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The Idea of a University in India

In colonial times, universities were established in India to produce graduates who would serve the interests of a colonial ruling elite. Fast-forwarding to the present times, India is witnessing a massification of higher education, with the establishment of more universities and an increase in enrolment. Under such circumstances, what merits examination is whether universities are producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or training individuals to fall in line with a neo-liberal nationalist agenda of economic development.

An earlier version of this article was presented in a panel discussion on “Shifting Universities: Comparative University Studies in India and the Rupture between Ideal-Actual Universities,” organised by Martin Chautari in Kathmandu, Nepal during the Chautari Annual Conference (21–23 April 2019). The author is grateful for the comments made by fellow participants during the conference, as also the comments received from the anonymous reviewer of the EPW, which have significantly enriched both the content and the arguments raised in the present piece. 

Speaking of the “idea of a university” at a juncture when universities in India are experiencing crucial changes, implies more than an attempt to tally the experiences of the university system in India in the light of this catchphrase—“the idea of a university”—coined by the British Catholic priest John Henry Newman (1996). The purpose is to use the “idea of a university” as a conceptual frame of analysis which would help us, on the one hand, to read the transformations of Indian universities, and, on the other, to reflect upon our expectations, which we may have as mindful citizens, of the universities in India. 
The “idea of a university” in itself is an apophantic phrase that conceals meaning and gives us something as present-at-hand. The journey of Indian universities as such began as an apophantic statement—picked up from somewhere and implanted somewhere else—and was repeated without caring about the very fact that this trajectory also involves the risk in which both the real ready-to-hand meaning and the context of the universities may get lost. Consequently, India was fortunate to have universities as early as in 1857 (Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Universities were all established in the same year), which were premised neither on the Western prototype of a university nor even were they the alleviation of the historically-rooted gurukula1-vihara-madrasa tradition. The point is that unlike the West, universities in India emerged not to keep pace with the growth of knowledge, but to fulfill the interests handpicked earlier by colonial rulers, and now by the ruling cohorts in order to satisfy sectional interests, a politically calculated development agenda, and the interests of a neo-liberal regime. 
The history of the “modern” institution —the university—in India, has been largely ahistorical in that it displaced in one go the remnants of the home-grown idea of a university as incapable of satisfying the requirement of the colonial state apparatus, while on the other hand the fusion of teaching and research (as was the case with Humboldt University since 1810) or the secular–liberal complex of a school of universal learning (Studium Generale as Henry Newman visualised it) were never encouraged to grow in Indian universities. The idea of a university was uprooted from its own context and was established in another context to fulfill the immediate interest of producing graduates to fill up the salaried positions emerging in the wake of colonial rule (Béteille 2010). 
No wonder the universities in India largely failed to fuse teaching and research, to produce communities of scholars and scientists, but turned into graduate-producing institutions. Béteille (2010) reminds us that an institution finds it hard to free itself from its own history, and in the Indian case, it has been a history of both unlearning and forgetfulness. If the universities in colonial India were expected to be “graduate-producing institutions,” universities in independent India came to complement the idea of state welfarism. The egalitarian imperative of a newly independent state to grant equal opportunities to its citizens in accessing national resources made university education not only accessible, but also converted it into a mass product. 
The massification of higher education went on with the increase in the number of universities along with enrolments. In the wake of liberalisation, the number of universities and even the enrolment increased further.2 Assessing these transformations in Indian universities, Apoorvanand (2018) metaphorically compared them to a stagnant pond and an expanding desert. Even though universities in India carry forward a legacy of 162 years, the desertification thesis of Indian universities (as enunciated by Apoorvanand) gains analytical purchase, especially when we fail to notice any fundamental change in the way independent India has conceived of the “idea of a university.”
Massification of Education
Research indicates that in one form or the other, higher education across the world has been experiencing the massification phase, although in varying degrees (Trow 2006). It is therefore not an exception if massification over the years has implicated higher education in India. Hence, an attempt to tease out the idea of massification and to situate it analytically in the Indian context seems to be worthwhile. A growing body of literature (Trow 2000; Guri-Rosenblit et al 2007; Mok et al 2013; Chan and Lin 2015; Varghese 2015; Ahmed 2016; Gandhi 2018) suggests that the massification of higher education is to be treated both as a process and a result. As a “process,” massification of higher education happens through a processual triad constituted of changing policy perspectives (that guarantee rapid expansion of higher education institutions and enrolments), growing impact of democratic forces in politics (democratisation of higher education), and strong voices from the civil society (endorsing accessibility and spread of higher education). 
On the other hand, as a “result,” massification of higher education has to engage with questions of accessibility, equity and quality. Besides being a processual and thereby a highly normative issue, the extent of massification in higher education is measured usually in the light of the national enrolment ratio (variously called as the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in different country contexts, including India) and obviously by the increase in the number of institutions (central-state-aided universities, colleges and other institutes), enrolments in different socio-economic categories, etc. Based on the national enrolment ratio, scholars like Trow (2006) have developed a useful framework and convincingly argued that the massification of higher education usually takes place in three phases: elite, mass and universal. While the elite level implies a national enrolment ratio of (up to) 15%, the mass level ranges between 15% and 50%, and surpassing 50% enrolment is indicative of the universalisation of higher education. Higher education in India by these standards stands out to be in a stage of initial massification with 25.8% GER in 2018, while the provincial picture reveals a low web of massification (for example, GER in West Bengal increased from 17.5% during 2013–14 to 18.7% in 2017–18 [Samaddar 2019]).
Global trends in higher education, as also the volumes of research done so far in this field, pinpoint to a curious presumption: that massification of higher education is, in a certain sense, an obvious phenomenon, and irrespective of the economic condition or historical particularities, this will occur in the context of each country, although in varying degrees. Higher education is therefore to follow a trajectory in which it will transform from being the privilege of a few (elite phenomenon), to a resource of the majority, more as a right (mass phenomena), and finally a collective obligation (a universal phenomenon). It is in this sense that higher education throughout the world varies merely in terms of degree but not in content or form or its obviousness. 
Scholars have identified two different modes of massification at the global level, namely an active mode and a passive and catching-up mode. The “active mode” is exemplified by economically solvent countries, where the massification of higher education took place more as a natural outcome of economic development. The “passive and catching-up” mode on the other hand, can be experienced in developing countries where the massification of higher education is often pushed as a “leap forward” by the government, while the level of economic development might not have increased adequately. India is a classic case where the “passive and catching-up” mode of massification is in operation. Consequently, countries characterised by the “passive and catching-up” mode of massification have to rely more on private rather than government-aided institutions for obvious economic reasons. 
The heavy dependence on privately-managed institutes as a means of massification has often resulted in debatable consequences, to the extent of perpetuating inequality in accessing higher education (Altbach 2010). The point here is not to argue against the massification of higher education but to call for a more realistic understanding of the implications of massification. In fact, enlarging the scope of accessing higher education—the fulcrum of the massification project—cannot simply be brushed aside in a country (like ours) that survives on the “politics of scarcity” (to use Myron Weiner’s [1963] provocative provenance).3 Massification as such is not incompatible with the “idea” of a university, provided the questions of “equity” and “accessibility” are not compromising the “quality” aspect of higher education. 
University–Knowledge Coupling
Aristotle’s (2004) three-tier knowledge protocol seems useful in understanding the university–knowledge coupling in the Indian situation. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (2004) talks about three approaches to knowledge, namely episteme, techné and phronesis. While episteme concerns theoretical knowledge, implying the search for knowledge as an end in itself (epistemology—the science of knowledge—is derived from episteme), techné denotes technological know-how (it is about the set of principles or rational methods involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end) more in the sense technological knowledge; and phronesis refers to practical wisdom where knowledge becomes utilitarian and is guided by practical, instrumental rationality and governed by a chosen goal. 
The search for knowledge is common to all these three types but it is only in the case of episteme that the search is not guided by any rational principle (like techné), nor does the quest for knowledge have any immediate goal to achieve (as is the case with phronesis). The germination of “the idea of a university” was premised in the search for episteme. However, in the course of its evolution, the “idea of a university” also responded to national concerns, state interests and ideological overhauls (aspects of techné and phronesis). Practical wisdom and technological know-how received due patronage, although the purposeless quest for the cultivation of knowledge by universities did not make way to oblivion completely. 
In an attempt to situate our understanding of the Indian case, in the light of the fundamentals of knowledge vis-à-vis the idea of a university, it can be maintained that in India “the idea of a university” never emanated as a centre for the cultivation of episteme, even though some universities/departments are crowned with the tag of “centre for excellence.” In other words, the “idea of a university” in India began with contradictions and the 162-year-long journey of Indian universities since 1857 has been a journey of ineptness and deviations. If “scientific racism” had convinced colonial rulers that the people of the East could not fulfil the mental and physical qualifications required for “original scientific research,” as they were bred in a tropical climate (adapted from a letter written by Viceroy Lansdowne as quoted in Majumdar 2018: 10), the statespersons and planners of independent India thought it wise to direct universities to fulfill the “national agenda” of greater economic prosperity. 
It is not that universities paying lip service to the “national agenda” are at odds with “the idea of a university.” The argument is that serving the “national agenda” has lived on as the singular agenda, which has in fact worn out the entire field of university activity in India. Further, a cursory glimpse into the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) Report (2009) might lead us to infer that knowledge has been primarily visualised as an application-oriented enterprise, directed towards translating scientific knowledge into innovation-oriented application, and thereby making the entire process a commercially exploitable property. In other words, the worth of knowledge by NKC’s standards seems to lie in securing more of intellectual property rights by Indian scholars and scientists on the one hand, and in the functionality of knowledge as an instrument of transparent and effective governance on the other.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Consequently, universities in India more often than not failed to foresee education beyond the limits of training their incumbents in professional skills. With the massification of universities in India that started in the 1960s and with the mushrooming of private, state and even central universities in non-metropolitan zones which began since the new millennium—as Stefan Collini (2012: 7) suggests—the university which “furthers some form of advanced scholarship or research whose character is not wholly dictated by the need to solve immediate practical problems,” is doomed to be at a loss. In the recent past, the subversion of “the idea of a university” in India came into limelight once again. The Ministry of Human Resource Deve­lopment and the University Grants Commission (UGC), in their attempt to “governmentalise the research mind” (EPW 2019: 8), passed a resolution in the meeting of all vice chancellors of central universities on 15 December 2018 to make research in these universities fall in line with “national priorities.” 
It is significant to note that research and the cultivation of knowledge as a pursuit of purely non-instrumental human curiosity were never institutionalised in Indian universities during the colonial period. Immediately after independence, universities in India were directed towards the “national agenda” of greater economic development. And in the present-day context, universities are dictated to fine-tune their research and teaching practices in consonance with “national priorities.” No wonder one therefore finds that “the idea of a university” in the Indian context stands—if at all it stands—with a professed inclination towards phronesis and techné. The non-prioritisation of episteme in the structure of Indian universities has actually opened up space for many aberrations in the very “idea” of a university. 
Of late, serious rethinking about the “idea of a university” has begun to take place,4 particularly at that point of time when universities in India are gaining a more and more utilitarian focus. Even the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) or the UGC incentivise socially relevant, need-based, innovative policy research for universities (ICSSR’s Impactful Policy Research in Social Science and UGC’s Scheme for Trans-disciplinary Research for India’s Developing Economy schemes are the cases in point). Be it the dictates of the state or of momentary nationalism or for that matter, of market fundamentalism, universities in India have to be responsive to the glaring contradictions that have mired the path of higher education. Given this reality, we have nothing but to anticipate whatever positive comes out of the phrasal template: “The University is dead, long live the University.” 
1 A gurukula refers to a type of education system prevalent in ancient India, in which the students stayed near or in the same premises as their guru or teacher.
2 As per the 2018 All India Survey of Higher Education data, there are 903 universities, 37.98% of them are privately managed. The GER in higher education in India is 25.8% for the 18–23 years age group. The GER for the male population is 26.3%, and for female population it is 25.4% (Department of Higher Education 2018: i–ii). 
3 The phraseology “politics of scarcity” was coined by Myron Weiner (1963) to pinpoint one of the grave concerns of India’s democratic body polity. According to Weiner (1963), the “politics of scarcity” emerges out of the gap between government plans and decisions and the plethora of demands raised by organised groups.
4 In the recent past, significant researches on the idea of a university in India were made by a host of scholars from different disciplines. Besides these, several commentaries were also written on the university–state interface by distinguished personalities. Just to get a sense of how poignant the issue is one can pay heed to the many volumes contributed by a variety of scholars such as Apoorvanand (2018), Bhattacharya (2019a, 2019b), Chandra (2017), Kumar (2017), Majumdar (2018), Miri (2018), and Schreuder (2013) among others.
Ahmed, Jashim Uddin (2016): “Massification to Marketization of Higher Education: Private University Education in Bangladesh,” Higher Education for the Future, Vol 3, No 1, pp 76–92.
Altbach, P (2010): “Access Means Inequality,” International Higher Education, Vol 61, pp 3–5.
Apoorvanand (2018): “Introduction,” The Idea of a University, Apoorvanand (ed), Chennai: Context. 
Aristotle (2004): The Nicomachean Ethics, 1566, New York: Penguin Random House. 
Béteille, André (2010): “Viable Universities,” Telegraph, 22 April,
Bhattacharya, Debaditya (ed) (2019a): The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts, Oxon: Routledge.
(ed) (2019b): The University Unthought: Notes for a Future, Oxon: Routledge.
Chan, S J and L W Lin (2015): “Massification of Higher Education in Taiwan: Shifting Pressure from Admission to Employment,” Higher Education Policy, Vol 28, No 1, pp 17–33.
Chandra, Pankaj (2017): Building Universities that Matter: Where Are Indian Institutions Going Wrong?, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Collini, Stefan (2012): What Are Universities For? London: Penguin.
Department of Higher Education (2018): “All India Survey on Higher Education 2017–2018,” Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, New Delhi,
EPW (2019): “Governmentalising the Research,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 54, No 13, p 8,
Gandhi, Miloni (2018): “A Double-edged Sword—Thoughts on the Massification of Higher Education in India,” Massification of Higher Education in Asia: Consequences, Policy Responses and Changing Governance, Alfred M Wu and John N Hawkins (eds), Singapore: Springer, pp 57–77.
Guri-Rosenblit, S, H Šebková and U Teichler (2007): “Massification and Diversity of Higher Education Systems: Interplay of Complex Dimensions,” Higher Education Policy, Vol 20, No 4, pp 373–89.
Kumar, C Raj (ed) (2017): The Future of Indian Universities: Comparative and International Perspectives, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Majumdar, Saikat (2018): College: Pathways of Possibilities, New Delhi: Bloomsbury.
Miri, Mrinal (ed) (2018): The Place of Humanities in Our Universities, Oxon: Routledge.
Mok, K H, K M Yu and Y W Ku (2013): “After Massification: The Quest for Entrepreneurial Universities and Technological Advancement in Taiwan,” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Vol 35, No 3, pp 264–79.
NKC (2009): “National Knowledge Commission Report to the Nation,” National Knowledge Commission, Government of India, New Delhi,
Newman, John Henry (1996): The Idea of a University, 1852, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sammaddar, Ranabir (2019): “What Are We Missing When Talking of Education in West Bengal?,” The Wire, 9 July,
Schreuder, Deryck M (ed) (2013): Universities for a New World: Making a Global International Higher Education, 1913–2013, New Delhi: Sage.
Trow, M (2000): ‘From Mass Higher Education to Universal Access: The American Advantage,” Minerva, Vol 37, No 4, pp 303–28.
(2006): “Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access: Forms and Phases of Higher Education in Modern Societies since WWII,” International Handbook of Higher Education, James J F Forest and Philip G Altbach (eds), Dordrecht: Springer, pp 243–80.
Varghese, N V (2015): “Challenges of Massification of Higher Education in India,” CPRHE Research Papers No 01, Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, New Delhi.
Weiner, Myron (1963): Politics of Scarcity: Public Pressure and Political Response in India, Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

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Updated On : 8th Apr, 2020
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