Rethinking Public University: The Moral Crisis of Higher Educational Institutions in India

The recent fee hike in Allahabad University has again brought the question of why public universities are becoming exclusive and why they are forced to implement policies which stand against the spirit of a public-funded educational system.

In the case of Allahabad University, the university administration said the fee hike is the requisite attempt to cope with changes being proposed in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. As per the NEP 2020, universities and colleges are supposed to recruit more teachers and start new professional courses. The challenges being faced by most of the public universities in India is an expected outcome of neoliberal interventions which laid down the foundation of privatisation of public goods and retreat of the state from welfare politics.

As per the International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, India became the fifth largest economy in the world after replacing the United Kingdom (UK). In contrast to this, I would like to bring another set of statistics from the UK and India. According to Statista, “government spending on higher or tertiary education in the United Kingdom was 4.7 billion British pounds in 2021/22, compared with 4.9 billion in the previous financial year”. In comparison to the UK,  India’s allocation for higher education had dropped from Rs 38,350 in 2021-22 to Rs 36, 031.57 crore in 2021/22. Such decline presents the very dismal picture of higher education in India.

The purpose to highlighting these two contradictory statistics is to argue that the debate around globalisation and development has alway been focussed on economic perspective but it rarely considers other existing crises like cultural crisis, behavioural crisis and moral crisis of public institutions. This article attempts to explain how post-1990s neoliberal intervention has dismantled the future of higher education in India and how it changes the nature of higher education from public goods to private goods.

To explain this crisis, I referred to the framework of “moral loss” and “moral reconstruction” proposed by Norman Brady.

The discourse of moral loss and moral reconstruction became most debated among scholars of new public management. Post-neoliberal interventions in higher education have repositioned universities as “servants of the knowledge economy” and students as “customers”. Neoliberal educational interventions have controlled the autonomy of universities by relocating power away from institutions to the marketplace. As a consequence, higher education became private goods or commercial goods. The core utilitarian objective of the university system shifted to making profits and surplus.

Also read: Debate: How Exclusive Are the Faculties of Institutions of Higher Education?

The switching of university funding from the state to the market disrupted research-teaching and led to the unequal distribution of funding and resources. Brady argues that a substantial consensus, therefore, exists amongst academics that the consequences for university of marketisation have largely been pernicious with much human interaction in academia reduced to the banality of transactional exchange. This was the period when academic communities realised the moral loss of institutions and how moral reconstruction will be a remedy for this loss.

In the context of India, the period of the 1990s played a very significant role in shaping the future of the Indian economy. In literature, the common assumption is that, under the influence of marketisation, university communities have become disaggregated or hollowed out. They have conceptualised the idea of “academic citizenship” as an important property of a community, whose members have been reconnected by a common moral purpose and objective to serve students and fellow academics and where the centrality of teaching and learning has been restored. According to Brady, “moral reconstruction” is in sharp contrast to the advocates of reformed university recognition and reward policies as a practical solution to the perceived imbalance of the research-teaching nexus and the disesteeming of the service ethic. The core of moral reconstruction depends on the degree of moral loss.

In this article, “moral loss” and “moral reconstruction” have been contextualised in neoliberal politics of higher education. The degree of loss that such policies have done will be reconstructed by recognising the institutional strength and weakness and rewarding the institutions for their loss through state funding. The assumption seems to be that until these actions are contractually recognised and rewarded, the university as a community will continue to decline. The present crisis of higher education in India is still under the phase of “moral loss” where the state seems to be passive to consider this loss as a prior subject.

Vidyasagar Sharma is a PhD Scholar at the University of Delhi and currently an Urban Fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

Featured image: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash