As it has been for some time, for many and differing reasons, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and its students are at the centre of a new controversy. This is a validation of the very purpose of a university.
A university exists as a place where new concepts can be explored in a safe environment. Political leaders of all hues have come through the halls of JNU, where they learnt to formulate their thoughts and to engage with both friends and adversaries. Similar stories will come from many colleges and universities through the length and breadth of the country, with each institution taking a well-deserved pride in their alumni, a pride that is reciprocated by those who have gone on to achieve greater or lesser heights in their professional and personal lives.
This idea of an academic institution has been under threat since colonial times, when colleges had the sole objective of producing clerks for the Empire. However, it is only now with the neoliberal consensus of systematically destroying public services in favour of market-driven imperatives that the very existence of an academic space free to all is under threat.
The immediate threat is the increase in the fees at JNU. While supporters are rightly claiming that the increase is only in line with norms in peer institutions and have long been necessary to keep the university financially secure, they do not question the basic principle of market-driven education. Education is not a privilege for those who have earned it, whether by their own efforts or – more likely – through being born to families with money. It is not even that education is a basic right, although education is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Education is an investment in the future, whether looked at in a purely commercial sense or in the broader sense of the soul of a nation.
When addressed in this light, it is clear that free education is not a gift from a state to its citizens. It is a belief that the future will be better and we will be there in the forefront shaping that future to our own needs and desires. It is shortsighted and a self-fulfilling recipe for disaster to expect education to pay for itself. The benefits of a free and good-quality education have been amply demonstrated by public schools such as the Kendriya Vidyalaya, in which students from all walks of society mix and go on to careers beyond the dreams of their parents, or the IITs whose students have gone on to become libertarian engineers. Students made friends from all castes and across economic boundaries, a fluidity that has been lost with the move to segregated private schools.
The greater the barrier one places on entry to these hallowed institutions, the more elitist the student body becomes. Those born to privilege quickly learn to manipulate the system; those whose interactions with authority have been either supplication or fear will hesitate to engage.
This is in no way meant to argue against the need for private education. Particularly in India, where the majority of people live in poverty, it will take an enormous amount of resources to address the problem of education, particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels. Public education will always have constraints that private providers may not. It is utopian to argue that the rich will not always have more options than the poor. However, free public institutions play a vital role in a healthy society. They provide opportunities for all to better their lives and, by doing so, serve society and the nation. Private institutions in India, with rare exceptions, are driven by a requirement to extract as much from their students as possible They have thus become glorified employment exchanges with the mandate to get their students as high a salary as possible.
Apart from all arguments of social justice or abstract ideals about the duties of an elected government, it is in our own interest to provide a high-quality public education that is accessible to all. By doing so, we express confidence in our future and in the ability of our youth to drive that future. Ceding this responsibility to a corporate structure does nothing but preserve our place at the tail end of human progress.
Jayant Murthy is senior professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.