Political regulation of universities is inevitable


Why care about the universities and how they are changing? The Post’s Gyanu Adhikari spoke with André Béteille, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Delhi University. Béteille, who has written extensively on democracy, institutions and class and caste in India, was recently in Kathmandu to deliver the Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture 2012 organised by the Social Science Baha. He is the author of Universities at the Crossroads, which examines the evolution of India’s universities.

Why do we even need universities for research, with NGOs, World Bank and think tanks producing a lot of research?

I make a distinction between what I call immediate-return research and delayed-return research. Immediate-return research is the kind the World Bank does—there is a specific problem which needs to be addressed, so you collect data and you write a report. That kind of research is very useful but that is different from delayed-return research, a kind of research whose results are cumulative, which do not give immediate returns but which accumulate a body of knowledge over a long period of time.

What are the principal goals of our universities?

The ideal of the university is that it is an institution which combines teaching and research over a long time. But universities aren’t the only sector for the creation and accumulation of knowledge.

It seems like the very best universities of the world take very bright students and train them very well for a job at an investment bank. They have become training grounds for corporations. Should that be a priority for the universities?

Universities should be a training ground for corporations, but they should not be only that. They should also be a training ground for housewives, because we need people who can understand the world in which they live, have some sense of what kind of choices are available to them and take an intelligent view of their own lives.

Can’t corporations train their own employees? Do we need universities to do that?

Well, corporations need highly skilled manpower. Sensible leaders of corporations know that they need young men and women with a broad base of knowledge. And when they come in, they can get specialised training

on the job. But it’s not just corporations. You need people to continue research in science, to do the kind of work at an advanced level which prepares the ground for training in democratic citizenship.

Can you explain what you mean by democratic citizenship?

It requires that you make or help to make intelligent choices for the society and the state in which you live. You can be a journalist or a schoolteacher. We need good schoolteachers but they would cease to be effective if the knowledge base comes to a standstill.

There are those who say universities today aren’t producing the type of knowledge that is relevant to the problems today.

Do you know what will be relevant to our society 20 years hence? Nobody knows that. So it is a good bet to have a broad base. This is the typical argument: we have this problem and we have to solve it, so what is the use of studying ancient history? What is the use of studying social stratification and social mobility? But studying them is useful because it enables you to have a clearer and a more reasonable understanding of the world in which you live.

Do you think universities help decrease social stratification?

They do and they don’t. Universities can serve to perpetuate existing inequalities. I don’t think universities can be expected to abolish inequalities. Universities have helped in promoting individual mobility. We must however understand that individual mobility only exists in a society that is stratified.

You’ve written a lot about democracy. There are certain principles of democracy, such as inclusion, that are universally accepted. Are they necessary for the university also?

Certainly. Universities need to be more inclusive but that’s not the only requirement. They also need to maintain an advanced academic standard. If, in the zeal to be more inclusive, they sacrifice academic standards, then you don’t get good results. You see, the primary job of the university should not be to maintain a political balance, it should be to teach and open people up to new ideas.

Do you see a correlation between the strength of democratic institutions in a country and the strength of its universities?

Certainly. The universities played an important part in the advancement of democracy. University education opened many minds to new possibilities. After all, the universities created a new middle class, and that new middle class created those very institutions that are essential for democracy.

Could you tell us how the universities create a middle class?

The middle class consists of doctors, lawyers, accountants, administrators, managers, teachers, scholars, scientists. These are all created in the universities. Also, they were the first places where men and women could come together on more-or-less equal terms, outside the family and the kin group. When the colleges and the universities started, they provided a tremendous boost to the opportunities that were possible for women. If you ask me to identify one really significant change that is taking place in the Indian society in the last 100 years, I will say it is the secular trend in the increase in the age of marriage for women.

How has university education expanded women’s oppor-tunities?

At first the conservative elements were extremely reluctant to send their daughters to universities. But they sent them to girl’s schools and women’s colleges. Now, if I find that my daughter has done extremely well in school and at the age of 18, she’s done extremely well in college, it is very difficult for me to tell her ‘well, now you get married and don’t go for higher educations.’

Policymakers are unsure about how much to invest in higher education as opposed to primary or secondary education. What’s the right balance?

This is a problem that’s been with India for a very long time. It would be a mistake if you take an extreme view. If university education is to be successful, we must broaden the education base at the bottom.

We must ensure universal elementary education and there is reasonably good quality secondary education. Otherwise the schools will be producing students who enter the universities and come out with degrees without learning anything. We’re not doing that sufficiently. But we can’t say let us first create good elementary and secondary education and then we’ll create a good university system. This should go on simultaneously. Because who are the people who will ensure good secondary education? There must be people well-trained in higher education. The allocation of resources and time depends on the situation in each particular country.

Is political interference at universities common in India, as in Nepal? What are its pitfalls?

There is interference, yes. But the question is: what is the difference between political interference and regulation? Should there be no political regulation of universities? When regulation leads to interference, then it’s not good, because regulation must be done in terms of criteria that are objective and transparent. Universities themselves are a part of a nation’s wealth. Therefore, the public has a right to know whether they are running effectively or not. A certain amount of regulation is inevitable. It’s true everywhere, including in the US.

Including Harvard, for example?  

Private universities in the US have gone off on a track different from what they started with. The problem with American universities is the opposite of those in India. They have too much money and money has become the driving force in the expansion of knowledge. This creates total disparity between the different branches of knowledge, because business and medicine have budgets 20 times greater than the school of arts.

Universities have grown tremendously in size. For example, the Tribhuvan University has about 200,000 students in its many colleges. Why did they become so big?

Universities played an important role in creating the middle class. Without them, the middle class will not be able to sustain itself as this class needs the kind of employment that requires advanced higher education. There is relentless pressure to expand the middle class. As long as the middle class expands at this rate, there is no way you can prevent universities from expanding. Either there will be more universities, or the existing ones will be larger. The idea is that there should be more universities, and more specialised universities.

Posted on: 2012-11-12 08:27