Who Will Speak For The Students?

Who Will Speak For The Students?

by Beloo Mehra - Tuesday, February 16, 2016 09:04 PM IST
Who Will Speak For The Students?Indian right-wing activists shout slogans during a protest outside Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on February 16, 2016. A student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on Friday for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans at a rally in protest against a Kashmiri separatist's execution three years ago. AFP PHOTO / Money SHARMA / AFP / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

The excessive politicisation of the university campuses that has happened can’t be completely reversed. But it can be and must be checked in its growth.

During my five years as a student at the University of Delhi in the 1980s ( three for my undergraduate programme and  two for Master’s), I generally avoided, as much as possible, going to the campus during the ‘election’ time. I am speaking of the student union election time. Of course, I couldn’t miss my classes all the time while the election campaigning was going on, but certainly on the voting day, and a day or two before that, I avoided being anywhere near the main campus. And also on the day the election results would be announced. Many other students also did the same. Because the general perception was that things could get quite ugly and even violent during the election time. And many times they did.

At that time I was hardly interested in anything related to politics. I was, like most young urban, lower/middle-class Indians of my generation, interested in many other things. Including, doing reasonably good at studies, having fun with friends, exploring different interests, and just ‘chilling,’ to use a word from the present urban youth lingo.

Doing good at studies was important, almost a necessity, for many, perhaps most people in my generation which came-of-age in the pre-liberalisation India, an India which didn’t offer a whole lot of economic opportunities. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride out there for most of us, especially if we were not eligible for any of the ‘reserved’ jobs in the public sector. We were also keenly aware that we would have to struggle for getting decent jobs in the private sector, because we would be competing against a very large number of potential applicants trying to grab a much smaller number of available positions.

Many of us couldn’t simply afford to be caught up in anything that could potentially disrupt our pursuits of a socially and economically rewarding life. A decent college education with decent grades was the only ticket available for most of us. Getting involved in politics, many of us thought, perhaps correctly, and mostly based on a general perception of the overall level of politics in the country, could be disadvantageous.

It is important to differentiate, however, that being uninterested in politics was or is not the same as being uninterested in society, nation and the world. And perhaps it was our seriousness toward our academic pursuits that helped us to discover and appreciate this difference. We could understand that for some students, a small minority, who saw their future lives in the field of active politics, all the election related stuff was important. But not for us, the majority.

India of post-1991 is different, many say. And they are correct. There are many more opportunities for the Indian youth in the ever-growing private sector – in all fields of activity, ranging from manufacturing to commerce to finance to engineering to information technology to education to arts to social services to entertainment to everything. So many different opportunities in the growing economy, they say. You can do pretty much anything you wish, as long as you have the drive in you and can effectively ‘network’ with the right people. So they say.

That’s great.

You may call me naive but I still believe that even today there are many, perhaps a very large section of the Indian youth studying at most of the publicly funded higher education institutions in the country for whom higher education still remains the only ticket to a better life, to greater opportunities. They hail from different parts of the country, lower to middle to upper income groups.

Many of them come with their dreams and ambitions, many others with passion to explore and discover their potential in different fields of intellectual and creative pursuits. Majority come with great hopes for their future. Back in their minds they know that all of the great opportunities that the growing Indian economy and the global economy offer to them will open only when they have successfully worked their way through the hallways of the colleges and universities.

So during the last few days as I have read several viewpoints in the press surrounding the Jawaharlal Nehru University affair (and before that also regarding the tragedy at Hyderabad University), one question that keeps coming to my mind is this:

Who will speak for these students, the silent majority, who are at the university only because of the different opportunities it can potentially open for them?

When most of the noise coming from either side of the debate has been the same old, same old political maneuvering and ideological posturing, it is easy to forget that the only losers here are the students. Protests, demonstrations, barricading, bad press for the university – these not only create a negative academic atmosphere, but also incite destructive passions, inflammatory speech and mindless herd behaviour.

There is a serious problem of excessive politicisation at many public university campuses, with direct and often sinister involvement from all political parties at the level of student unions. This problem can not be simply brushed away under the rug of dissent, freedom of speech, idea of India and such things. Nor should it be allowed to grow any bigger.

The only long-term solution, in my limited view, is to slowly depoliticise the university campus, starting from the appointment of Vice-chancellors. This is important also if as a country we are serious about improving about the quality of higher education in the country.

The governments, both at the central and state level, must facilitate greater privatisation of higher education, especially in liberal arts, social sciences and humanities. These fields of studies are, as it is, in dire need of a serious overhaul, including de-colonising and de-ideologising the curriculum, and re-thinking and re-inventing the pedagogy. Greater privatisation, which will make available more resources and a wider network of academics, should prove to be an important instrument for working on these goals. Adequate and appropriate measures must be put in place for accreditation and certification of these private institutions.

Simultaneously, governments must seriously work toward reducing subsidies in public higher education. This should also include gradually taking away the various perks given to students, faculty and stuff in the public institutions. A transparent and effective system of need-based scholarships, tuition waivers, and low-interest student loans need to come up to allow greater access to students from lower-income backgrounds. A culture of accountability and responsibility must be nurtured in these institutions – right from the university administration to the level of the students.

The excessive politicisation of the university campuses that has happened can’t be completely reversed. But it can be and must be checked in its growth. When students (and/or their families) have to pay hefty fees for their education, when they begin to appreciate that to be able to study at an institution of higher education is indeed a privilege and not a matter of ‘right’ they will perhaps think thousand times before becoming mindless mouthpieces and easy tools in the hands of selfish political parties.

A rational, clear-thinking, well-educated youth is the most important resource India needs for her future. It is time that we wake up to the fact that the great demographic advantage that we have; namely, our very large young population, will remain an advantage only to the extent when we as a society and nation can nurture their dreams, facilitate their self-discovery processes and provide with them meaningful educational opportunities. Let us not destroy our future for petty, short-term political gains.

Beloo Mehra is an educator, with many years of teaching and research experience in social sciences, in India as well as in the US. She is the author of a newly released book, ABC's of Indian National Education, and regularly writes a blog inspired by her study of the works of Sri Aurobindo.
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