities and unevenness of material conditions and pedagogic resources that start at the entry level cannot be magically resolved or be expected to disappear at the top. If certain facilities are not made available to all at the entry-level, it is unlikely that universities will perform the levelling act at the exit. Given the dismal quality of public schooling for the poor and the disadvantaged, it is unlikely that any recipient of the flawed system will be able to compete adequately with someone who has grown up with greater social endowments and has received the privileges of private schooling.
‘Merit’ cannot be disassociated from caste-class privileges. In no time, such social advantages accentuate further social divisions. It is rather unfortunate that we have not only pursued and pampered the undesirable dichotomy between private and public educational institutions but also accentuated it in post-liberalised India. It has been enhanced by the boom in private universities. In such a context, universities cannot be the sole equalising labs when society in general and family and schools in particular fail to play their part. If there is inequality before competition, there will be inequality after it as well. But instead of pulling up those falling behind, we often pull behind those racing ahead. There is no progress without valuing and rewarding individual achievement.
Also, since the colonial period, universities in India have always been ahead of a society deeply entrenched in social distancing, poverty, inequality, and illiteracy. As ‘islands of modernity’, universities were the first to discredit traditional discrimination. Society had to respond to the ideas of equality and civility emerging from the universities. That lag has persisted even though it might have diminished. The lag is manifested in the rampant discrimination against students from marginalised sections.
The tensions between social inclusiveness and the maintenance of academic excellence are even more relevant three decades after the Mandal verdict. Those who still consider that Beteille batted for ‘excellence’ at the cost of ‘inclusivity’ either have preconceived notions or have not read him closely.
For Beteille, if competence and academic standards are non-negotiable, so is inclusivity. Does that imply Beteille is professing a utopian fantasy of all universities across the country setting and maintaining similar standards? No. On the contrary, Beteille is pragmatic and ‘anti-utopian’.
Depending upon assessments of available resources and agreed-upon academic-criteria, standards need to be set. Those standards could either be very high or utterly modest. But once fixed, relaxations of standards are detrimental. Laxity of standards in matters related to admission, appointment, and evaluation should not be an option. One cannot compromise on academic standards to attain individual mobility. Both are equally desirable. It is not an easy balance to attain in a traditionally hierarchical society.
Beteille offers a structural solution to attain a fine balance: “Other things being equal, a committee will be expected to prefer the candidate from the disadvantaged community over the general candidate. Other things being a little less than equal, the preference could still be for the socially disadvantaged candidate. How far the committee will go in accommodating candidates from disadvantaged groups will be left to academic judgements within a broad framework of preferences determined in the university and not outside it.”
But unfortunately, that balance has tilted in favour of socio-political forces outside the university. Those forces also have great apathy towards research. They either think that our universities are incapable of doing research, or they themselves have done enough to demotivate and derail research. So, now, they make a case for universities to just produce more degrees.
It is a vicious circle. It converts universities into centres for transmitting existing knowledge without creating new knowledge. Teachers often forget that to teach and examine without research deteriorates teaching. Students use university faculties to fuel other non-academic aspirations. Beteille’s call for a balance between excellence and inclusivity fails because the former quality finds no nourishment from the bottom up.
There is a phrase that Beteille keeps reiterating: the freedom to exercise academic judgements without ‘fear’ and ‘favour’. The question remains, to what extent is it possible to steer clear of fear and favour when dissenting voices from the university are silenced and when prejudiced political favours are extended during appointments? With autonomy being undermined, credibility being dented, and academic standards being compromised, ‘fear’ and ‘favour’ become the operative principles.
(Sreedeep Bhattacharya is a sociologist at Shiv Nadar University. Views expressed are personal to the author.)