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Wednesday 2 November 2011


- Academic quality is not a uniform substance
Prabhat Patnaik
Different strokes
It is sad that even Amartya Sen cites the fact that no Indian university figured in the top 200 listed in the Times Higher Educational Supplement as evidence of their poor academic quality. One is not surprised when the uninitiated argue in this manner: they lack the capacity to form judgments about academic institutions in any case, and adopt any ready-made criterion that happens to be available. Besides, given our penchant for forming judgments about ourselves on the basis of what the West thinks of us, such a criterion has an obvious appeal to the uninitiated in India. But to have a person of Sen’s acuity and academic experience using this criterion for making a judgment about Indian universities is truly disturbing. I am not disputing his statement about the quality of Indian universities; it is his endorsement of the THES list that worries me, especially because I believe that Indian universities will be truly doomed to mediocrity if they ever set themselves the objective of figuring in the THES or any other such list.
The basic problem underlying any such list is the belief that academic quality is ahomogeneous substance, which different universities possess in different amounts, and that they can therefore be ordered, in terms of quality, like natural numbers. This belief is not only wrong but also dangerous. It assumes that judgment about the quality of a university can be detached from the society in which it is located, and that higher education, therefore, has no specific social role. It has no role in what is clumsily called “nation-building”; for if universities do have a role in nation-building, then the training that a university in India should impart, the issues that a university in India should be concerned with, the debates to which a university in India should introduce its students, must be different from what Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge does.
This is not to suggest that what is taught at Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge is irrelevant to India, or that there is no core training that must be common between Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge on the one hand and Indian universities on the other. It is only to say that this core must be embedded within a set of intellectual concerns that for these Anglo-Saxon universities are different from what they are for Indian universities, that the “excellence” of a university located in India cannot be judged solely on the basis of the degree to which it is a clone of Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge. Since the THES list is not judging universities in relation to the societies in which they are located (the criteria it uses for ranking them are intrinsically incapable of doing so), it is simply wrong and inapposite.
It is also dangerous. In ranking universities by detaching them from their social contexts, theTHES list is implicitly suggesting that the social context should not matter in judging the quality of a university; it is implicitly propagating a model of a university according to which the more a university is a clone of Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, the better it is. Its model university is one where “excellence” is pursued to the exclusion of any social role, any role in nation-building, any role in defending the freedom of its people through a theoretical struggle against the ideological hegemony of those who wish to undermine this freedom. Such a notion of “excellence” is, ipso facto, ideologically rooted.
My own subject, economics, has been characterized from its very beginning by the hegemony of the view that capitalism as an economic system is free of exploitation, and even of anarchy, and that left to itself, it generally functions smoothly and efficiently. Of course, the identity of the hegemonic theoretical position has not remained unchanged all through; but even as the specific hegemonic position has changed over time, its basic character of camouflaging exploitation has remained unchanged. Even if an incipient recognition of the exploitative character of the system can be read into some hegemonic theories, such as that of David Ricardo, from whom Marx drew much, or an explicit recognition of its anarchic character can be read into others, such as that of John Maynard Keynes which enjoyed a brief period of hegemony, one absolute, unambiguous truth that emerges is that no theoretical position emanating from the metropolitan countries and enjoying any period of hegemony has ever recognized colonial exploitation as a significant element in the functioning of capitalism in any of its phases. Even Ricardo had explained trade between countries, including, by inference, trade between metropolitan countries and colonies, as working to their mutual advantage.
The labours of Dadabhai Naoroji and M.G. Ranade in uncovering the modus operandi of colonial exploitation do not figure in the economics syllabi in Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge. Attempting to make Indian universities clones of such universities would entail, among other things, copying their syllabi (so as to be on the so-called “frontiers” and make it to the THESlist), and hence forgetting these labours, to the detriment not just of our knowledge about our own past, but of knowledge about capitalism itself. This would amount to embracing the ideological hegemony of metropolitan theoretical positions by suppressing scientific critical thinking.
The means employed to establish this ideological hegemony in the social sciences are diverse and powerful, ranging from the THES list to the Nobel Prize. For every Amartya Sen from the third world who gets the Nobel prize in economics, there are at least half a dozen Chicago economists who are so honoured. Notwithstanding their technical competence, they are invariably engaged in the ideological task of propagating the view that capitalism is a system free of exploitation, including, of course, colonial exploitation, and even anarchy. We do not have to go far: the current year’s Nobel prize has been awarded, in the midst of the worst capitalist crisis after the Great Depression, to two economists whose contribution to the subject is based on the premise that a capitalist economy can never experience involuntary unemployment! What is “science”, what is “respectable” theory, get defined through such arrangements, whose aim is to establish hegemony. The THES list is a part of such arrangements. Establishing hegemony entails that contributions from an alternative theoretical perspective do not get published in “respectable” journals; and the THES list, for which publication in such journals is one criterion for judging university quality, refurbishes this attempt to establish hegemony by excluding universities that are “non-conformist”.
It may be thought that my argument that third world universities should not attempt to become clones of Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge is too influenced by a social science perspective, that when it comes to the natural sciences, the need for such differentiation does not exist. But this is not true. None other than J.D. Bernal was of the view that research priorities in natural sciences must differ across countries and, therefore, universities in countries such as India should not be pursuing exactly the same intellectual interests in their science teaching and research as those in the West.
To say all this is not to deny the abysmal state of Indian universities. The most obvious reason for this is shortage of funds. Universities dependent upon state government resources are so starved of funds that most of them are understaffed and rely on “guest faculty”, which is paid a pittance for teaching. There are even universities where no teaching is done in some courses, and students are simply asked to cover these courses on their own. In more privileged universities, where the shortage of funds is not the constraint, there is an obvious absence of the intense intellectual engagement that one often finds in the West.
The desire for personal advancement in material terms can provide the motivation for such engagement, as is perhaps the case with the Indian Institutes of Technology, but any institution relying upon this motivation will necessarily become a victim of “brain drain”; it will necessarily renege on its social role. Therefore, in societies such as ours, this intensity of intellectual endeavour will have to be built upon passion, towards which political engagement is a contributory factor. Of course, blind adherence to one political party or another is not synonymous with political engagement; but the oft-argued position that universities should be free of political engagement to become academically “excellent”, dooms them to mediocrity, or at best to becoming waiting rooms for potential migrants to the West.

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