Universities and Nations

Universities today are as national as the Flag or the Anthem. They are expressions of the national idea, carriers of national message and embodiment of national achievement. Their places in international league tables make headlines in newspapers and politicians speeches, they form a key part of the national strategy and when they attract students from afar, it's counted as an export. 

This is perhaps all too obvious from the outside, but not so much from the inside. One may see, in the university's diverse student bodies, some kind of microcosm of humanity; the faculty may, in keeping with the enlightenment spirit, think they belong to a republic of letters. The international conferences, part of an academic's cycle of life, are portals of those wonderful communities of interest, where a shared disciplinary language - at least temporarily - reconfigure the ingroups and outgroups. 

This is all very ephemeral though, a cultivated feeling than a persistent reality. That transnational solidarity of conferences are funded by national exchequer or endowments of various kinds and the shared language of knowledge is more often about reaffirming the superiority of a group of nations over others. Some academics and some students may still perhaps raise the voice of protest - think that it's their duty to protest - when the State overreaches; but these protests, more often than not, are about identities of different kinds than for the outdated goal of human solidarity. The minority groups are treated as minorities, the international students as immigrants (more and more so as the state intervenes to define that status) and the university, a property of the taxpayer. That is indeed the reality of modern universities.

We may spin the tales of the wonderful times when global communities came together in quaint towns with purer intentions and nobler hearts, but the expulsion of Chinese students from American universities or the plight of Nigerians in Indian and Chinese campuses represent the reality more closely than those of aristocratic Austrians in Cambridge between the wars. That vision of flat-world campuses - from a time when the world was more white, gendered and privileged - is a poor fit in our age of mass higher education, global value chains and consumer-facing universities. That knowledge is created through interaction and collaboration is obscured in our obsession with genius and the cultural obsession with the lone inventor. And, thereon, to the myth of national genius and universities being the training ground and temples for the same. Its post-war contributions, often very multi-national, multi-racial, contributions, have been simplified into the neat story of universities as national treasures, an integral and enabling part of the military-industrial-educational complex.

There are indeed national variations of the nationalisation of universities. The military-industrial-educational complex is a developed world thing, lately adopted with some brutal efficiency in China. Otherwise, the poorer countries often limited themselves to the first two elements, building extensive military-industrial ecosystems but outsourcing the educational part back to the metropolitan masters, in harmony with their own foreign-educated elite and their ideas of the world. In these countries, universities are national but engaged not in the nation-in-the-world project but rather of making-the-nation project. That makes them virulently national, an element of the pedagogic project of modern nation-making, while at the same time a subservient entity of the world university system and its assumption that the poorer nations are just underdeveloped versions of the richer ones.

Hence, my paradox - can there be Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese or even for that matter, Chinese or Korean universities? The nations are involved in extensive projects of conceiving, funding and competing through these universities, shaping the universities with intrusive national legislation and integrating these closely into the system of national symbols and messages; and yet, the whole project centres around an inadequately interrogated borrowed concept from European enlightenment to enable the idea of territorial nation-states. The universities, in this context, are extensions of the state and national in that limited sense; but they are also outside the context, an institutional form inherited as a legacy of a colonial past, a marker more of an unsettled debate about what higher education ought to be. It's been, as a colonial project, an institution imposed from outside for cultivation of a colonial elite, and therefore, even in its nationalising variety, the poor nations conceived their universities as a tool of legitimisation, against a standard imposed from outside, rather than one of creation of knowledge. 

As a final point, therefore, in considering the universities and their roles in the society, it's worth distinguishing the state and the nation and sees the universities as potential fields of conflict and negotiation. I shall claim that there is no common experience of the university and no common idea, and it's the context of dynamic adjustments of state and nationhood that shapes what a university is, and can be.


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