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Access to Education

Indian universities face a difficult and uncertain future. They must expand and multiply, and they must be socially inclusive. But if they are to retain credibility as centres of science and scholarship, they must also be selective in appointments and admissions and in the award of degrees.

PERSPECTIVEmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly40Text of the Kamala Lecture delivered at the University of Calcutta on February 18, 2008. I am grateful to the authorities of the university for inviting me to deliver this very important lecture named after the daughter of the redoubtable Ashutosh Mukherji.Earlier versions of the lecture were presented at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, IIT Madras, IIT Guwahati and the University of Mumbai. I have benefited much from the discussions generated by the lecture at these places. Andre Beteille is a well known sociologist who recently completed his term as chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research.Access to EducationAndré BéteilleIndian universities face a difficult and uncertain future. They must expand and multiply, and they must be socially inclusive. But if they are to retain credibility as centres of science and scholarship, they must also be selective in appointments andadmissions and in the award of degrees.There have been large and signifi-cant changes in the scope and organisation of education through-out the world in the last 200 years. There are now more schools, colleges, univer-sities and other institutions of learning than ever before, and more persons attend such institutions at present than at any time in the past. These changes first began in western countries such as Britain, France and the United States where they accompanied changes in the economic and political orders. It is now a truism that both democracy and development require a comprehensive and inclusive system of education. Although the expansion of education began in those countries that first experi-enced the industrial and democratic revo-lutions, it is now taking place practically everywhere. There is hardly any country in the modern world that would not like to have a comprehensive and inclusive sys-tem of education. Yet the expansion of education has not followed the same course everywhere, and in some countries it has been highly uneven. Access to edu-cation is not easy under all circumstances and, where it is made easy, the quality of the education provided often leaves much to be desired. The drive for the expansion of educa-tion comes from various sources. Idealists believe that the advancement of learning, which is the motto of the University of Calcutta, should be an end in itself. Planners and policymakers have more practical considerations in mind. Every modern or modernising society presents challenges and problems to its citizens that cannot be addressed without a mini-mum of schooling: filling forms, writing applications, reading notices, and so on. Such basic skills can of course be imparted and acquired in the family or the com-munity. But most societies today find it more convenient to organise teaching and learning, even at the elementary level, through institutions entrusted with specifically educational functions. The growth of specifically educational insti-tutions has been both a cause and a con-sequence of changes in the family and the community.In the early stages of economic and political advance, the gap between the lettered and the unlettered is large and conspicuous. It is no less significant than the gap between the propertied and the propertyless. Many people manage rea-sonably well without owning any land or capital, but life is severely circumscribed for those who are unlettered and unschooled. In the advanced industrial countries, where first elementary and then secondary education became universal, the economic, political and social signifi-cance of the disparity between the schooled and the unschooled has become greatly reduced. But this has not happened everywhere, and the proportion of children who have never been to school stands out today as an important indicator of a country’s backwardness. Indian society had a deeply hierarchical structure in which life chances were more unequally distributed than perhaps in any other society in the world. Even after the adoption of a modern system of education with its schools, collegesand universities in the middle of the 19th century, access to education remained highly restricted for a 100 years, not only on account of severe economic inequalities but also because of strong and deeply-rooted social prejudices against women and against disadvantaged castes and com-munities. Colonial rule served to ease some of the social prejudices but did little to address existing inequalities in the distribution of material resources. The hierarchical structure of Indian society was such that inequalities between individuals and households were over-shadowed by disparities between castes and communities. These disparities have not disappeared. Rather, democratic politics has brought them increasingly into public view in the last 60 years. Where access to education is concerned, the political leadership has given more attention in recent years to the redress of
PERSPECTIVEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200841social disparities between communities than to the reduction of economic inequal-ities between individuals.The Indian leadership viewed the coming of independence as an opportu-nity for a new beginning in the field of education. Many of the leaders were critical of the colonial system for what it did – or failed to do – in the cause of edu-cation in the country. Some, like Gandhi, wanted the system then in operation to bereplaced by one that would be more intune with the Indian tradition and serve the needs of the common people instead of creating and fostering a socially competitive middle class. Others, like Nehru and Ambedkar, were modernists and wanted the educational system not only to serve the common people but also to produce scientists and scholars who could take their place among the best in the world. Uneven DevelopmentSchools, colleges and universities were already in existence at the time of inde-pendence, but they were very few and out-side the reach of the vast majority of people. Well over half of the population was illiterate, and even elementary schools were too few to serve the needs of the population, not only in the villages buteven in the towns and cities. The leaders of the nationalist movement were inclined to attribute this unsatisfactory state of affairs to colonial rule. While this may be partly true, the plain fact is that opportunities for schooling had been always restricted by the country’s rigidly hierarchical socialstructure and, in par-ticular, by the hierarchical attitudes to the pursuit of learning prevalent in it since time immemorial.With independence, India adopted a republican constitution which was clearly designed to repudiate the principle of hier-archy and put “equality of status and of opportunity” in its place. The new consti-tution had a part on fundamental rights and a part on directive principles of state policy, and both had strong provisions for equality in them. Article 45 sought to provide for “free and compulsory educa-tion for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years”. It has more recently been decided to make elementary education not just a matter of policy but also a matter of right. The commitment to provide elementary education to all, made at the time of inde-pendence, has not been met until now. Other countries have moved ahead, but India has stayed behind. India’s record of achievement is poor in comparison not only with the western countries but also with Japan, China and other Asian coun-tries. What India has achieved in the field of elementary education appears in a very poor light when compared with the indus-trialised countries at comparable stages of economic development. The Indian expe-rience shows that the failure to make ele-mentary education universally available is a matter not only of material resources but also of social attitudes and orientations. Beneath the surface of public pronounce-ments, those attitudes and orientations continue to be deeply hierarchical, not least among those responsible for the operation of the educational system. It is not that nothing has been achieved in the last 60 years. Literacy rates have gone up and, even though the rise has been slow, there is a secular trend of increase in literacy. Many new schools have come up, and there are many more children, both boys and girls, from an increasing range of castes and communi-ties in school today. Official statistics mainly show the number of schools and the number of children enrolled in them. What they do not bring out are the dispari-ties in the quality of education provided by schools of different kinds. These dis-parities are very large and probably increasing. Those concerned at the time of inde-pendence with the advance of education did not confine their attention to only ele-mentary and secondary education. They were, if anything, even more concerned with the creation and expansion of the institutions of higher education. India had made a reasonably good start with univer-sities nearly a 100 years before independ-ence [Béteille 2007a], but the Indian uni-versities were too few in number to satisfy the needs of an aspiring and assertive middle class, not to speak of the popula-tion as a whole. Independent India’s first prime mini-ster, Jawaharlal Nehru made no secret of his partiality for the universities. In the very first year of the country’s inde-pendence, he said “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the on-ward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives” [Nehru 1949: 333]. Nehru actively promoted the establishment of new universities and other institutions for advanced study and research, particu-larly in the fields of science and technology soon after India’s independence. Levels of EducationThe new government signalled its interest by setting up, almost immediately after independence, a University Education Commission under S Radhakrishnan who was to soon become the first vice-president of the republic and thereafter its second president. New universities and centres of excellence in study and research were planned and put in place. Among these were the Institutes of Technology and the Institutes of Management which now attract some of the best talent in the coun-try. The number of universities has increased many times in the last 60 years, and to these we have to add the deemed universities such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences as well as the institutes of national importance such as the Indian Statistical Institute. It has often been pointed out that the universities in the pre-independence period were creatures of the colonial gov-ernment. They were established by the government, funded directly by the gov-ernment and regulated by it. Hence, even where they attracted scientists and scholars of great ability and talent, their autonomy as institutions was limited. Today, Ashutosh Mukherjee is still remembered for the way in which he protected and promoted the principle of autonomy in the University of Calcutta. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was set up in 1956 to provide some cushion to the universities in their negoti-ation with the government for funding. TheUGC was set up under an act of Parlia-ment, and it was expected to function in such a manner as to protect the autonomy of the individual universities under its care. It was also expected to uphold and
PERSPECTIVEmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly42promote excellence in teaching and research by overseeing the work of the universities through independent commit-tees. Its success in these matters has been limited, and many now complain that it has become increasingly intrusive over the years.Even while the universities were receiv-ing public support, some began to feel that things were not going well with elemen-tary and secondary education. Particu-larly in a large and populous country like India, the universities cannot stand on their own. They depend for their intake on what is produced by the schools. When the schools do not do their work adequately, teaching at an advanced level, not to speak of research, becomes hard to sustain. By the time students enter the universities, they are already young adults and disci-plined habits of academic work are diffi-cult to create at that age. Remedial educa-tion is useful for certain limited and spe-cific purposes, but it cannot create afresh the general base for higher education if the schools have failed to create it through neglect or lack of direction. A second commission, the Education Commission was set up in 1964 under D S Kothari. The Kothari Commission had the advantage of working with Indian as well as foreign experts of the highest standing. It produced a comprehensive report on all aspects of education. It dwelt on the linkages between the different levels of education, and on the connection between education and employment. It is important to keep in mind the dif-ferentiation of the levels of education – primary, secondary and tertiary – in the context of pressures to make access to education more open and easy. In advo-cating a more inclusive educational sys-tem, many argue as if the problems of access are more or less the same at all lev-els of the system. This is a mistake. The conditions of access change as we move up from one level of education to the next. I will illustrate this by considering the two extremes of the system, primary educa-tion at one end and postgraduate educa-tion at the other. What I will say here will apply, with appropriate qualifications, to all the levels in between. In a democratic and secular society, access to primary education should be provided without consideration of race, caste, creed and gender. Whether it should be made compulsory is a separate ques-tion into which I do not wish to enter here. No child, whether boy or girl, should be denied admission to a primary school. To what extent we should have mixed schools or allow separate schools for boys and girls or for children of different religious faiths is again a separate question. School and UniversityAccess to primary school should be granted to children also without consider-ation of merit, ability or performance. Here I would like to point out that the two kinds of consideration for access to educa-tional institutions, the first based on social and the second on scholastic grounds, are quite different. What I am trying to argue is that in the conditions under which we live today, restriction on neither kind of ground, social or scholastic, is justified at the point of entry into the educational system taken as a whole.Some Indian schools, particularly in the major metropolitan cities, do indeed con-duct tests of aptitude in order to sort out those they wish to admit from those they do not. This is an unhealthy practice and has become a bone of contention among many. No matter how much we deplore the practice, we have to examine the reasons for its prevalence. The number of applications in some schools is vastly in excess of the number of places available, whereas in other schools it is the opposite. Hence, schools that have a high reputation are constrained to deny admission to many, while at the other end, there are schools that have more places than they are able to fill. The way to reduce, if not eliminate, the unhealthy practice of testing for aptitude at the first point of entry is to set up more schools that provide primary education that will be to the satisfaction of most if not all parents. Society has an obligation to provide elementary education to all children, but whether it has the obligation to provide access in each case to an institution of the child’s – or the parent’s – choice is a different matter. When we turn to the other end of the spectrum, ie, higher education, the prob-lem changes its colour. To be sure, access to universities and other centres of advanced study should not be denied on grounds of race, caste, creed or gender. But is it reasonable to expect such institu-tions to make admissions without consi-deration of ability and performance? The urge to make public institutions inclusive is understandable in a society that has practised exclusion so pervasively and so stringently over such a long span of time. But that urge cannot be allowed to subvert the very activities that particular institu-tions have been designed to perform.To urge academic institutions to become more inclusive and at the same time to acknowledge that they need to impose restrictions on admissions (and appoint-ments) appears self-contradictory to many who have little familiarity with the work-ing of such institutions at different levels. But the contradiction is only apparent, and it dissolves when we recognise that educational institutions at different levels – the elementary school, the secondary school, the undergraduate college, the postgraduate department, and the centre of advanced study and research – though interlinked with each other, have different tasks to perform.Social StratificationThe contradictions a country with an expanding educational system faces are clearly revealed in the Report of the Com-mission on University Education. These contradictions are particularly acute in India where a democratic political order based on the principle of equality was adopted in a country with a deeply hierar-chical social order. In such a setting, diver-gent views are expressed by different per-sons, and sometimes by the same person in different contexts.S Radhakrishnan’s Commission said, “Education is a universal right, not a class privilege” [Commission on University Education 1950: 50]. But then it went on to say, “Intellectual work is not for all, it is only for the intellectually competent” (ibid: 98). When the country became independent after a long period of colonial rule, its leaders looked forward to making educa-tion more widely, if not universally, avail-able. The colonial administration had made a good beginning by creating new
PERSPECTIVEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200843types of educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities – but what it did was on a limited scale, and could hardly reach out to the entire population. I am aware that there are strong critics of the system of education designed for the Indians by the British. Many things went wrong with the institutions they estab-lished, just as many things have gone wrong with the institutions created and managed by us in the last 60 years. But we owe something – not everything, but something – to the colonial regime for the creation of such institutions as Presidency College, Calcutta University, the Calcutta Medical College, the Law College in Calcutta and the Bengal Engineering College. Even if they were created with the intention of serving the interests of colonial rule, their creation had momen-tous consequences for the regeneration of Indian society. While we should not belittle the work done by the new schools, colleges and universities in the 100 years preceding independence, we must recognise the rela-tively modest scope of their achievements. The policy objectives of the colonial admini-stration were different from those of the government of independent India. Educa-tion was viewed by the former as being at best a beneficent instrument of social reform rather than a means for the radical transformation of a hierarchical society into one based on the principle of equality. Rightly or wrongly, the British in India took the view that Indian society was hier-archical at its core with ineradicable in-equalities among castes and communities and between men and women. Few of them really believed that changes in the educational system or in any other system could bring into being a completely differ-ent kind of society from the one that had been in existence since time immemorial. Their aim was not the spread of education among the masses but the creation of a small and accommodating middle class that would provide some scope for indi-vidual mobility to the fortunate few. In any case, it is doubtful that a colonial gov-ernment would undertake the task of cre-ating a “casteless and classless society” anywhere in the world. But the colonial government did sow the seeds of change in the Indian educational system. If we are concerned over the fact that women, dalits and members of the backward castes and com-munities are inadequately represented in our educational institutions today, hon-esty obliges us to admit that they were hardly present even in elementary schools a 100 years ago. A change had to take place in peoples’ attitudes towards school-ing, and that change began with the introduction of a modern educational system in the 19th century. The new system did not in fact provide equal oppor-tunities for schooladmission to all, but its educational ideals were different from those of the past which were hierarchical and socially exclusive. While the colonial administration set up schools, colleges and universities, it invested only limited resources for their establishment and maintenance. In a highly stratified society this meant that opportunities for education, including secondary and even elementary educa-tion, were limited largely to the upper strata. Until the time of independence, education beyond the elementary level was virtually a monopoly of the middle class, and that class comprised a very small section of the population. The Middle ClassAlthough the new educational institutions were created at the initiative of the colonial administration, by the time the country became independent, their operation and management were in the hands of Indians. They had become the preserves of the upper strata of society in the provincial capitals and the district headquarters. There was some opening for individual mobility, but it was not very large. Because the medium of instruction at the higher levels was English, the division between the educated and the uneducated members of society became particularly marked. The class composition of the educated sections changed, though not very radi-cally, in the course of the 100 years prior to independence. When independence came, the high schools, the colleges and the universities were in the control of the educated, professional middle class. But that was not exactly so in the beginning when that class was still to acquire a dis-tinct social identity. The funding for the new educational institutions did not all come from the government. Wealthy Indians, particularly landowners and businessmen, made substantial contribu-tions, and their offspring were prominent among the early beneficiaries of the new educational system. The products of the new educational system found employment as schoolteach-ers, clerks, managers, officers, lawyers and doctors, and formed the core of the new middle class whose offspring in turn enlarged the ranks of school, college and university students. The sons of impover-ished landowners sought employment in middle class occupations, and for them the credentials provided by the new edu-cational system became a necessity. The pressure for the expansion of the educa-tional system and the credentials it pro-vided came mainly from the middle class or aspirants for entry into it, and, as I have said, in the early years of the 20th century they were still relatively small in number. Thus, the new educational system was creating openings into the new middle class of white-collar employees and pro-fessionals, although by today’s standards, those openings were few. One of the first vice chancellors of the University of Calcutta, Henry Maine had said in a con-vocation address in 1866, “The fact is that the founders of the University of Calcutta thought to create anaristocratic institu-tion; and in spite of themselves, they created a popular institution” [Banerjee et al 1957: 27]. By an “aristocratic institu-tion” Maine meant one created for the landowning class, and by a “popular insti-tution” he meant one which was open to the middle class. He could not have had peasants, artisans and labourers in mind when he spoke of the University of Calcutta as becoming a popular institution. No middle class grows in size, no matter how limited the growth, without becom-ing internally differentiated and stratified. While a good secondary education was enough to secure a foothold in that class, it was not enough for entry into its higher ranks. For that higher education, including professional education, was indispensable. Hence pressure on the colleges and univer-sities began to mount even before indepen-dence appeared in sight. Education and employment came to be closely linked.
PERSPECTIVEmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly44While a few may have sought university education for the pleasure of it, most wanted it because it was necessary for remunerative and respectable employment. All these considerations were still some-what remote for the vast majority of Indians who lived from hand to mouth by some kind of manual employment for which formal education was not a requirement.Disparate StandardsAs I have noted, independence was accom-panied by a surge of enthusiasm for spreading the benefits of education at every level to all classes and communities instead of letting them remain confined to the middle class. There was a contradic-tion in this, for the hold of the middle class over public institutions became stronger and not weaker in the wake of independ-ence. The leaders of all political parties came from this class and there was no alien government to hold its ambitions in check. No middle class anywhere has attended to the interests of the other social classes before attending to its own. The middle class entered a path of all-round expansion, first through the growth of the public sector and then through that of the private sector. Aspirants for entry into it were hungry for higher education and even secondary education, and for them the availability of primary education was taken for granted. The requirements of primary education were never denied, they were largely ignored. After a phase of somewhat sluggish growth in the early decades of independ-ence, elementary education has been growing at a faster rate in the last 10 or 15 years. It has begun to receive wider atten-tion and support. Apart from the govern-ment, this support now comes from the corporate houses as well as the voluntary sector. There is also greater international interest in the development of elementary education in the country. The enlargement of the provisions for education has been accompanied by the differentiation of educational institutions. This differentiation is a continuous and unremitting process and must receive serious consideration. I am not speaking now of the differentiation between the different levels of the educational system, such as primary, secondary and higher education, but about the differentiation of quality and standard at each level of the system. What feeds into every higher level of the educational system by way of stu-dent intake is a highly differentiated prod-uct, flowing out of a great variety of insti-tutions at the level immediately below it.Differentiation in teaching and learning begins at the level of elementary educa-tion. There is an enormous variety of insti-tutions providing or meant to provide ele-mentary education, but we have very little systematic knowledge of the ways in which they work or do not work. No doubt we have quantitative data about enrol-ment, drop-out, years of schooling com-pleted and so on, but these tell us little about what happens in the school by way of interaction between teachers and pupils [Béteille 2007b]. Educated middle class parents know a great deal about the kinds of schools to which they send their chil-dren or aspire to send them, but such schools are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that tip lies a vast submerged mass of institutions, driven by currents that often have little to do with education. I would like to stress that middle class parents have become acutely conscious about the need to give their children a head start in the matter of education. The search for a good school begins very early, well before the child is of age to enter ele-mentary school. Here, those who live in the metropolitan cities have an advantage because that is where the most desirable schools are available. The most desirable schools, even for elementary education, are not only expensive they are also exclu-sive, if for no other reason than that they are so much in demand. Such schools are materially well endowed and equipped, they have well-qualified teachers, and the regularity and routine of teaching and learning are more conscientiously obser-ved in them than in many undergraduate colleges or postgraduate departments. Those who receive elementary education in such schools are generally well pre-pared for the next stage of education.At the other end are primary schools in remote villages and city slums where hardly any teaching takes place, and what is learnt is quickly forgotten and of little value for the next level of education in secondary school. The material equipment available for elementary education varies enormously between schools of different types. But there are other and more impor-tant disparities than the purely material ones. School management is often lax, and the regularity and routine of school work is treated lightly and negligently. More serious than the shortage of build-ings, blackboards and books is the negli-gence of teachers. On an average, on any working day 25 per cent of teachers in ele-mentary schools remain absent from work [Kremer et al 2006]. This of course does not tell us what those who are present do while they are in the school. Apathy and indifference are widespread, and they are transmitted easily from teachers to pupils. Moreover, traditions of rote learning are very deeply rooted among both teachers and pupils, and rote learning can hardly be said to provide a sound basis for entry into a modern system of higher education. The disparities which begin with primary school are carried forward to the level of secondary education and often magnified there. At the far end of the scale, in the metropolitan cities, there are very com-petitive institutions that provide educa-tion that is good enough to prepare their pupils for the best undergraduate educa-tion anywhere in the world. But these schools constitute a tiny minority, although they do provide some opportunities for upward mobility to talented pupils from the lower rungs of the middle class. As is well known, the ones most in demand among the middle classes are the English-medium schools, known for some odd reason as “convent schools”. But even among such schools, there are wide varia-tions in standards of teaching, including English teachingNot all schools in the country are English-medium schools. Some schools provide very good education in the regional language, but they are few in number, and are losing out to the English-medium schools in the competition for the best pupils. The dynamic sections of the middle class that are driving forward India’s economic growth want English-medium schools for their children. Elected political leaders and their intellectual camp followers may decry the fascination for English-medium schools in public, but they will not oppose their growth
PERSPECTIVEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200845seriously, seeking, instead, to find places in such schools for their own offspring. Examination and CertificationIn secondary school, as the pupil progresses from one class to another, the prospect of examinations begins to loom large. For pupils and their parents, board examinations are a trial, and for teachers and the school management, they are a perennial source of vexation. They dis-tract seriously from the ordinary course of teaching and learning. Testing and exam-ining are indispensable components of all modern educational systems, but in India they tend to displace the main functions of education which are learning and teach-ing. One important indication of this is the widespread suspicion and exposure of malpractices in examinations. The pressure for successful perform-ance in the board examinations is felt in every layer of the middle class, from the lowest to the highest, and the more the middle class expands, the more widely it will be felt. It is being felt increasingly in other social classes as well for board examinations are the gateway for entry into the middle class. Even self-employed persons, who do not need certification from the board, would like to have it if only for its social value. To be a member of the middle class without having passed the boards has become an anachronism, at least for the male members of society. Of course, those who have achieved excep-tional success in commerce or in the arts may occasionally boast that they have never passed a single examination. Successful performance in the board examinations does not depend only on what is taught and learnt in school. In many secondary schools very little teach-ing is done, and students have to rely per-force on external assistance. Even those who go to the best schools try to secure external assistance, not so much to clear the board examinations as to be able to secure admission in the most coveted institutions at the next higher level. Once begun, the competition for places in the most coveted educational institutions acquires its own momentum. It is difficult to see how this competition can be avoided without abolishing the middle class, as happened, although briefly, in China. Various agencies outside the school are used for enhancing the pupil’s competitive advantage. There is the coaching class, very familiar to me from my own school days in Calcutta nearly 60 years ago. These have multiplied and diversified enormously since those days and have spread to the small towns and even the larger villages. At least in Delhi, the best ones among them provide coaching not so much for success in the board examina-tions as for entry into the IITs and other coveted institutions of higher study. Some-what more expensive than the coaching class is private tuition for the individual pupil, either in his home or in the home of the tutor. An important source of competitive advantage in tests and examinations is the family. Indian parents are very actively involved in the prospects of their children even after they have reached adulthood, and in the growing middle class these pros-pects have much to do with education and employment. Intellectual capital is very unevenly distributed among families, and two families with the same amount of it may devote very unequal attention to the educational advancement of their children.Thus, different factors contribute to success or failure in the educational sys-tem, all the way up from primary to higher education. These factors include natural ability and aptitude, individual initiative and effort, the family’s economic, social and cultural capital, the pedagogic stand-ards and practices of the school, and the care and attention the pupil receives from the school, the family and the community. They may operate against each other or reinforce each other. The resulting inequalities in educational performance may be mitigated to some extent by well designed policies, but they cannot be wished out of existence. Any policy that fails to take serious account of the dispari-ties between different educational institu-tions and the inequalities in the wider society of which they are a part is bound to be infructuous. Pressures on UniversitiesIf we turn to the other end of the scale and look at the university as an institution of higher study and research, we will appre-ciate why the conditions of access to it have to be different from those that are appropriate for the primary school. The conditions of access to higher education vary from one country to another and they have also changed over time. In some countries, such as the United States today, a very large proportion of the population is able to secure the benefits of higher edu-cation, although even there that was not the case until 50 or 60 years ago. In India the benefits of higher education remain outside the reach of the vast majority of people. However, no matter how wide the access to universities may be, in no coun-try do they give admission without requir-ing some evidence of prior academic qual-ification. Even in the US, where access to higher education is wider than in any other country, no student can count on admission to the university of his choice unless he has the requisite test scores or the capacity to pay, or both. In the modern world, education and employment are closely linked every-where, even in the most affluent countries. The pressure on the universities, espe-cially in countries like India, would not be so acute if a university degree did not come with the promise of employment in superior non-manual occupations. The fact that the promise is not always fulfilled is a different matter. No one can seriously expect to secure employment in a pro-fessional, managerial or administrative occupation without a university degree. One may of course live on rental income or start an independent business, but even there a university degree is a useful thing to have. People say that university degrees have become steadily devalued in the last 60 years, and this is probably true to some extent. In the early decades of the last cen-tury and even until the time of independ-ence, university graduates enjoyed a cer-tain social standing whether or not they were able to secure remunerative employ-ment. The mounting pressure on the col-leges and universities to admit more stu-dents and produce more graduates has led to a certain loss of credibility in many institutions of higher education. They have been forced under pressure to relax their standards of examination, and, what is worse, reduce teaching to the bare mini-mum required for clearing examinations.
PERSPECTIVEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200847Even more important are the disparities in ability and aptitude among both teachers and students in colleges and universities in the different parts of the country. There is an enormous range of variation in ability among teachers and aptitude among stu-dents. The variations are not random, but structured in such a way that a few insti-tutions attract both teachers and students of high quality while most have to make do with what is left over, which is of very indifferent quality. There are grounds to believe that the number and proportion of persons of poor or indifferent quality have increased steadily in recent decades both absolutely and as a proportion of the total. It is here that we have to remind ourselves of S Radhakrishnan’s observation that intellectual work is not for all but for the intellectually competent even though such an observation is not likely to find favour with any political party today. Many institutions of higher education are marked by a general atmosphere of apathy and lassitude which is relieved from time to time when there is a festival, an agitation or a strike. Students often stay away from classes because they do not feel the need to attend them in order to pass their examinations. There are many absentee teachers in our universities who use academic appointments as sources of rental income. The fact that more and more persons want to enrol in colleges and universities does not mean that they are there to advance their know-ledge of the arts and sciences; many of them come for the degrees which they hope will secure them gainful employ-ment. Similarly, teachers do not seek places in colleges and universities because they all have a vocation for science or scholarship but because they see them as sources of gainful employment or rental income, and because they have political promoters who want academic institu-tions to create more openings for members of their caste or community or their elec-toral constituents.It is natural for students to be deterred from attending classes when they find that they are unable to follow what is being taught. Many students are unable to follow what is being taught simply because they have not had the kind of schooling that could prepare them to meet the demands of undergraduate education. There are helpful teachers in many colleges who are prepared to relax the standards of teach-ing even in honours courses in order to accommodate their ill-equipped students. But then when those students seek to pur-sue postgraduate studies in a reputed institution, their lack of intellectual equip-ment comes to the surface again. What is an academic problem finds some kind of a political solution through pressures for the relaxation of standards overall. Neglect of ResearchThe pressure from ill-prepared and ill-equipped students for admission into the institutions of higher education is relent-less. It originates in the middle class and on its fringes, and is transmitted to the college and university authorities by those who control the machineries of govern-ment and politics. Over the years, univer-sity and college authorities have lost the will to resist these pressures and protect their academic standards. When they are faced with demands to expand their capacity, they bargain with the govern-ment for more funds in the spirit of managers who have to expand their industrial capacity. The political leadership finds it conven-ient to satisfy middle-class aspirations by opening more colleges and universities instead of attending to the more urgent need of expanding and upgrading elemen-tary and secondary education. Moreover, college and university students are politi-cally organised in a way in which school students are not. Students’ unions are a force to reckon with in the running of the university, and particularly its examina-tion system. The university authorities are reluctant to apply strict academic standards for fear of a political backlash if that hurts the interests of the student community or any organised section of it. Vice chancellors are very anxious to avoid any action that might invite charges of discrimination from unsuccessful students and their political patrons. Standards of evaluation for postgraduate degrees have been progressively relaxed in many, if not most, universities. I know more than one university where scarcely any candidate is failed and it is almost a matter of routine to give every candidate, or virtually every candidate, high second-class marks. This is a far cry from the days when Bankimchandra had to be given grace marks to clear the MA examinations, being the only person to do so in his year. The situation is not very different at the level of the PhD degree. Uniformity of standards is in any case very difficult to maintain here since PhD theses are exam-ined case by case instead of in batches. Here the decline of standards has been less due to organised pressure than to neg-ligence and indifference among supervi-sors and examiners. Yet the hunger for PhD degrees remains unabated. Despite the devaluation of university degrees, even persons outside the academic profes-sion, including civic and political dignitar-ies, are eager to attach the title of “doctor” to their names, and there are coaching centres to assist them in their endeavours.No university system can hold its own in the modern world if it confines itself only to the transmission of existing knowl-edge and contributes nothing to the crea-tion of new knowledge. Doctoral pro-grammes aim to initiate young scholars and scientists into the challenging and exacting processes that lead to the crea-tion of new knowledge. We have added a large number of new universities in the last 60 years but whether there has been a proportionate increase in the creation of new knowledge in them remains a matter of doubt. It can of course be said that the purpose of setting up new universities is not simply to contribute to the creation of new knowl-edge but also to make our public institu-tions socially more inclusive by providing increasing space in them for the accom-modation of all the classes and com-munities that constitute the larger Indian society. It is undeniable that our univer-sities are not nearly as socially inclusive as universities in any modern society are expected to be. In this they reflect the hierarchy in the wider society and in the institutions of elementary and secondary education to which I drew pointed atten-tion in the earlier part of the paper. The manner in which our schools have been allowed to develop has had the inevitable consequence of generating huge inequali-ties in the conditions of competition at the point of entry into higher education. To

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