The problem

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ACADEMIA has been caught off guard by the winds of change sweeping across Indian higher education. As producers of knowledge, intellectuals are supposed to be at the cutting edge of all things new. But we find ourselves in a strange situation because the very institutions we inhabit and reproduce – universities, colleges and research centres – have hardly figured on our research agendas.

At a time when the state is supposed to be retreating, it has become feverishly active in Indian higher education, making new plans, setting up commissions and committees, and putting in place a slew of bills meant to usher in an era of expansion and inclusion never witnessed before. The moment is historic – this is the first major push since independence, with higher education leveraging future growth via the development of a ‘knowledge economy’. Or, at least this is what we are constantly told, along with that wonderful phrase ‘world class’.

When we recall the enormous energy and zeal that went into education during the colonial period (after all, social reform was first and foremost a pedagogic mission), the loss of focus after independence is quite striking. Indian academics have not produced any major scholarly studies on the postcolonial structures of higher education within which we have all been educated, and which we have worked continuously to adapt. Standing at the apex of a system of schooling that has itself evolved in complex and uneven ways, the higher education system is absolutely vital for the reproduction of the middle classes. But how many of us have any sense of the development of this sector over all these years? And why have so few of us been interested, at least until recently?

The talk of a ‘crisis’ in Indian higher education has become all too common, but this is an inaccurate and unhelpful description. Compare for a moment the situation in the United States, where the recent recession has taken its greatest toll on education. A string of books by eminent professors across the disciplinary and political spectrum in that country is busy dissecting what has gone wrong, why, and what needs to be done. The more obvious topics are the consequences of reduction in state funding, a growing class of exploited ‘contingent labour’ (untenured faculty and graduate students), the new dangers to academic freedom, and declining levels of learning overall. But it is interesting to note that one aspect of their crisis has been largely ignored. This is the fear that the American university, which has occupied the commanding heights of the world system of higher education since World War II, may be losing the key asset that has sustained its dominance, namely its ability to attract the ‘best and brightest’ from the rest of the world.

Our first crisis of a comparable kind dates back to the student unrest of the 1960s and seventies, the subject of much national and international attention at the time. Students took to the streets when they discovered that their degrees would not fetch them jobs. The politicization of the ‘educated unemployed’ (a new category for the young republic) led to students protesting against rising prices and corruption, joining fledgling worker, peasant and adivasi struggles, and setting up new women’s organizations. This moment and its links to the higher education system have yet to figure fully in the existing scholarship on social movements. We are more familiar with the argument that the imposition of a state of emergency in 1975 was partly aimed at containing the critical churning in higher education. But much less is known about the impact of limited UGC-led expansion, the sprouting of private educational institutions in the southern states and a growing ‘brain drain’ to the US, all of which also began at this time.

After the 1980s, new interventions in higher education made yet other demands. To mention just two: the new field of women’s studies called for a reorientation of the social sciences that would redress the invisibility of women; and post-colonial critiques emerging from departments of English literature provoked far-reaching engagements with the cultural legacies of colonialism. But neither of these radical perspectives has had the kind of impact that they had envisioned.

The year 1990 marks another crisis point: the event of ‘Mandal’. A national legislation to implement reservations for the Other Backward Classes in government employment led to massive student demonstrations against quotas and for ‘merit’. Questions of caste identity and discrimination broke into the national arena. Though they provoked acrimonious and highly polarized debates, they also made it impossible to return to the older astonishingly naïve conceptions of our castelessness. More than a decade later, OBC reservations were introduced into higher education itself.

But these are only the more visible of the ‘critical events’ that have been shaping higher education. In the absence of sustained scholarship, we can only be impressionistic about actual trends and processes: Expansion of higher education has gone hand in hand with declining finances at the state level. No one knows what is going on in the exploding private sector, or in the booming market for student loans for those enrolled in professional degrees. Nor do we understand how shifts in the social composition of students and teachers are transforming the pedagogic challenges of the classroom. Newly emergent youth cultures fed by the market and the complex linkages between student organizations and political parties are visibly reshaping the meaning of student life. What would constitute ‘critical knowledges’ in these contexts, and what insights would they offer?

After our entry into the 21st century, the government announced its big push in this sector with the Eleventh Plan, popularly named the Education Plan. But we have already lost count of the number of new bills that were to be introduced, and the ‘mother’ of them all – the National Commission on Higher Education and Research Bill – is missing in action. Something as seemingly innocuous as the introduction of a semester system into Delhi University’s colleges has provoked resistance from teachers and raised questions ranging from pedagogy to governance.

Whatever their global or local compulsions, we have to recognize that state initiatives are forcing us to reopen many questions that we thought were already settled. What is higher education for? We all recognize that schooling should be a fundamental right (and this is now the law of the land) – but what about higher education? What is the relation between skill, competence and all that goes into getting trained for a job, and being critically aware? Why has the language of inclusion, of overcoming marginalization and disadvantage, become so central to neo-liberal agendas in higher education? For what reasons and with what resources are we to go ‘global’? And why should all this suddenly matter here and now?

We may still not understand how and why this has all happened, but the moment of higher education has surely arrived. This issue of Seminar seeks to address different dimensions of this moment, including reflections on the contemporary uses of higher education, recent reports and major bills, the struggles of teachers and students, and questions of language, interdisciplinarity, governance and accountability.