In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra had said at an election rally in Maharajganj in Uttar Pradesh, “The country has seen the thinking of the Harvard people and the thinking of the hard-working people.” This was apparently in response to Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen’s criticism of demonetisation, when Modi in November 2016 declared old currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 invalid.

The prime minister’s statements come to mind again as the government on January 5 decided to allow the best universities of the world such as Harvard, Oxford and Yale to open campuses in India.

Modi’s words mocking experts trained at the American university may be defended, saying they were merely a sarcastic dig at the opponents of demonetisation. But it is worth remembering that Modi has been consistent in his contempt for institutions of learning and research such as Harvard.

Hard work vs Harvard

In 2014, as Modi presented himself as a prime ministerial candidate, he said at a meeting in Tamil Nadu, “Actually, hard work is more powerful than Harvard.”

How has this opponent of academic learning suddenly developed a respect for it? Especially since it is academic learning produced by the West, when India itself is a “vishwaguru”, a teacher for the universe, and we have already produced all the knowledge the world needs to imbibe?

The media has already declared the University Grants Commission’s decision to invite the foreign universities to open campuses in India as a revolutionary step. But can this announcement be taken seriously when the government considers all knowledge futile?

Besides, it would be naive to believe that the University Grants Commission is serious about the quality of education. After all, this is the same body that has destroyed higher education by stripping away the autonomy of Indian universities.

Ironically, foreign universities will be allowed the freedom that Indian universities have been deprived of. They can decide the method of admission of students and the process by which teachers will be appointed. They can also frame their own syllabi and curricula without interference from the University Grants Commission.

Indian universities, on the other hand, can admit students only through a central examination, the Common University Entrance Test. Efforts are being made to implement this at the postgraduate level too. Over the years, the University Grants Commission has centralised the undergraduate curriculum of Indian universities too.

For Indian universities, standards are to be achieved through centralisation and control, but foreign universities will be given full autonomy.

Is it that Indian universities are no longer trustworthy or that foreign universities have more integrity than Indian ones? If the country’s new education policy is beneficial for Indian universities, why is it not applicable to foreign universities?

Different rules?

Questions arise if these foreign universities will incorporate elements of Indian knowledge traditions in mathematics, chemistry or physics. For instance, will they teach Vedic maths?

Or would foreign universities be able to teach AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas, which was removed from the syllabus of Delhi University as far back in 2011? Will they be able to invite academicians Nivedita Menon or Dilip Simeon for talks or conduct seminars on Kashmir, or will they face threats from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sister organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad? Has the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad been instructed not to beat up teachers in these new foreign universities that are expected to open campuses?

Will these universities, like the Indian Institutes of Technology, be told to conduct research on the “health and medical benefits of the panchgavya” – the milk, urine, dung, ghee, and curd derived from the cow? Will medical courses be taught in Hindi?

What of the various nationalistic celebrations Indian universities have been directed to hold over the years? Will it be mandatory for such foreign universities to hoist the tricolour on a 207-foot pole on their premises, as India’s central universities must? Are they also expected to celebrate Yoga Day, Cleanliness Day and Good Governance Day? Will they be instructed to conduct seminars describing India as the mother of democracy?

The University Grants Commission says that the qualifications for teaching faculty at these foreign campuses will be at par with those at the mother institution. This means that India wants the best teachers. If so, would these foreign universities be allowed to employ a researcher like Audrey Truschke, reviled and viciously abused online by Hindutva supporters? What about former Ashoka University vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who was forced to step down from his post?

If the aim of Indian university education is to make students more nationalistic, why should it be different for students on the offshore campuses of foreign universities? After all, these students are also Indians.

Ethos, not merely syllabi

There are practical questions too. This is not the first time a proposal has been made to allow foreign universities into India. In 2010, a bill to this effect prepared by the Congress-led government had prompted an energetic debate – and opposition from the BJP.

The government was told that it takes a long time for universities to blossom. They flourish in specific histories and geographies. It is not without reason that the centuries-old Oxford university has not opened branches in other places – not even in places where there is no centralisation and control like India.

At that time, many foreign universities said they were not interested in opening campuses in India. They said that they could work in collaboration with Indian universities but it was not possible for them to maintain quality by opening independent campuses here. In 2015, the government think tank Niti Aayog was tasked with working on a similar proposal.

The learning experience of Oxford or Harvard can only be had only on their campuses in England or the United States. It is not to be gained only from their syllabi. Their ethos cannot be replicated. That is the meaning of excellence.

Apart from this, the governments of the countries where such universities have opened branches – such as the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University – have made huge investments in them.

Why would an institution open elsewhere without huge concessions on land or other resources? Would the government of India, which is stepping back from higher education, give money to universities from abroad? Will the universities from outside, if they so decide, set up branches in India to earn money or to raise the standards of education here?

This new announcement is nothing more than a gimmick, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written in The Indian Express. Before praising this announcement, one must ask what happened to the tall claims made in the name of creating “Institutes of Eminence”, says Mehta. One of the institutions accorded that tag was still being set up, three years on.

After every such announcement, one is compelled to ask how any good can be expected, least of all in the field of education, under a government that works round the clock propagating untruths and perpetrating violence against the weak, poor and minorities.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.