The idea of a public funded university is under severe stress in India as well as across the world. In our country universities are in decline for a number of reasons. Universities are facing serious fund cuts both by central and state governments. As a result most universities are understaffed and under-resourced. Universities across India suffer from lack of faculty with teaching being managed by temporary and guest teachers in many states. Even in a university like Delhi University, nearly half the teaching posts have been lying vacant for years and most teaching is done by ad hoc-teachers. Such decline in state support for public universities is being observed all over the world with universities being asked to look for private sources of money.
In India, apart from shortage of teachers, infrastructure facilities of the university like library or laboratories are also in an impoverished state. It is often said that when the state is fiscally strained it cannot be expected to maintain the Universities which are the privilege of a tiny portion of the population. While lack of finances is a serious issue facing universities today, the crisis is even deeper. As Woodruff D. Smith argues, “…the academy’s ongoing, currently heightened, financial difficulties are a manifestation of a much more serious and complicated set of problems, the most fundamental being the decline of the public sphere …. This decline has been accompanied by a lowering of regard for the institutions that have been most significant in creating and maintaining the public sphere. Of these, none are more prominent than the nation’s public colleges and universities.”
The Habermassian idea of public sphere, improved subsequently by other scholars, implies that democracies are sustained by the ability and desire of different sections of society to have a free exchange of ideas and opinions on issues that concern their lives and wellbeing on an equal footing. We know it too well that the idea of an equal plane is at best an ideal, a dream that societies have not been able to realize. However, Inequality arising out of class, gender, religion, caste and other factors should not inhibit debate, discussion and dialogue about collective life. For despite all disparities there exists a collectivity that everyone inhabits.
This shared collectivity demands peaceful disagreements about decisions regarding economic future as well as ways of living together. For example, we have differing view-points on questions such as whether we should have more public spending to ensure food, health and education for all or not, what the nature of labour-capital relationship should be and so on.
How should these differences be negotiated? Experience of previous centuries tells us that violence is not the best method to resolve differences. We have seen revolutions eating their children. Human history has not been able to find any method better than democracy on the principle of open and free discussion for the purpose of negotiating contesting view-points. In a democracy everyone has all the freedom to engage with the public to try and persuade people to rally around any idea. However, this process itself is quite susceptible to manipulation by those using rhetorical means. That is how Hitler managed to hypnotise Germans and initiated them into Fascism.
The First Commission on secondary education headed by Dr. Mudaliar recognised this danger when the report states that what James Madison said about his country, the United States, many years ago, holds good today in our country also. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce of tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The commission wanted excellence and perfection to be the aim of free India: “Students must acquire a yearning for perfection and learn to take pride in doing everything as thoroughly as they can; likewise teachers should learn to reject, firmly but with sympathy, all work that is half-hearted or slipshod or casual.” The most important task of education is to “develop the capacity for clear thinking which distinguishes every truly educated per son and has become increasingly important in the modern world of “plural possibilities”, where everyone must learn to make up his mind and judge issues and problems without prejudice or passion.”
Clear thinking is difficult to achieve. Confused minds cannot make good choices. It is for this reason that modern societies seek to develop themselves as knowledge societies. But Knowledge is neither instinctive nor spontaneous. It has to be acquired methodically. Universities are spaces created for this task. A University has to be a free space if it has to perform this job of knowledge production. For, knowledge can often conflict with belief systems which support and are in turn patronised by the powers that be. Universities have been imagined and organised as structures free from influence of the state.
The faculty, though funded by governments, are allowed freedom to express their views and judgment which can go against the supreme power of the day. We have seen dons of Harvard University writing openly expressing their disapproval of Donald Trump as the president of the USA. Popular mandate could not deter them from telling people that they had erred or blundered in electing a man like Trump as their President. They were speaking as psychologists or psychoanalysts from their professional ground. It is not their political opinion but their professional judgment which they have a duty to share with their people. Public spheres which are the basis on which a democracy can work, only if the discussions or conversations conducted are done in an intelligent manner.
People need support from academics to have intelligent and humane conversations. This is one of the vital reasons for the state to support all kinds of research because it is research which augments and improves knowledge. Correct information, rigorous application of methods evolved and conclusions examined and seconded by peers is how the business of knowledge is conducted. It does need to be said that everything is subject to revision and rejection. For democracy to thrive, the ability of people to discriminate between falsehood and truth must be cultivated.
The community of knowledge has a role and duty here. It has to provide information and arguments to expose the claims often made by the governments to justify their decisions. For example, it was the duty of university-based economists to examine the claims of the present central government regarding demonetarization and help people understand its implications. In order to perform this duty in a fair manner, it has to remain autonomous of the interests of the state. This community cannot become an approver and advocate of state power and its decisions, rather it has to primarily act as its critique. This is the main reason for not treating university teachers as government servants bound by a code of conduct which prohibits them from differing with the state. Communities of knowledge are al so supposed to ac t as communities of judgment. This work is done through framing of curriculum, syllabi, organization of classroom and also extra-mural activities. It is not that their privilege to have and air an opinion needs to be safeguarded.
They have a responsibility towards their peers, students and their area of knowledge. They have to expose their students to contrarian view points, give them tools which would help them make their own analysis of the problems under consideration and evolve their own judgment. Academic freedom is therefore not to be confused with freedom of speech or expression. Autonomy of teachers and universities is an essential condition of academic freedom but is not sufficient. Adequate funding and support for research, regular enrichment of libraries and other resources and enlarging the university space making it open to all sections of the society alone can make the practice of intellection truly democratic: each one of these is essential if we want universities to be academically free spaces.
Democracy, despite all its limitations is still the best approach to resolve problems facing humanity. Human beings have constantly sought to improve themselves and universities have played a great role in this endeavor. Societies which have an aspiration to evolve as intelligent and efficient communities have restrained themselves from the temptation to tame universities. Those who have acted otherwise have failed. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Khomeini, McCarthy in their attempt to make universities servile ended up impoverishing them and forcing talent and intellect out of the system.
The State became stronger but societies became weaker. Universities in our country are in dire stress today. Their usefulness is being questioned by the central government when it says that the tax-payer’s money is being wasted on institutions like the JNU. The Prime Minister of the country mocks the universities by ridiculing Harvard and claiming that it has been proven wrong by his own and his team’s hard work. To say that commonsense needs no education and the work of scholars who have spent their life training themselves in their disciplines is futile is to question the very existence of Universities. Moreover, ministers are advising students and teachers to keep themselves confined to classrooms and the prescribed course work.
Their participation, through seminars, symposia and other means in the discussion which absorbs the society is sought to be criminalized. It is this perspective in which the question of academic freedom needs to be discussed and needs to become a concern for the civil liberty movements worldwide. The attacks on campuses by ideological groups with an objective to turn them into their propaganda machines have to be resisted. Attempts to regulate academic affairs through a central agency far removed from the Universities needs to be opposed and efforts to make academic institutions service centres of government schemes needs to be confronted and challenged.
Policies leading to replacement of public funded universities with for- profit educational institutions need to be questioned and defeated. This is not the role of academics alone, the society at large has to stand by them and fight for them. It is for this reason that the PUCL has decided to dedicate an entire issue to this question. We hope that the readers would be able to see through the articles (which spread over several years) archived
here that the danger is real and comes from many sources. Universities lack internal resources to confront and surmount this huge challenge. They need support and solidarity. We need to come forward and speak out for them.
Professor of Hindi literature, University of Delhi. Source: “PUCL Bulletin” (April 2017)