Ode to the West Wind: Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose
Guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY AND BRINDA BOSE
The ‘lower hanging fruit’ has spoken. If ‘India wants to harness the benefits of internationalizing higher education, foreigners… and even PIOs’ who are currently barred from employment as full-time faculty in Indian universities need to be ‘harvested’. The HRD ministry, according to DeveshKapur in ‘The Elite’s Classrooms’ (BS: Opinion, November 12, 2012), has been barking at the wrong (higher-hanging) fruit in pursuit of this goal, though apparently not up the wrong tree – because as far as Kapur is concerned, the tree of intellectual bounty can only be the one that lies yonder over the seas. The fault, dear Mr. Pallam Raju, Honorable HRD minister, lies not in our stars that we are intellectual underlings, but in your predecessor’s eyeing of the wrong fruit on that delectable tree of knowledge rooted in faraway soil.
Devesh Kapur’s critique of the higher education policies of the just-exited Sibal ministry, and his reformulations of where the ‘foreigner’ focus should rather lie, amount to nothing more or less than an in-house debate between two kinds of liberal models of higher education. The Sibal model, that believes in endowed professorial chairs in foreign universities (a staggering 92 of them, from Oxford to Denmark and Lithuania, says Kapur);in investment in new liberal institutions and private/state universities with government funds (Nalanda, Presidency, South Asian University to name a few of the johnny-come-latelies); and in inviting branches of foreign universities to set up second-hand shops in India, which is likely to end up offering ‘high-cost low- quality education’ for the children of elites in the country. The other in the debate is Kapur’s own model, in which he suggests that the taxpayers’ funds should rather be channeled to open up rites of passage for the NRIs (non-resident Indians) and the PIOs (persons of Indian origin) to participate in Indian higher education, with a larger say and stake in its day-to-day academics as well as its policy decisions.
Examining the substantive arguments that Kapur offers in his critique-and-proscription for the old and new HRD ministry, we find that he is unhappy with the first (Sibal) model of liberal education not because the gaze is trained westward, but because he considers it a sheer waste of money to be funding chairs and centres abroad and creating behemoth-like structures at home – those he perceives to be the fruits on higher ground that the HRD had been mistakenly eyeing. They do not make economic sense, Kapur argues, and they perpetuate an old nationalist secular liberal model, seeking to revive lost glory and traditional pasts. He draws an equivalence for this with BJP’s Ayodhya, alleging that there is little to distinguish between a right-wing and a secular nationalism.
The genuine cosmopolitan transnational liberal educationalist argues for the following instead. He wishes to inhabit a world in which there are no restrictions on employing non-nationals in Indian institutes and universities – particularly PIOs. By his own admission, this might bring only a ‘marginal’ change to the composition of faculty in India, as no substantial number of immigrants will give up jobs abroad and move back to India permanently. (This is, indeed, a correct analysis as even the few who are returning with some fanfare to join new or revived institutions are mostly coming on lien, testing home-waters gingerly and keeping a valid return-flight-path lit and open.) The focus, therefore, must be on other passages to be created for NRIs/PIOs: inviting Visiting Faculty (who will come bearing aloft their knowledge and wisdom to save the almost-decimated higher education and research in the country, and go back feeling virtuous); removing bureaucratic bottlenecks for their frequent travel to India for conferences and meetings so that their value can be accessed; opening skies and minds to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), thereby slowly doing away with campuses and classrooms and serving the maximum with minimal human investment. The MOOCs, needless to say, would draw upon NRI/PIO expertise with the least trouble to them, and would be technology-oriented, with the focus continually on Science and Technology development: there is no word at all for the pure/theoretical sciences, let alone the humanities and social sciences, from Kapur.
There are some specific problems with this kind of gung-ho, paternalistic liberalism. Prima facie, it appears to be a shaped for smooth give and take between Delhi and PIOs abroad: you allow me comfortable visiting stints and smoothen ways to facilitate my stay in India and I will give you some crumbs so that a set of skills can trickle down, your general population may at least become job-worthy and you can continue to reign as satraps in little fiefs. One thing is obvious: this paradigm is not tailored for the Indian hinterland – not even for other metropolitan centres in India in all probability. It is a certain model of excellence which will not touch the realities of most of India. The approach is completely oblivious to the sociology and politics of India; an aspirational model for the PIOs to open a channel for home, pure and simple.
A natural corollary to such a schema is a complete absence of any form of criticality that might be woven in within the scope of such a model. It pitches itself at the level of practicality and employment generation and is aimed at trying to lure a section of the Indian society that seeks to augment and consolidate its social and economic standing. Two things would have happened had Kapur been serious about any genuine form of internationalism. First, any notion of complementarity would not have been a story of one-way transaction from the West to India. There would be a fair and robust exchange, with due respect for each other’s expertise that he would have highlighted. He does not do so. In a hypothetical serious exchange, one side may have an understanding of the local issues, everyday problems, organizational aspects, orientation of the milieu and so forth. The other side may have accessibility and capacities to disseminate. If both sides understand what they are looking for in the collaborator and feel that modes and methods of the transaction are not exploitative or tilted at one side, things can really work out. Genuine collaboration means leveraging on each other’s strength and gaining something in return. Second, if Kapur would seek international collaboration, he would also consider continents other than North America and Europe in forming fruitful and sturdy alliances based on far more solid grounds. He does not do so. This is the crucial change that has happened in new and improved India: internationalism has been jettisoned for globalization—a one way, narrow and partisan idea. The basic point is that winds of international change should blow both ways and seek multiple democratic exchanges: Kapur’s model completely muzzles any level playing field.
More fearfully, the whole idea of MOOC as a method of instruction skirts all peripatetic ideas of education, of letting ideas roost and take shape, so central for developing all forms of competence, including practical skills. A model that is purely based on S and T, as Kapur suggests, has a deeply-skewed idea of education, for there is no sense of a holistic university education that imparts knowledge via conceptual breakthroughs in science, humanities and commerce. Will UPenn allow all its own courses to be purely vocational and instructional? Of course not. But the rules are different for India – for India must create jobs for its industrial and corporate needs, and let its higher intellectual aspirations rot in hell.
This is a rehashing of the old benevolent colonial approach, a version of the white man’s burden now evolved on to PIO shoulders. And Kapur appears to be a man in a hurry – to bring transnationalism to higher education in India. But can higher education ever be achieved in a hurry? Kapur is asking the revamped HRD ministry to take heed of how much PIOs can help in the Indian growth story. For that he is asking the government to jettison all forms of residual nationalism, including home-grown varieties of liberalism. Let us even not go to how he would feel about alternative and more equitable models of higher education – to return to his picturesque fruits-on-trees analogy, those would be weeds in the grass below.
Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose are Associate Professors of English at Delhi University.