Universities and Higher Education: Problems of writing history of higher education in India

The trouble with writing the history of modern Higher Education in India is its non-autonomous nature. The first Indian universities were set up more as government departments rather than academic institutions. In fact, the first such university, in Calcutta, did no teaching itself for the first half-century of its existence and its functions were limited to conducting examinations and awarding degrees. And, this is not a dead legacy which Independent India has done away with: There was no cultural revolution in India after the independence (though one may argue that one is underway now) and the institutional ideas of the British-Indian higher education were preserved, rather than discarded, in the brown Raj. That education system has, as I have argued elsewhere, failed both the Indian nationhood and limited the country's economic potential and it should be easy to appreciate the need of a complete rethinking of educational forms and priorities without necessarily agreeing with the more extreme ideas of the Hindu nationalists.

It's not my intention to write here about what needs changing: I have done that in other posts and will continue to do so elsewhere. Rather, I intend to focus on the issue of writing a history of Indian Higher Education, which has so far been carried out in a particular manner. Most such histories, in my mind, present a narrative as below: India had no Higher Education system as we know it until the presumption of power by the East India Company in Bengal, whose Governor Generals and Secretaries of State took the lead in shaping the Indian Higher Education system as we know it. The system they came up with was designed to be narrow and didn't serve any purpose other than that of the English administration and propagation of Christian faith until some of the youth educated through that system took upon themselves to define the idea of India and sought to establish 'national universities' of various types. Call it the Valentine Chirol version of Indian history or something worse, but the questions of Indian agency that has been raised through examinations of different facets of colonial history have passed the history of higher education by. The modern Higher Education in India has been acknowledged to be a thoroughly British enterprise.

In one way, it's hard to escape these conclusions, however nationalistic one may want to feel. The defining fallacy of this narrative is a modern one - the treatment of the history of Higher Education and the history of the universities as one and the same! In my reading, it's possibly accurate to say that the institutional system of colleges and universities were built around English education in India or at least around the pedagogical project of colonialism, sponsored by East India Company and its successors, in India. English educated Indians later took up the mantle and questioned the founding assumptions of the system - like the creation of 'native in colour but Englishmen in taste' intelligentsia and that advanced subjects must be learnt through the English language - and tried to create new institutional forms and curriculum after the English university model. [This is at the same time as an English Viceroy, Lord Curzon also questioned the purpose and structure of Indian Higher Education, to expand government control over curriculum.] To these developments and debates the history of Indian universities may rightly belong, but not the history of Indian higher education.

The attempts at a nationalist narrative of higher education in India, as is now fashionable again, hark back to distant past, to the 'universities' of Nalanda and Taxila, for example, the centres of Buddhist learning which were destroyed during the Arab conquest of India. This nationalist narrative is predicated upon the assumption of a 'dark age', that of eight hundred years of Muslim dominance, notwithstanding India's place as a country of culture and learning that attracted visitors and students from all over Asia. Indeed, the first English attempts to set up 'colleges' in India followed the pre-existing institutional forms and curriculum in Muslim India. Right up to the point when Christian evangelists dominated the moral agenda and Lancastrian mill-owners the economic one - and even quarter of a century thereafter - the institutional forms in Indian higher education were more fluid and more informed by the continuity from the Islamic rule rather than a break from it.

And, yet, focusing on these institutional forms and cultural overlaps represent a partial history of Indian higher education. In fact, this does something worse: It privileges a certain state-supported and state-mandated institutional form of education as 'Higher' in an attempt to fit the history of Indian Higher Education into a pre-determined Western model. In fact, it is possible to argue that Indian universities, when they were set up, never actually constitute 'higher' education by the way the term was understood in the nineteenth century; rather, it only offered a vocational route for middle-class men to find a job. Those cities where the British trading presence was minimal, such as in the cities in North India, not many people cared for such Higher Education. The college education became equated with Indian Higher Education only very late, arguably at the same time as the conception of the modern Indian nation.

I indulge in this discussion with more than just academic intent. I think it's appropriate to problematise the definition of Higher Education as otherwise, our understanding of the Indian society remains incomplete. For example, the history of scholarly clusters of Tirhut (Trihatta) or Naihati or Agra or Awadh remains unexplored in a large degree. And, even when cultural histories of these clusters appear, they appear in isolation and outside the context of the history of Higher Education in India. And, yet, for a wealthy Indian parent going about their children's education in the mid-nineteenth century, the colleges in Calcutta and its neighbouring districts were only the vocational option. This would change over the next fifty years, as Railways, Telegraph and Mutiny would make the British Raj more invasive and more paranoid - and this would actively transform what constitutes knowledge and education in India. 

Hyperglobalisation of the nineties created an illusion and an opportunity in India of a different kind. The first part of this was the happy story, a rapid expansion of service industries and an unthinking acceptance by Indian policy-makers a subordinate and dependent role for India in the global economic and political structures. But, as the second part is unveiled and the reality of this globalisation - that the party ends at the will of the emperor - becomes apparent, a space to question ideas we took for granted is opening up. With its happy existence in the Anglo-American universe becoming tenuous, Indian middle class is engaged in a civil war of ideas, in which one side is destined to lose as it's easy for its members to take flight elsewhere. For all the anarchy, this is the time to see creative destruction in Education; there are indeed many bad ideas, but the slaughter of sacred cows is also opening up the space to ask new questions.


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