In an episode of the British political comedy Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Cabinet Secretary of Britain, tries to persuade his subordinate Bernard Woolley that power must be kept out of the hands of the ordinary voters at all costs. In his peculiarly self-righteous style, Sir Humphrey justifies how such a system is still in keeping with the ideals of British democracy: “British democracy recognises that you need a system to protect the important things of life and keep them out of the hands of the barbarians. Things like the opera. Radio 3. The countryside. The law. The universities...both of them.”

Sir Humphrey makes a point that quite unabashedly reveals the fundamental tension at the heart of the idea of the university. As the name universitas suggests, the idea of the university is related to the universal and to the whole. In its quest for knowledge, the university must remain open to the universal, even while encouraging the specialisation and fragmentation of disciplines.

But the university has also functioned as an exclusive space, access to which has always been highly regulated and controlled. It has not even been one hundred years since Oxford University first allowed women to graduate in October 1920. This constitutive paradox, where the university is both universal and exclusive, makes any attempt at defining what a “liberal”, “public”, or “private” university must be, a pointless exercise. What we need today, when the crisis of higher education has become the norm, is to first of all understand this tension structuring the university as an institution.

A system of obeisance

A new volume of essays, The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts, edited by Debaditya Bhattacharya, seeks to examine the histories and futures of the university in India, structuring its inquiry through the lens of this constitutive aporia of inclusion and exclusion.

In his introduction, Bhattacharya traces the history of the modern university from Wilhelm von Humboldt’s notion of the research university, an institution freed from the enslavement to utility, to the contemporary conception of the “university as capital and learning as dead labour”. The subordination of the university to the whims and fancies of the free market has spurred the creation of a new myth – that of the “world-class university”, which as Bhattacharya writes, “by virtue of its supporting structures of ‘international reputation’ issues such ‘bills of exchange’ as credit claims to corporations willing to invest in the field of higher education, in lure of an ‘exponential growth imperative’”.

It is not simply the history of the university’s progressive binding to global capital that Bhattacharya delineates here, but of a return of a type of feudalism where the university must pay obeisance to ensure state patronage. The public university then becomes subject to both the “erratic inconsistencies of political will” and the bureaucratic system of ratings and accreditations.

Nandini Chandra’s essay explores how the implementation of the WTO-GATS agreement by the Indian government leads to a ‘”microfinance model for the university”. The university is transformed into a site of investment where the “poor invest at high interest rates in order to reap supposed benefits at a future date”.

This “GATS-ification” of the public university (as Chandra calls it) does not automatically imply the exclusion of the economically weak, as the increase in the number of students enrolled means higher revenue, and the poor are encouraged to invest whatever they may have in the hope of future profits. What occurs however is the creation of a semi-educated surplus population which can be appropriated as “pockets of de facto slave labour” by industries and corporations.

Knowledge versus skills

Essays by Wendy Brown and Ania Loomba explore the idea of the public university in a time of the privatisation and financialisation of higher education across the world. Brown argues that the public university must be for the public rather than an outgrowth from it. Its vocation lies more in the creation of publicly oriented knowledge and the inclusion of the larger public than in the development of skills, which are anyway being outsourced to institutes dedicated to technical and professional training.

Loomba’s essay “Of Utopias and Universities” argues that “both exclusion and strategic inclusion are part of our highly stratified educational systems” and that the current right wing assault on the university must not distract us from the spectacular failure of publicly funded higher education in this country. While Loomba does believe that disciplines which are threatened by the marketplace (such as the arts and the humanities) need to be kept alive, it is difficult to say how such a goal could be accomplished except through some form of empty romanticism and nostalgia. The defence of the university has to come to terms with the constitutive aporia of inclusion/exclusion and this is a very difficult task for thought, as Loomba recognises.

Sukanta Chaudhuri’s essay “Divide and Educate” begins by locating this exclusionary impetus at the primary school level where children are either slotted into those who will pursue vocational training or those who will go to a university for higher education after school.

Even if some of them are lucky enough to go to a university instead of a polytechnic institute, the imbalance and inequity of government funding has resulted in a scenario where there are no longer “peaks of excellence rising from the foothills” but only “looming islands in a sea of under-performance”. Chaudhuri’s point is that we should not try to foist the nostalgic ideal of pure knowledge upon the contemporary university, but “view the pursuit of knowledge as an economic end”. Yet as he notes, the current government policies do not even make this modest aim seem achievable.

Protest as political education

Political activism by students has always been a part of our universities. After the events of February 2016, when students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were arrested for sedition, the Indian government has heavily cracked down on student protest. The logic being bandied about is that students should come to university to study, not to protest or engage in politics.

Essays by Prasanta Chakravarty, Anand Teltumbde, and Hany Babu MT try to evaluate the university as a fertile site for a political education.

Chakravarty reads Kashinath Singh’s novella, Apna Morcha set in Benares Hindu University in the 1970s as the bhasha andolan rocked the nation, to better understand what it might mean to have a “calling” towards the left.

Hany Babu’s essay explores the divergent response to the liberal ideals of freedom of expression and equality when it comes to Dalit-Bahujan politics within the university. Since the Constitution of India gives the freedom of expression only to citizens, while equality is a right given to any person, Babu argues that the Dalit-Bahujan groups are fighting for the right to equality. Their struggle is simultaneously sought to be appropriated within the upper-caste liberal left’s fight for the freedom of speech and expression. What Babu discovers is that the liberal left is very close to the anti-reservation right when it fails to “temper liberal principles with the social realities”.

Anand Teltumbde’s essay investigates the current middle-class desire for the university to be depoliticised and defanged of any form of dissenting politics. Student activism is sought to be countered by student passivism. The apolitical student is a desired product, as an “automaton propping the system against the forces that aspire to better it”.

A change in perspective

However the changing student demographics, with the inclusion of sections that hitherto were denied education, has led to the developments of new forms of exclusion, especially in the rise of the private university as an apolitical space. While public universities are compelled to admit students from historically disadvantaged sections (even though in many cases they try their best to bend the rules), private universities, functioning on the logic of the market, have no such compulsions.

There is a silver lining to these developments as well, since “the very structural hurdles that sought to decimate campus politics are pushing students to come out to challenge them”. Protests at Jadavpur University, JNU, Banaras Hindu University, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and Hyderabad Central University are signs that the democratic dividend that the government wishes to flaunt in support of its superpower dreams is turning against them.

The book also contains essays by Vijay Prashad, Lakshmi Subramanian, and Paramita Banerjee. Prashad explodes the liberal conflation of equality with equality of opportunity, arguing that contemporary student protests from Chile to South Africa and India are recognising the need to bring together social struggles rather than fragment them. Subramanian’s essay is a personal reflection on the changes in the university idea from the 1980s to the present while Banerjee, in an interesting case study, explores the transformation of Presidency College into Presidency University.

What this collection of essays attempts to accomplish is a change in perspective on the crisis threatening our universities. It is no longer simply about the threat to the academic freedoms of the university in an illiberal time, but about the inherent contradictions within the very concept of the “liberal” or “public” university.

The university is, as the authors in this book reveal, not just a victim of neoliberal and illiberal policies, but perhaps deeply complicit in its own decline and decay. Bhattacharya’s book thus takes a cautionary, even melancholy stand on our current predicament, orienting its gaze towards an “alternative pedagogy” or something that might even be, in his words, “radically ‘other’ than the university”.

The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts, edited by Debaditya Bhattacharya, Routledge.