Monday, November 18, 2013

An Argument about Public Higher Education

During my current tour of India, I got involved, somewhat against my will, in a long discussion - argument is a better word perhaps - about the necessity of public funding of Higher Education. This is one debate I usually seek to avoid, because, on this issue, there is little opportunity to have a nuanced position, and I do have a nuanced position. In this particular case, my correspondents were committed defenders of Public Higher Education with a 'you are either with us or against us' stance, and indeed, my reservations about the bureaucratisation of Higher Education (combined with my background in For-Profit education) immediately made me a target of vociferous attacks and compelled me to defend my views. This post is a short summary of the arguments that I made.

My first problem with the high pitch defense of public funding of Higher Education is that this is hardly an honest stance. Most of the advocates of public funding represent themselves to be in opposition of marketisation of Higher Education, though they are acutely aware that these two are completely separate issues. The marketisation of Higher Education is happening, has happened, within the public sector Higher Education. So, the logic of money is quite blind to who funds and runs the institutions. There is indeed a need to debate the marketisation of Higher Education, but this is not one and the same about public funding of Higher Education.

My second problem is that the defenders of public Higher Education decline to answer the charges against it. I shall give one example in the Indian context. This is a college local to me, though I didn't study there: It was set up a local philanthropist in the 1950s to serve the local community and one that got integrated into the Public Higher Education system at a later date. In the 1980s, however, our local community was fundamentally transformed due to a massive infrastructure project (the Second Hoogly Bridge in Howrah, West Bengal), which displaced hundreds of Bengali Middle Class families from the area: The gap left by them was soon filled by thousands of migrant workers, often from other parts of India who didn't speak any Bengali. Instead of sons and daughters of educated families whose main breadearners worked for the government and wanted their children to 'at least complete graduation',  the college was left to serve first generation college goers who spoke in Hindi and other languages, which most college teachers were not used to. The Vice Principal of the college wanted to recruit a Hindi-speaking History lecturer. There was a vacancy but the publicly funded colleges in Indian States have to go through the College Service Commission. This unusual request for a Hindi-speaking lecturer in what was presumed to be a Bengali Middle Class area from the bureaucratic safe distance was immediately and duly refused, and the College Service Commission chose to send someone they thought would be suitable. This may have resulted in many tears and frustrations in the History classroom and surely a few more alienated students in the process. While this story may be anecdotal, this is representative of the problems of public funding of Higher Education. 

Fundamentally, the debate about public higher education - an important one, no doubt - has become one about entitlements rather than education. This happens within the context of a teleological view of the university, that this has a timeless nature and purpose mandated by God and it must carry on doing what it is doing regardless of the social changes: However, the reality perhaps is that we have arrived at a Nietzschian moment of re-imagination and one must seek to 'will' an education that serves the society that we live in, rather than the other way around. I am not trying to make a case for For-Profits or any such thing, but pleading to change the debate from being one about entitlement and privileges to one about what kind of education we really need and what can best serve that requirement. My default position on this issue is that we need variety, both in terms of education and types of institutions that provide them, and closing the debate and taking a moralising position that the state must remain the only provider of Higher Education is inherently counter-productive. 

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