The one great divide in well meaning and intelligent people in our society is about defining the fundamental purpose of education right from school to university. While most people have the generic view that education is knowledge assimilation and creation and therefore an intrinsic force which illuminates mind and human spirit with greater understanding and ideation for progressive civilizational values including exploration and invention of newer technologies, there is a growing number of people, who see education as a means of preparing workforce for larger economy. The second set of people is greatly annoyed about our universities not producing employable people.
Still a third set of people think that education can be enterprise and differential education, market demand driven courses etc offer commercial opportunities and like several developed economies like Australia, education can be a profitable industry.
Because of the pulse on the market and buoyed by optics, the second and third set of people as mentioned above have started having a sway over the policy framework of education and some of it has penetrated the decision making and government as well.
India has woken up to an increase in the GER in higher education and much of it is student demand driven as education became aspirational in the last couple of decades. In the earlier decades barring for institutions of excellence, higher education was seen as means of meeting the demand for employment and both students and the system adjusted to this thought. While this was an informal understanding, some central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) evolved to international reputation very fast and attracted student talent from across the country. Naturally, it became a proud unity in diversity and experimentation cum research hub. So, it has evolved its own ethos, values and culture. In a certain sense, it is a showpiece university and a model.
Because progressivism and liberalism often sound as left leanings, over the years, the humanities faculties and scholars in the university in particular have been labeled as ‘communists.’ It is somewhat substantiated by the fact that student union has been dominated by student affiliate of left parties for quite some time now. Also, much of the hot discussions or events that make headlines from here are often in contrast with the right, JNU has become a target of hate.
So, this mistrust is present everywhere. Therefore, when the university hiked student charges after 40 years, it is seen as an attempt to deny students of hinterland an opportunity to higher education at this prestigious university. This led to a major strike in the university and continues to cause heartburn.
In a nutshell, the happenings in JNU are just symptomatic, the actual fault lies in the understanding and defining national education goals. Under that vision, the country can have several JNU like universities and also evolve as an international education destiny. Public education system right from school has to be robust, inclusive and universally accessible. The investment on education has to go up to make this happen. The country can’t blindly follow the west, it has to create its own models. The state must see human capital as a national resource. Our universities need full time faculties, academic leaders and support to every deserving student. While some of these issues may be addressed by the new NEP, closed mindsets about education need to open up as well.