Battling the war cries against universities

Photo: Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has been a prime target of the right wing. Picture courtesy: Wikipedia.

India would just make its redemption all the more difficult if it continues battling against universities like JNU and AMU.

Sangeeth Varghese

March 3, 2020

A nation at war with its future generations might not have a future at all. Unfortunately, India seems to be heading down exactly this path as our universities are violated, youth are dragged around and certificates of anti-nationalism are freely distributed.

A segment of people is of the view that this nation is doing a favor by educating our youth, hence it is imperative that they never question, rather be submissive. At the faintest raise of voice, this segment rallies around the war cries of shutting down portals of higher education – whether Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) or something else. It’s time we realised the axe we are sharpening is laid unto the root of our great nation’s future itself. Because no nation in this world has treaded the path of development without prioritising the education of its youth.

To set the context, though India has been accounting for a large proportion of the global GDP from the third century BC until the end of the Mughal era, we were reduced to a nightmare during the centuries of the British rule. As our population swelled more than our hopes, there was a lingering doubt if we would ever reclaim our lost glory. With the advent of liberalisation, we were on the fast lane again. However, during the last decade or so, we took our growth for granted, conveniently forgetting that sustaining this development is not possible unless we invest in the future of our youth.

Nations that developed at a faster pace compared to the others, past or present, built themselves on the foundation of a great system of higher education. For example, the rise of the British Empire and American hegemony resulted from what the historians have referred to as the ‘Age of University’. Their unprecedented era of commercial and industrial expansions was preceded and catalysed by their investments in higher education. By providing initially a classical and liberal education, and later scientific, engineering and legal educational systems, British universities opened up and cultivated both the morals and the minds of the young men who would expand and lead their colonial society.

Even after the collapse of their Empire, institutions like the London School of Economics (LSE), enabled academic progress towards greater inclusivity to manage the transition from Empire to Commonwealth rather than just receding into the pages of history.

Likewise, the US model of economic growth was built on the foundations of bigger government investments and better access to higher education. Interestingly, this growth and expansion of universities in America began more than 300 years even before the United States came into being, paving the way for its eventual global dominance.

In the case of China, though previously a hermit kingdom, it made concerted efforts to revamp its higher education sector since the late 1990s as part of its five-year plans. The government committed itself to the idea that Chinese universities needed to emulate the great research universities in the US with their focus on graduate studies, interdisciplinary research and research output, gradually outstripping even the US in awarding doctorates. China currently accounts for 22 top universities in the QS rankings.

Incidentally, even the historical ages that India dominated were again not out of serendipity, rather a result of its focus on higher education. Educational focus in ancient India started around the third century BC, the same time when we started our ascent onto the world stage. Centres of higher education at Nalanda, Takshashila, Ujjain, Vikramshila and Vallabhi were so renowned that they attracted scholars even from foreign nations to specialise in religion, art, architecture and music. We were great not because of a destiny, but because our educational system provided us the right fodder.

Let us reiterate this point by a simple thought experiment. Imagine a family where the father refuses to invest in the education of his children, but rather continuously derides them, threatens them, pits them against each other and expects them to fall in place every time a decision is taken by him irrespective of whether it is good or bad. What would be the eventual future of such a family compared to another one in which the father is benevolent to his children, realises that his children are essentially the future of his family and hence invests in them.

India would never be able to reclaim its destiny if we turn our face away from our youth and their future. Our nation investing in the higher education of our youth is not doing them a favour, but rather doing itself a favour.

Sangeeth Varghese is a leadership and management advisor.