What Do Universities (Really) Do?

In India, people demand that there should be more universities. Why, they point out, India has only 600-odd universities, whereas United States as 6 times as many for one-fifth of the population? More universities, in their mind, equate with more education, and also economic success, as we live in 'knowledge economies'. So far, so straightforward!

I state this as an Indian phenomenon, but it is really a global view. Indians only demand so as the Chinese, the Malaysians and the South Koreans are stealing the march, building more and bigger universities faster. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the South Africans are all in it. I remember, as late as 2002, I was told in Bhutan that it did not have a college in the country as the Government was fearful that the student politics would destabilise the country; those days are long gone, colleges in Thumpu came up in due time - by 2015, the new government was floating the idea of a greenfield 'education city' and checking out in any international universities would be interested in starting a campus! This is based on a view of economic development powered by universities, which is an integral part of the narrative of growth through innovation and technology. 

I want to take a contrarian view, and question what universities really do. This is not because I belong to the same corner as Charles Murray, who believes in the creation and preservation of a 'cognitive elite' with the exclusion of everyone else. Quite the opposite: I believe everyone has intellect - as Darwin would say, human beings only differ in zeal and capacity to do hard work - and the privileged have no monopoly on ideas and insights. My objection is to the automatic assumption - more universities equal more education - which has resulted in already disastrous consequences in India. And, I argue not for the suspension of building new universities, but a more thoughtful approach to it.
One final point: I make no presumption of special insight here. The questions I have in mind are rather obvious, but there is an obvious reason why they do not get asked: People in the universities are expected, by others but also by themselves, to ask questions about social practices, and they can hardly be expected to raise doubts about the social value they create. As it is, they are embattled, and such questions are seen as yet another intrusion from the 'neoliberal state'. I only ask the question because I am an outsider, and to me, the universities look very much a part of the apparatus of the 'neo-liberal state', though an appartus which seemed to have lost its usage and is in the danger of falling into disuse. 
The recent history of the universities has been, I shall claim, parallel to that of democracy: Once a great hope of political inclusion, then a tool to deliver a good life and finally, an empty rhetoric with a track record of broken promises and faced with the gloomy prospect of populist onslaught. And, in this, there were perhaps three points of inflection: Once in the late sixties, when the Liberal State turned, and then again after 2008, when the populist revolts took hold in Obama, and now Trump, administrations in America. So, we are at a time of the second 'ruin' of the universities, which mirrors, but is different in substance from, the 'University in Ruins' Bill Readings portrayed in the 80s.
In fact, universities, expanded at great public expense since the 60s, became tools of the state policy more than ever; they served the state, justified it and in turn, were legitimised by it. Claiming monopoly on 'questioning', the universities shaped the 'public sphere' and defined what kind of questions can be, and can not be, asked. They became a sorting machine, more efficient than class, race, gender or lineage as they were more scientifically justified - a mechanism of universal stratification. Their non-bureaucratic bureaucracies took hold of all the key material abstractions and helped built the abstract materialism that they non-labelled with the 'neo-liberal' label. They crusaded to make an educational diploma the worth of a man, making inequality naturalistic through the illusions of talent and built a vast ecosystem of ranks and tests to subvert the political agency, perhaps irretrievably, and replace it with a consumer choice of identies - 'be what you want to be'!
It is this consumer promise of the university which is now broken. That illusion, which was always an illusion, that one can be what s/he wants to be, core to the proposition of an university education, is now lifting. That wealth is almost begotten by birth, luck or buccaneering, and never by an university education, is becoming obvious. And despite their sneering about wealth, it is universities themselves which made the pursuit of wealth a centrepiece of their promise (and still do): Their protestation now sound hollow and their claims of 'independent inquiry' is distinctly at odds with their reality.
This predicament of the university, as I said before, is much like democracy. Exclusion is only the other side of inclusion: It lies not just at the quest but as a concurrent reality. The universities, a thoroughly modern beast which only borrows the name and prestige of a very different medieval institution, were very much part of the democratic schema in the lofty imagination of some of its modern imaginators, but just as they stopped short of radical social change in their quest of democractic society, they let the pretensions of the medievalism and exclusionary spirit of meritocracy take over the university very easily. The student unrest in the sixties, which made not just governments but the also the academic bureaucracy uncomfortable, led the universities become consumer institution, just as democracy became a means to an end, a good life! And, once this failed to materialise, it became open season, for the privileged to push back, and root out even the last vestiges of the challenge to primacy of, well, birth, luck and buccaneering.

So, more universities in emerging countries is not a quest for greater education, but rather a quest for a new social ordering following the well-trodden path of the West. One perhaps forgets that universities can often result to less education, as the expansion of university system and formal education can often mean a decline of public and non-formal education, things like Workers' Education Association or movements such as Lyceum movement in America. From our vantage point, it may seem that these public education movements may be only filling the space left by lack of universities, and it is only natural that expansion of university education made such movements redundant. However, university is a different kind of education - regulated, restricted and rationed - and the decline of public education meant a less flexible workforce, as we have now. The hegemony of university education also means that we continue to see MOOCs, which serve the space left by public education, only a placeholder for college credit, again discouraging participation rather than encouraging inclusion.
The current loss of legitimacy of the consumer university perhaps open up a space for a new kind of institution. Call it an university if you like, but it is time to restore the multi-dimenality of education. This challenge is no different from the ones our democracy is facing today: The youth, who prefers to protest than to vote; the angry and the marginalised who impose all kinds of fringe politicians on the rest; the opportunists who channel the anger and steal the booty, are converging in a perfect storm where most people don't see how their views reflect in the state, and what the elected politicians do other than to become the placating agents of the state and justifying every unjust action in smooth words and right intonations. The new democracy, if one could be imagined, and the new university, if a relevant one can be perceived, would both have to engage with a sincerity, granularity and substance than the forms that we know now. But such a change does not happen unless the university administrators start to realise that the institution is adrift; and sadly, as they never asked themselves what they really do, they are as clueless as the politicians regarding what has really gone wrong.



veerj said…
Hi Supriyo,

You have written the valid points.

We are working on few ideas for future of education in India.
Instead of solving the current system problems, we want to make the problems irreverent.
Looking forward to your blogs on how new education systems could evolve.


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