Inadequate exposure to real-world social issues gets aggravated by academic Brahmanism in India

higher education

By V Santhakumar*

Higher education can be used for the social and economic mobility of underprivileged sections. This is achieved usually by providing admission to a set of students from these sections in universities and other institutes of higher education through the reservation or a quota of seats.

India has been using this reservation policy for many decades. It has helped a section of students from the so-called backward communities, scheduled castes and tribes to enter the institutes of higher education and a sub-set of them to get jobs which require such education. Many among them would not have received admission in universities and other such institutes in the absence of such a reservation policy.

Since the number of seats for higher education is limited, one person is denied the seat when someone else is admitted through the reservation. Hence such a policy becomes an effective instrument towards an equitable redistribution if the person who gets admission (at the margin) is from an economically poorer background compared to the person who has been denied the admission. That was found to be the case in India, especially with regard to admissions in engineering colleges.

The reservation policy has been useful, albeit partially, to address the historically shaped marginalisation or exclusion in India. However, it has not been that useful to improve the living conditions of the majority of people belonging to underprivileged groups, especially, the scheduled castes and tribes. One reason is that around 45 percent of children in India do not complete school education currently and this figure was much higher a couple of decades ago, and they are more likely to be from one of these underprivileged social groups. Hence they cannot benefit from higher education through the reservation. Moreover, some students from such groups who get admission in well-known institutes (such as the IITs) may find it difficult to complete the degree programs successfully.

In summary, this approach to use higher education to achieve social inclusion is necessary and to be continued. However it is not adequate in India. That is the reason for thinking about an additional model.

The second model

Before writing about this one, let me briefly summarise two experiments that have been going on in Brazil during the last decade. Universities there have come out with a special teacher-education program for the indigenous people. (This would be equivalent to a special B Ed program for the Scheduled Tribes in India.) This cannot be a typical teacher-education program.  The school education for indigenous children, if it is to be effective and useful, should be appropriate to their social and cultural context. A science or maths teacher has to be in a position to teach the subject in a way that the students from these communities can relate to, and also in a language that they can understand. This requires appropriate changes in the content of teacher education.

However, teacher-educators or university professors may not have adequate exposure to the social and cultural context of indigenous groups. In order to address this issue, these professors should be willing to learn and change the content of teacher-education to make it appropriate to the context of indigenous people. Moreover, trainee teachers from the indigenous community and university professors have to collaborate and jointly develop learning materials. Professors should carry out research on appropriate teaching practices for the education of indigenous people. All these have been attempted in the universities of Brazil, and through this process, a substantial share of teachers from this social group could receive the required qualifications.

There is a professional master’s program in the University of Brasilia for students belonging to marginalised social groups – blacks or indigenous people – or those from the mainstream society who work for the welfare of these groups. This program is meant for those who are part of a government or non-governmental organisation working among such groups. This is another example of using higher education directly to address the issues of social/human development within the country.

There are other such experiments.  In all these cases, the purpose of higher education itself is to achieve social inclusion and that too somewhat directly. That requires a change in the content of education to make it appropriate to that social purpose. Or such a purpose or goal cannot be met by admitting a few students from marginalised social groups to a normal degree program and hence that requires the redesign of higher education. If such programs have to make the desired impact, it has to be implemented at scale. For example, a small experiment to train a few teachers from a disadvantaged social group may be grossly inadequate.

The need for such programs is much more crucial in India (compared to Brazil). The education of STs which include 10 percent of India’s population faces more severe challenges than that of indigenous groups in Brazil which constitute only 0.4 percent of its population. There are other social groups in India which are similarly vulnerable. Poverty, malnutrition, and unhealthy and unhygienic practices and living conditions – or manifestations of economic and social underdevelopment – are more prevalent in India. Despite all these issues, we have not thought much about using higher education to address these issues directly.

One can interpret the mission of Azim Premji University as something closer to the second model. However, there are many challenges in its implementation and some of these are discussed here.

Challenges that this model may face in India

Teaching of different subjects (whether it is sociology, economics or physics) in universities and colleges in India has very little connection with the social context of students. Academics struggle to teach those textbooks used in one of the North-American or British universities (or their inferior versions produced in India) without much adaptation to the local context in terms of the content, in their effort to create a 2nd or 4th grade replica of such universities.

Teaching in an undergraduate course in the country is useful only to enable the student to write the examination or to do a post-graduation; and teaching in post-graduation facilitates the pursuit of doctoral education. For example, those students who complete a degree program of BA Economics in India and who decide to be an employee in a government or a non-governmental or a private organisation or a trader (rather than doing an MA) have no insights of microeconomics that they can take to their professional or personal life. This is the situation in the case of most subjects.

What ails Indian academics? One problem could be the laziness and unwillingness to do hard work. People are preoccupied excessively with their family matters. Though academics get a higher level of leisure time, it is not used for academic purposes. There is another side to this issue. There is an excessive teaching load for the faculty in state universities and colleges, and that may reduce their time for preparations. However one cannot see a higher level of preparedness on the part of teachers even in those universities where the teaching load is reasonable.

With the laziness and the pre-occupation with non-academic private matters, teaching the same thing that one has learnt in the university becomes an easy option. Translating the theoretical or international or macro-knowledge to the context of the student requires additional work, and that is avoided.  Teachers would be happier if students understand concepts on their own by reading papers and books written for international academic readers.

Many academics do not have adequate exposure to real-world social issues. People become academics through an uninterrupted education process from schooling to under-graduation, then to post-graduation and finally doctoral research. Though field research is carried out by a small section of them during their doctoral work, it is not continued after becoming a university teacher.  Then the field research becomes something to be outsourced to students and research scholars and assistants.

Though these issues are prevalent in many parts of the world, different variants of Academic Brahmanism may have aggravated the situation in India. This Brahmanism makes the upper-caste Indians to be somewhat aloof or indifferent to the issues that affect the population as a whole. There is a tendency to be in an unreal or imaginary world of `philosophy or theory’ without taking adequate effort, either to contribute to the international peer-reviewed literature or to translate that into applications to make a real difference in the world around. Even those, who are pro-poor in terms of ideological orientation, can lead a happier life by participating in the discourses, without doing anything significantly to make the life of others a little more comfortable.

There could be a process equivalent to Sanskritisaton too here. Those who start as Academic Non-Brahmins (practitioners and others who have not taught in higher echelons of academia) want to follow the rituals and practices of Academic Brahmins.

Though Indian academics aspire to be in world-class liberal universities, they are not willing to take the required effort. If someone asks academics who live in India to do and publish more research (in peer-reviewed journals) they would resist and complain that `western standards’ are imposed on them. On the other hand, if they are asked to do something to address an issue in their social context (like the educational backwardness of scheduled tribes), they would grumble about the dilution of academic standards or autonomy. Or they may come out with arguments to legitimise their actions and inactions: `thinking is practice’; `the education of scheduled tribes is an imposition of modernisation or development over their culture’, and so on. This may be called `convenience elitism’.

Generally, we see many people who are willing to experiment with newer ideas and change their practices, when they have the opportunities to do so. However I see an unusual kind of closeness or lack of openness among Indian academics.

The crossing of all these attitudinal barriers is unavoidable if we want to operationalize the different approach to use higher education for social inclusion in India.  I don’t presume that these issues can be addressed solely through the tightening of rules or institutional compulsions. That may require a higher level of intrinsic motivation and changes in values too.

*Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangaluru. Source:

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