The war on the war on higher education

15 Jul

Which government is worse for higher education in India? That has become an interesting point of debate on the Indian Express in the last few days. On July 8, an interview of Amartya Sen appeared in the paper (Link), where he explained the circumstances behind his recusal from being considered for the position of Chancellor of Nalanda University in February this year.  According to him, the ruling dispensation was completely convinced about his non-acceptability for the post. He went public with his recusal as he wanted to prevent a right-wing ideologue from being appointed as Chancellor (we have seen many instances of this occurring over the past year).

On July 12, Tavleen Singh responded with a typically angry column basically arguing that Dr. Sen’s opinions were extremely biased, and accused him of doing nothing while he was in a position of much greater influence during the UPA governments. Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta weighed in with a more nuanced response to Dr. Sen. His two primary arguments were:

  1. What happened to Dr. Sen with respect to Nalanda has been a recurring theme of higher education in India. Administrators, professors and chancellors at various levels have been continually harassed and their work interfered with by unfriendly dispensations. He states: “This history is important not to make the obvious point about hypocrisy. It is to make the analytical point that the fraught relationship between academia and politics far transcends particular governments. This is not a troubling truth that we can understand through easy recourse to one particular ideology or government. The ideological narrative of interference, rather than the larger political one, allows us to don the garb of victims fighting for a good cause much more easily, and academics love that self-image. It also prevents us from getting greater vertigo as we should if we were to really look over the abyss. But, more practically, it prevents us from asking why it is so difficult to build meaningful alliances for higher education.”
  2. Dr. Mehta argues that the complaints of many current ousted administrators, vice chancellors should be seen as the complaints of a privileged elite who benefited from earlier dispensations. Additionally, during their tenures in academic positions, they failed to build coalitions that would insulate higher education from political interference.

Today, Dr. Sen responds to Tavleen Singh and Dr. Mehta in another piece in the Express. His piece is essentially a defence of his earlier position.

Both Dr. Mehta and Dr. Sen however seem to agree on a few basic points:

1. We as a society have failed to insulate higher educational institutions from political interference.

2. This lack of insulation is a major cause of our rotting higher educational system.

3. While we produce many brilliant students in India, the average student is just not good enough.

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