The question of ‘relevance’ in changing times

Sudhirendar Sharma
If current happenings are any indication, universities are beset with the challenge of conforming to the political narrative that has swayed public opinion against the idea of freedom of inquiry.

Sudhirendar Sharma

University may have been defined as a place for building human capacity to challenge, question, expand, and stretch oneself to the limits but in reality, its power to advance knowledge and shape society is rapidly declining on account of stinking state funding, eroding teaching standards, and expanding market disruption. If recent onslaughts on Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Central University of Hyderabad are any indication, universities are beset with the external challenge of conforming to the political narrative that has swayed public opinion against the idea of freedom of inquiry.
The basic premise of 18 randomly arranged essays in the book is to reinforce The Idea of University as a crucible of academic freedom where researchers pool together their creative faculties to help society towards a greater common good. In a hierarchical and divided society like India, the authors contend that university campuses are rare public spaces where pluralism, cohesion, autonomy, and interrogation thrive to help build an egalitarian society, and these must be nurtured in the interest of the society and the state. With a deep contempt for the liberal scholarly enterprise, recent infringements on academic freedom have questioned the sanctity of such spaces in contributing to the political agenda of the right-wing dispensation.
Deplorable nonetheless, recent developments have raised a set of discomforting questions on the internal functioning of the universities. Haven’t academic inertia, internal squabbles, and growing nepotism already weakened the edifice of knowledge at its core? There is no denying that the university education in the country is distanced from a wider society, and on account of its rather closed orientation has escaped public accountability too. Higher education system has almost reached the edge of the precipice: beset with internal bureaucracy which has not led to greater liberties but to more constraints on teaching and research, and autonomous status that has not strengthened but weakened the institutional structure vulnerable to favouritism and nepotism.
Seeking academic freedom without being accountable will remain self-defeating. This is not to belittle academic freedom, but a meaningful envisioning of the university would mean an inclusive architecture that stands to fulfil the needs and aspirations of those millions outside the high gates of existing universities. In a majoritarian capitalist democracy that promotes the marketing and branding of everything and everyone, pulling the world of knowledge out from the trap of the business model that aims at investing in education for getting a good job would warrant a shift in rethinking on how to sustain public-funded universities. It isn’t an easy proposition, and the book touches such introspective aspects at the periphery.
Contributors to The Idea of a University provide a multi-layered assessment of the idea of academic freedom, while lamenting the fact that academic freedom, rather than the denial of it, is in need of a justification. While a timely publication, it remains in a self-engaging mould seeking reification of the university as a harbinger of democratization without addressing the challenge of protecting the last remains of the public-funded enclaves of academic excellence from being appropriated by the state to further its hegemonic agenda. More incisive inquiry and critique were expected from such a collection to address the core weaknesses of the university, and help it to stand tall against external challenges of usurping such public spaces.
Unless decades of woefully inadequate knowledge-production and dissemination is addressed by re-imagining an accountable public institution, it will be tough to subvert political forces from attacking universities and the broader society from harbouring its angst against the ‘ivory towers of academics.’ It, therefore, becomes essential to ‘engage more with the public and explain what it is we are trying to do in universities.’ Without building an active engagement with large segments of the society, it may not be easy to reinforce The Idea of a University.
The Idea of a University
by Apoorvanand (Ed)
Context, New Delhi
Extent: 272, Price: Rs. 699.
First published in the Hindustan Times on Nov 1, 2019.

(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)