Skip to content

Of Utopias and Universities

By Ania Loomba

Ben Okri’s vision of the ideal university in his book, Astonishing the Gods, reminds us that such a place is precisely that – a utopian dream:

The universities were places for self-perfection, places for the highest education in life. Everyone taught everyone else. All were teachers, all were students….

Research was a permanent activity, and all were researchers and appliers of the fruits of research. The purpose was to discover the hidden law of all things, to deepen the spirit, to make more profound the sensitivities of the individual to the universe, and to become creative.

Love was the most important subject in the universities. Entire faculties were devoted to the art of living. The civilisation was dedicated to a simple goal, the perfection of the spirit and the mastery of life.[i]

There is nothing wrong with visions and utopias. Without them there is no possibility of radical thought or social transformation. But if Okri’s utopia reminds us that one of the original meanings of the word “university” was “community”, it should also lead us to reflect that, historically, few communities of learning have been non-hierarchical, where “all were teachers, all were students.” Indeed, many of our past practices, and even ideals, of pedagogy have been unabashedly hierarchical. For example, the Hindu tradition of the guru shishya parampara romanticizes a deeply subservient relationship between the teacher and the taught, even when the latter were really the employers of the former, as was the case with Brahmin teachers of princely rulers. Moreover, as the story of Guru Dronacharya and Eklavya in the Mahabharata brilliantly reminds us, teachers rigidly policed the borders of the status quo and used the traditions of learning to enforce them.[ii]

Both in the West and in the East, even those universities we regard as “the best”, have been deeply stratified, even when they supposedly created possibilities for upward mobility. Yes, in class conscious Renaissance England, it was possible for a Christopher Marlowe to go to Cambridge as a scholarship student and write a deeply subversive text like Doctor Faustus.  It was even possible for a Moorish slave like Juan Latino to become a scholar of repute at the University of Granada. But such individuals were exceptions who proved the rule, and were usually tolerated only to the extent that they did not rock the boat. Ironically, in our own day, sometimes it is only great inequity that makes possible the most magnanimous gesture of inclusion – Harvard is one of the very few institutions in the United States that provides full scholarships to anyone it deems to need financial assistance. As such, a middle class student will, it has been calculated, pay more at a public university than at Harvard. But this does not make Harvard a more egalitarian space than, say, a public university in the US which has far less money for scholarships. I am not suggesting that scholarships are a bad thing; indeed they should be a necessary part of any educational institution, but merely pointing to that fact that both exclusion and strategic inclusion are part of even highly stratified educational systems.

The logic of strategic inclusion works differently when it becomes imperative to educate large numbers of once excluded populations, either because they demand it, or because it is regarded as necessary for social control. That is what happened both in colonized countries, and in Europe – working classes, women and the colonized were taught that they were unequal to their masters not only by being kept unlearned but also through learning. I do not want to belabour this point as there is a vast literature on the way in which education has been closely tied to the maintenance of the dominant social order. I simply want to reiterate that it is this aspect of education that has shaped the proliferation of different types of institutions, each with its own educational content and pedagogical methods. Thus, while the divisions between vocational colleges, polytechnics, community colleges, deemed colleges, correspondence, and open universities on the one hand, and research universities on the other are not identical in different countries and contexts, the histories of all of them speak to the need to differentiate education for various population groups, and to regulate social mobility. Indeed I would argue that the ideal of “the university” as a place for the “free” exchange of ideas has developed precisely alongside the need to create a hierarchy of learners and many places of learning (such as polytechnic, or a vocational training college) are excluded from this ideal.

In decolonized India, the laudable ideal of public and affordable higher education was not accompanied by sufficient rethinking of the content and structure of colonial education, or of imagining what a decolonized pedagogy would look like. Nor did we ask how universities would actively redress historical inequities, especially those of caste. The relationship of teacher to taught, of teacher to university authorities, and of university authorities to the government remained asymmetrical, or became more so. Seventy years later, notable exceptions notwithstanding, our university system is one where teachers have no pedagogic or intellectual freedom, but also no accountability to students, resulting in very uneven standards of teaching or commitment to it. Faculty are not rewarded for research but also by and large not required to do it, so that there is a sharp separation of teaching and research, quite the opposite of Okri’s dream university. Teachers and students are often at the mercy of bureaucratic and corrupt administrators and therefore sometimes in league with them. There is a sharp inequity in the funding between central and state institutions, a lack of space for innovation, both pedagogic and intellectual, in most of them. On the whole, we have produced alienated or indifferent educators, unemployable graduates, and inefficient and often punitive university bureaucracies.

And yet, compared to many other postcolonial countries, India has had both more and better colleges and universities, many dedicated teachers and excellent students. In spite of the odds, we have produced real intellectuals across the disciplines. So today, given the onslaught on many of our best institutions, many of us are placed in the position of defending rather than critiquing and reimagining our universities. For many, we are defending the public university from the market place. While I believe that the privatization of education will, in the long term, always exacerbate rather than ameliorate existing social inequities, we need to also recognize that fundamentally undemocratic features –- whether it be about access to education, content of education, and methods of pedagogy—have structured public education as well.

In fact, the most contentious recent debates in India have not arisen from “the curtailment of public spending and the accompanying escalation of privatization of higher education” as the concept note for this special issue of Café Dissensus suggests. That has certainly been a key issue of concern over the last two decades, but the recent crises in Delhi University, FTII and Jawaharlal Nehru University  (to take three high-profile cases) have resulted from attempts by the central and state governments to control the form and the content of education and university governance. In these universities, we have seen, variously, rushed and authoritarian changes to the syllabi and structure of undergraduate degrees, increased centralization of the content of education, the imposition of unqualified vice-chancellors (not to mention an even more unqualified minister of education at the national level), attempts to muzzle free speech and debate among students, and a complete disregard, in all cases, of student and faculty opposition. All of which was overseen by a thoroughly unqualified and callous Minister for Education, acting on behalf of an equally callous government. The events at the University of Hyderabad, and the suicide of Rohith Vemula, also remind us that the ongoing crisis in higher education also stems from the backlash against Dalits as they stake their right to universities and to intellectual activity. The resistance to the expansion of the university system to include them, and the attempt to muzzle progressive dissent is a feature of both public and private universities in India. Across the country, talks, film-shows and debates staged by left wing and progressive individuals and groups have been disrupted by right-wing groups, and disallowed by university authorities.

In a paper called “What is to be Done about Indian Universities,” a group of teachers called Academics for Creative Reforms (henceforth ACR) writes that the higher education sector in India caters to over 30 million students but “what makes this sector truly remarkable is not its size but the scale of the social revolution it is effecting. We are enacting one of the most dramatic instances of the democratisation of access to higher education in human history, as millions of families send children to college for the first time.”[iii] But this expansion is stymied by the problems we see in the country at large. By 2020, India will have the largest tertiary-age population in the world, and its current gross enrollment ratio is only 21%. The gap between demand and supply makes investors of all shades and stripes, be it foreign universities and governments or private investors, virtually salivate at the opportunities in India, as is evident from recent reports by the British Council and Ernst and Young.[iv] Few of those who are eyeing the education market in India are concerned with extending the social revolution that ACR speaks of, although their buzz words often appropriate the language of social justice. Neither are most of them concerned with protecting or expanding diversity of the content of education. This is in keeping with world-wide trends post “globalization” and market liberalism, aka market fundamentalism whereby the arts, humanities and social sciences have been diminished within the university system, while professional and business education as well as disciplines tied to the market have expanded. Even the pure sciences are suffering, compared with those branches of science which can be tied to industries of various sorts. This is the case in both state funded as well as privately funded institutions.

ACR’s contention is not wrong when it maintains, with respect to Indian governmental bodies, that “the indiscriminate borrowing of blueprints and vocabularies from the West ignores the specificity of our context.” But the problem lies in the fact that the borrowing is not so much indiscriminate as it is highly simplistic, selective, and even nonsensical (in the sense that they invoke Western examples that simply don’t exist). The rhetoric and pattern of borrowing evades some of the key debates that are taking place abroad, ignores some of the lessons that have been learnt there, as well as the forms taken by the crisis of education there. For example, Western and specifically US educational systems were invoked when the University of Delhi imposed in quick succession a semester system, then a one year increase in the undergraduate curriculum, and then a “choice based credit system.” All were imposed from on high in the face of teacher and student opposition, and none of them took into account that these features are all part of a system where individual teachers have great autonomy when it comes to designing their courses, and assessing students. There was no talk of such autonomy; on the contrary, greater centralization is seen as the answer to the enormous variation in quality of education between one institution and another. Nor is student evaluation of teachers along the lines of the US ever seriously proposed, for the assumption is that it would quickly become a tool in the hands of administrators and their henchmen. Such an assumption is not entirely wrong, because the fact is that we have created a system which devalues both the teacher and the student, and which has then created an atmosphere where policing is understood to be the only way of keeping people in check.

Of course there are institutions that are exceptions, but they highlight the larger rule. Why is it, for example, that teachers and students routinely skipped classes in Delhi University but not in JNU? Does it not have something to do with the relative freedom that JNU allows teachers to design their courses and administer them? I have taught in both institutions, and both have excellent teachers as well as indifferent ones, so my point here is simply to indicate the extent to which we have failed to create alternative work cultures in our universities, and to suggest that this can only come from greater freedom and decentralization.

And ultimately this can only happen in a meaningful way in public universities. The rich are increasingly sending their children abroad, which they didn’t – or couldn’t – when I was a college student in the 1970s. But there are increasing numbers of the not-so-rich-but-quite-wealthy who are the real targets of private investors in the educational market place. The universities they establish are unlikely to make much space for the children of the dispossessed. Nor can they really offer pedagogic reform of the kind that is needed. The ethos of the student as paying customer that is now increasingly entrenched in the West is hardly the way to change the relationships between the teacher and the taught in India. Moreover, private universities remain just as vulnerable to “outside” interference in their agendas as do public universities – not just by the funders and owners of these institutions but also by the state (in the US, both public and private universities are enabling the manufacture of drones for military use, to take just one example).

Let me end with a few thoughts about the disastrous marginalization of the humanities and some of the social sciences, that is being effected everywhere. The British Council report on higher education that I cited earlier included fifty interviews with Indian policymakers and academics:

The social sciences and humanities were seen by interviewees to be essential to understanding and preventing conflict and social unrest within and around India’s borders. This is likely to rise up the government’s agenda; one interviewee reported that 100 districts out of 600 in India are conflict-affected.

What a chilling but revelatory statement! For the respondents, the reason to maintain the teaching of humanities and social sciences is that these disciplines can help control dissent. Literary education, a host of critics have shown, was always understood to be crucial to maintain social control, be that over women, working men, or the colonized. If properly used, it was a weapon of the elite. But in recent years, literary studies, and the critical social sciences have become sites for raising profound questions about social justice. It is no accident that it is these subjects that often become the explict targets of anger by the right wing, whether in India, or Britain, or the US. In the humanities, questions about radical pedagogy have been widely raised, and university systems and the privatization of education have been most widely critiqued. Precisely those subjects that are criticized for being “useless” or “divorced from reality” have raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of power, be it state power or everyday power. The policymakers and academics cited by the British Council report implicitly recognize these challenges, and are suggesting that we return these disciplines to their ameliorative traditions, and thereby maintain the status quo, both in the university and outside it.

I have suggested that the ideal of the university as a space for free debate, freedom of speech, and knowledge in all spheres is constantly under pressure from and in tension with another ideal – that of institutions of higher learning that also participate in creation of democratic, inclusive societies. It is easy to claim that both necessarily go hand in hand; indeed even elitist institutions pay lip service to their merger, and create pockets of inclusion for historically disenfranchised students. In practice, the very hierarchy between different educational institutions the world over reminds us that the two ideals cannot easily sit together. In today’s India, if we are truly to grapple with the possibilities of their intersection, we will need to keep alive different disciplinary traditions and ideas, especially those which are threatened by the logic of the marketplace.

Photo: Rina Ramdev

[i] Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods (Johannesburg: Phoenix Books, 1995)

[ii] For those who don’t know the story: Drona, the great teacher of the Pandava princes refused to accept Eklavya, a young forest prince, and in some versions a “lower” caste, as his student. But Eklavya practices archery in front of a statue of Drona, and claims that Drona is his teacher anyway. Realizing that Eklavya has surpassed the guru’s best student Arjun, Drona demands that Eklavya cut off his right thumb as “guru dakshina” (a gift given to the teacher after the completion of one’s formal education”).

[iii] Academics for Creative Reforms, “What Is To Be Done About Indian Universities?”  Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. l No. 24 , June 13, 2015, 25-29, 25.

[iv] British Council, “Understanding India: The future of higher education and opportunities of international cooperation,” February 2014; available here; Ernst and Young, “Private sector Participation in Indian higher education” Presented at the FICCI Higher Education Summit 2011, available here.

Ania Loomba
 currently holds the Catherine Bryson Chair in the Department of English, University of Pennsylvania. She is also faculty in Comparative Literature, South Asian Studies, and Women’s Studies. Her publications include Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (1989), Colonialism/ Postcolonialism (1998) and Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002). She has co-edited Post-colonial Shakespeares (1998); Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (2005), Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion (2007), South Asian Feminisms (2012), and Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies: Gender, Race and Sexuality (2016). She is currently working on a book on left-wing women in India.


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

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: