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Lineages of the Modern Public University: Perils and Prospects in a Comparative Perspective

By Mushahid Hussain


Are we seeing the twilight of public universities? Deceptively innocuous, this question provokes the rather intractable exercise of unearthing the past and present contexts in which meanings of the “public” and the “university” have unevenly co-evolved. My own engagement with this provocation goes as far as outlining very preliminarily the contours of such an exercise. Present debates on higher education in India motivate this Café Dissensus issue – such a motivation is close to me personally. I attained the first five years of my higher education in Delhi, and the ties of friendship, mentorship, and scholarship I developed there remain both invaluable and indissoluble. Yet, I will not talk about the predicaments of public higher education in India, but draw upon two historical ‘instances’ through which the decline of the “modern, public university” in the contemporary neoliberal era can be comparatively substantiated. One instance is the general context of university education in (post?)-colonial, sub-Saharan Africa. The other focuses on the same in neighbouring Bangladesh within the larger context of its shared history vis-à-vis the Indian scenario. In doing so, I hope to unveil what these instances might tell us about the “idea of the university” in general, and thereby the above question as it pertains to specific contexts (including the Indian) in particular.

It is widely acknowledged that the dismantling of public education at all levels has been the hallmark of neoliberal structural adjustment in the global South since the 1980s.i Here, the first of the two instances I highlight for my invitation to a comparative exercise in approaching the initial question is the context of (mainly sub-Saharan) Africa and the dismantling of the public university system there since the mid-1980s. I mainly draw from scholarly-activist contributions of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (CAFA), a collective of African, European, and North American academics associated with various African university systems. The group formed in the early 1990s in protest against the World Bank’s loan conditions against de-funding the already-insufficient systems of public provision in general, and of African public universities in particular. After being eyewitnesses to the egregious, laboratory-style experimentation with the de-funding of public higher and tertiary education under the structural adjustment programmes, the group published a series of newsletters that provide invaluable insights for understanding the trajectory of university education in the neoliberal conjuncture. These insights, further developed through personal conversations with some of CAFA’s members, largely inform my own positioning on the matter.ii The second instance involves the tremendously rapid rise of private universities in Bangladesh over the last quarter of a century. Here I will supplement a brief exegesis of the long historical context with some anecdotal accounts drawn from my own experiences recently as a lecturer at a private university in Dhaka. I suggest that despite the very concrete differences in these contexts, there are structural dynamics which allow us to incorporate their specificities within more general processes of socio-historical change. At the same time, being aware of the particularities are crucial too, if we are not to lose ourselves, as Aimé Césaire once put it, “by a walled segregation in the particular, or by dilution in the ‘universal’.”iii


Tuition hikes, cutbacks on research funding and staff, discriminatory, mismanaged and corrupt practices of hiring and admissions, suppression of critical perspectives, lack of academic autonomy, massive student mobilizations across campuses against these issues, violent police repression of protestors – such scenarios characterizing many Indian university campuses of late are actually the precise conditions highlighted in a report on higher education by Africa Watch in 1991.iv How did African universities get to such a point? The lineages of imperialism’s present become indispensable here. As George Caffentzis notes, the proliferation of modern universities in Africa really began alongside the formation of nation-states in the aftermath of anti-colonial struggles in the post-second world war period.v The newly formed nation-states did not abandon the structures of colonial administration, and the primary motive for expanding higher education was the need for training indigenous personnel for such administration. The momentum of the anti-colonial movements, drawing its energies from the economic, political and socio-cultural struggles of the classes of peasants and workers, failed for various reasons (both particular and general/systemic) in overhauling the structures of colonial administration and its intrinsic roles within the capitalist world-economy. Such failure in many ways incubated the historical possibilities for capitalism’s turn to neoliberalism in African contexts later.

As Bob Jessop, Wendy Brown, and many others have argued, a central characteristic of this turn is the reconfiguration of the state and the streamlining of its administrative function in an exclusively repressive direction. The penultimate objective of such state repression – establishing the conditions for different forms of surplus extraction, whether it is directly through the uneven appropriation of labour’s surplus-generating capacity in export production, or indirectly via the expropriation of mineral resources – remains consistent with the colonial rationale and even extends its scope in many ways. An important consequence of all this has been the drastic change in the post-war modality of (post-post?)-colonial administration, crystallized in many different ways in the formally independent African nation-state structures. Despite certain elements of continuity in the “colonial rationality” at the systemic level, the post-independence state administrations partially accommodated the interests, aspirations, and desires of the subordinate classes for political and even economic expediencies. This was achieved in varying degrees by consensus obtained through actualizing a modicum of redistribution and thereby effecting possibilities for socio-economic improvement and mass political participation.

The accommodation of these (often racialized and gendered) classes, who mostly saw and experienced imperialism as plunder and thereby constituted the basis of anti-colonial forces, however, became a fetter for the intensified forms of capitalist encroachment necessitated following the 1970s world-economic downturn. The new model of capitalist extractivism under the guise of the legitimizing dogmas of neoliberalism hinged on the gestating, politically disintegrating impulses of these differentiated anti-colonial forces held together weakly by such inter-class compromises and accommodation. Its enabling conditions were primarily effected through particular state-institutional structures. The state-funded or public university became one such institution in this context. With the so-called neoliberal transition, universities therefore began to become redundant not just in their function of training administrators, who were no longer required in droves given the calls for administrative streamlining and the reconfiguration of public provision. Equally importantly, world-economic imperatives at the national level began to assert pressures applied through financialized means (e.g. interest payments on “forced”, conditionality-based loans of the 70s and the early 80s). Such imperatives unleashed programmes of austerity which served as the pretext for certain segments of the ruling classes in undermining the increasingly fragile basis for accommodating anti-imperial political economic sensibilities of, and/or representing, the “subordinate classes”. As the CAFA newsletters and the Africa Watch report amply document, the undermining of such “sensibilities” clearly began to have their countervailing material effect as struggles for maintaining and expanding redistributive, socio-economic justice both within and outside the university found a new impetus by the late 1980s. Thousands of students and teachers across African campuses launched some of the staunchest resistances against the structural adjustment programmes imposed by multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank, which were at the forefront of these shifts bringing about new forms of colonization. This conjuncture, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the end of the short-lived hopes for a “great compromise” in Africa.


The colonial origins of the modern university in South Asia followed a different historical trajectory while retaining its consistency in terms of a similar operational logic and its objectives at different levels. British imperial expansion in South Asia and the specific modes of its (re)incorporation into the capitalist world-economy as a colony faced complexities quite different from the contexts of sub-Saharan Africa.

For one, it required the “consensual compromise” between the colonists and the local dominant classes on a greater scale, while retaining and even extenuating the political fragmentation of the latter. Hence, besides the similar requirements of and for colonial administration (which expanded when the imperial mandate was passed directly to the Crown in 1858), the domain of ’civil society’ and its institutions like the university began to play an important role in maintaining the legitimacy of colonial rule and provide a venting space for ‘non-antagonistic’ nationalist impulses. This domain of generating consensus worked more subtly. As Gramsci puts it, “[the domain of civil society operates] without ‘sanctions’ or compulsory ‘obligations’, but nevertheless exerts a collective pressure and obtains objective results in the form of an evolution of customs, ways of thinking and acting, morality, etc.”vi

Historians over the years, including Sanjay Seth most recently, have noted how ‘Western education’ in general and modern institutions of higher learning in particular have been instrumental in consolidating the legitimacy of British imperialism in South Asia by creating a class of loyal, local administrators drawn from the dominant classes.vii The political implications of this are clearly visible in the context of the first modern university in eastern Bengal. Abdur Razzak’s account of the social and political history of Dhaka University reveals that the 1905 Bengal partition and its annulment six years later in the face of popular mobilizations transcending class and religion had brought to play yet again the tried and tested imperial strategy of fragmenting such potentially-threatening political configurations.viii In this specific context, the establishment of a university in Dhaka in 1921 sought to “assuage the grievances” of Muslim elites in the eastern domains of the Raj by establishing an institution that would directly cater to their greater demands for incorporation into the middle echelons of colonial administration. Hence, the administrative requirements of the colonial state, the institutional needs for personnel ‘training centres’ and the contingencies of political expediency were often integrally tied to the origins of the modern university in South Asia.

The transition from the colonial to the ‘public’ university in South Asia was driven by similar considerations of legitimating the important continuities that decisively shaped the colonial lineage of postcolonial nation-states. As in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, this involved the accommodation of subordinate classes within a nationalist imaginary of modernization and capitalist development. The growth of higher education through public universities from the middle of the twentieth century was consequently based on similar administrative requirements. However, the nature of cross-class political accommodations and the building of legitimacy within this “formally-altered” world-economic conjuncture considerably shifted the objectives of these requirements. The tasks now were set to the management of programmes for state-led, import-substituting industrialization, agrarian revival, economic redistribution, social justice, politico-cultural transition into “modernity” and technological self-sufficiency. This sense of the “public”, which tied together a primarily socio-economic project of nation-building and its complex politico-institutional configurations of class accommodation in legitimizing the continuities of postcolonial, world-economic integration, began to transform itself under neoliberal capitalism. In the context of what is today Bangladesh, this transformation of the publics began in the early 1980s. The rise of private universities by the turn of the century were symptomatic in many ways of such a transformation, marking the onset of what Silvia Federici calls a renewed “enclosure of knowledge”.ix In this scenario, the instrumental rationality of education changes its form from catering to the objectives of social improvement to one geared towards individual attainment through capitalist market participation within a shifting economic and political landscape of class contestations globally.


Almost all the problems highlighted by the Africa Watch report and the similar conditions of crisis characterizing Indian public university campuses recently were also entrenched features of Bangladeshi public universities by the mid-1990s. This was a conjuncture where the legitimacy of a neoliberal configuration, led by export-oriented measures of industrial growth and agrarian transformation, became in many ways fortuitously grounded in popular, cross-class support. An important outcome was the minimization of resistance to the transition by obscuring its more overt contradictions and consequently displacing its political effects temporally, or containing them within specific institutional spaces, like the public university. The reason for this is that the neoliberal transition in the global South also (roughly) coincided with a specific political conjuncture in Bangladesh which operationalized democratic political processes at a national level, arguably for the first time since the country’s independence in 1971. Popular consensus and mobilization against the discontents of almost two decades of authoritarian rule thereby allowed a somewhat ‘smoother’ transition to neoliberal capitalism via a peculiar configuration of the economic and political. Major electoral parties were thus under less scrutiny for continuing with these major economic policy shifts that accentuated class antagonisms further. This resulted in a political landscape where the “plebianization” of politics based on popular, cross-class accommodation became increasingly geared towards generalizing the aspirations of newly emerging ‘middle classes’ who were the primary beneficiaries of the neoliberal turn. An important casualty here was the erstwhile sense of the “public”, now irrevocably delegitimized. Public universities therefore became the embroiled centres of “dirty politics” for these middle classes, creating a space for private higher education institutions that would serve the needs of its members for attaining market-mediated opportunities for socio-economic mobility based on “merit” and “professional qualifications”. Hence began the rise of private universities (while public investment in higher education became relatively stagnant), growing from a few institutions in the early 1990s to over 90 odd universities currently, most located in the city of Dhaka.x

The private university ethos, with its exclusionary nature based on the commoditization of education and eschewal of the developmental, nation-building project (and its politico-institutional arrangements of cross-class compacts for social improvement), is perhaps only too familiar. Business-related and “professional” degrees dominate the curriculum, fostering the neoliberal tenets of individual mobility and trickle-down prosperity. The euphoric moment of neoliberalism, however, appears to be giving way to disillusionment among middle class youth in these universities in the face of increasingly bleak employment prospects. The rupture generated between aspirations and capitalist reality is perhaps indicated in the extreme by recent cases of involvement of disillusioned, middle class private university students in right-wing, Islamic radicalism.xi Fostering critical perspectives, socio-cultural engagement and a historical conscience are all stymied to varying extents in the private university, generating an educational content that is qualitatively inferior in many ways to a public institution and its objectives of inculcating a modern citizenry. An important aspect here is that the “enclosure of knowledge” is perhaps best understood not as operating in isolation within the institutional space, but as interlinked through myriad processes of dispossession and capitalist encroachment that strengthen each other by dismantling an earlier moment of socio-economic and political compromise within and between social classes.

What is often striking and yet goes unnoticed is the visibility of these processes simultaneously and even within the same spaces occasionally. For instance, if we looked out of any classroom window on the west, we could see the majestic river on the banks of which our private university stood being filled up with sand. This visual made explaining Marx’s discussions on the enclosures so much easier – its shifting form now fuelled by a speculative, real estate property boom. The people dependent on the river were not completely displaced. We could see the squalid, polythene-roofed huts of some of their remaining members, trying to eke out a precarious existence amidst a severely polluted, disappearing river whose ebbing flows meant more than a threat to their material survival – it signified the erasure of their (and our) histories. Legal action by a group of environmental lawyers in 2009 saw the construction of pillars demarcating the boundaries of the river. Yet, one of those pillars today stands almost in the middle of the campus, even donning a national flag on occasions!xii Nonetheless, this tragic panorama is so normalized that it is difficult to imagine anything otherwise, especially for the students who have grown up amidst this milieu of dispossession and ecological destruction. The rapid pace of such transformation is attested by the fact that I was only a few years older than my students and yet remembered a very different river. I also harboured very different ideas about, and expectations from, higher education. The point is that the enclosure of knowledge accompanies new forms of enclosures, and its differentially-actualized, adverse impacts should not deceive us of the very real possibilities of their generalization into a severe crisis of social reproduction. Consequently, our idea of the university should perhaps be informed both historically and in relation to its specific socio-economic and political lineages. If the conditions following the transition from the public to the private university in the context of many sub-Saharan African countries and Bangladesh are any indication, the struggles in and for the Indian public university today are more important than ever before.

Photo: Debaditya Bhattacharya

[i] For an illuminating argument on how it takes place through the “double commoditization” of university education, see Prabhat Patnaik’s talk at an event organized by the Delhi University Teachers’ Association last summer.

[ii] A collection of some the prominent articles in these newsletters can be found in Federici, S., Caffentzis, C. G., & Alidou, O., Eds. (2000). A thousand flowers: Social struggles against structural adjustment in African universities. Africa World Press. My own thoughts and research in this regard are laid out more elaborately in a forthcoming book chapter, “Knowledge Enclosure & University Education: Notes from ‘Post-restructured’ Bangladesh” in Bartlett, A. J., Clemens, J. & Whyte, J., Eds. (2016). What is Education? Edinburgh University Press.

[iii] In Lettre á Maurice Thorez (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1965), p.15.

[iv] Caffentzis, G. “The World Bank and Education in Africa” in Federici, S., Caffentzis, C. G., & Alidou, O., Eds. (2000). A thousand flowers: Social struggles against structural adjustment in African universities. Africa World Press. p. 17.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Nowell-Smith, & Q. Hoare (Eds.). International Publishers. p. 242.

[vii] For a detailed discussion in this regard, see Seth, S. (2007). Subject lessons: The western education of colonial India. Duke University Press.

[viii] Karim, Sadar Fazlul (1984). Dhaka Bishshobiddaloy O Purbo Bongio Shomaj: Oddhapok Abdur Razzaker Alapcharita (Dhaka University and Society in East Bengal: Interviews with Professor Abdur Razzak). University Press, Dhaka.

[ix] Federici, S. (2009). Education and the Enclosure of Knowledge in the Global University. ACME: An international e-journal for critical geographies, 8(3), 454-461.

[x] See the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh’s recent information in this regard here.

[xi] For recent media reports of the links between private universities and religious extremism, see for instance report 1 and report 2. This is of course not to associate such politics with youth in private universities alone (see, for instance, report), but to indicate the social, economic and political conditions under which such institutional spaces may become more amenable to the growth of right-wing, radical Islamist networks.

[xii] These pillars were constructed to demarcate the boundaries of the river after the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) filed and won a public interest litigation in the Dhaka High Court in 2009 for dredging the major rivers in Dhaka and removing illegal establishments along their banks. The implementation thus far has unfortunately been dismal (see for example, report).

Mushahid Hussain
is doctoral scholar at the Department of Sociology, State University of New York, Binghamton. He may be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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