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Home > 2020 > Provincial University – Pray, What is That? | Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha (...)

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

Provincial University – Pray, What is That? | Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha & Subhendra Bhowmick

Saturday 20 June 2020

by Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha & Subhendra Bhowmick

2019 Nobel Winner in Economics, Abhijit Binayak Banerjee in one of his recent interviews with a leading Bengali daily, while recounting his own student life, pointed out how our elite academic institutions in various metropolitan cities in India are populated largely with students belonging to privileged social groups who hail mostly from well off families and their privileged positions restrict their scope to embed them with the larger realities of India such as setbacks of poverty, low caste affiliations and one may add to this list, the crippling disadvantages of living in suburbia, or in far-flung areas that house universities or colleges which will perhaps never make it to the ranks of excellence. Such candid confession from a Nobel Laureate lends legitimacy to long standing grievances in some quarters about handful of elite institutes that bask in the glow of their eternal premiere tag of excellence in higher learning. In John Osborne’s famous play Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter the protagonist happens to be one of those unlucky lot, not privileged enough to get an Oxbridge degree; his poor and lower middle-class background could not make it possible for him to get the required training and economic support necessary for being enrolled in either Oxford or Cambridge of his day. His angst at our systemic anomies stems from many of these issues enacted in the play and he fumes on being a student of those “red brick universities”, the typical government-funded public universities in England in the early fifties that stand for what some of our city-bred academics patronisingly call, “provincial universities”. For many people, hailing from non-metropolitan provinces, the very names of iconic institutions of higher learning such as JNU, the IITs and IIMs evoke an immediate starry-eyed response of wonder and awe; and for a student struggling through the dark, unknown alleys of a rural and suburban college or university in India, these illustrious institutional names are like fairy tale bodies, something to aspire for, or something that you strive for but that eludes your reach, they are for the crème de la crème, the best of the lot.

The 2019 Draft Education Policy of India had elicited a lot of furore in academia, many were combing for its glaring deficiencies, dangerous ramifications etc, scholars are coming out regularly with tomes of statistical data to fortify their logic on various devastating aspects of this proposed new education policy. Most of these anxieties and concerns are legitimate and are premised on serious grounds but what one misses out in this on-going deliberation on the draft education vision document is the much needed focussed unease on a specific problem of higher education in India which metropolitan education experts and scholars have generally missed, or shall we say are unable to fathom. Our concern here is primarily with the existing system of institutional hierarchies, which has assumed over the years, virtually a form of academic apartheid or for the lack of a better word, one can even go to the extent of describing it as an institutional caste system in India, in which a handful of elite colleges and universities rule the roost, steal the lime light and dwarf the “provincial universities” or colleges in such a way that students and faculty members studying or working in those, to figuratively use the idioms of the Draft Education Policy 2019, “Type 2 or Type 3” institutions, are subjected to a paralysing sense of inferiority and total eclipse of self-worth.

Another academic stalwart, Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the 2009 Nobel Winner in Chemistry expressed similar distress when in his invited lecture delivered in The Hindu Literary Fest held in January 2019 at Chennai he bemoaned the crisis of Indian higher education, expressing his surprise why all the funds and all social attention flow only to certain prestigious institutes and why nobody talks about the vast number of non-premiere educational centres of higher learning! As if these peripheral institutes do not exist, although they accommodate most of the students and teachers of India! He reminded the audience that he himself did not have the opportunity to study in the prestigious IITs and the real challenge for him as an academic is how to groom talents studying in these non-elite academic houses.

This is not a generalised critique of everything metropolitan, neither is it a plea for reification of this rural/urban binary. On the contrary, it is a deconstruction of the predominant culture of bracketing the entire non-metropolis as a homogeneous category of backwardness, a perception which has comprehensive policy level and social implications. This popular and uncritical trend of worshipping handful of elite places of learning has continued for decades and we have grown up listening to truckloads of paeans about certain front ranking institutes of higher education. In fact students and teachers attached to what Jimmy Porter called the “redbrick universities” are regularly fed on highly sustained myths and mega stories of these august city based institutions. This is not by any means to detract from the laudable achievements of these hallowed towers of learning. All of us definitely grant them their legitimate dues, we highly appreciate them for successfully generating an illustrious legacy, producing eminence in every level of society, but notwithstanding their pre-eminence in academic standards, this sustained and uncritical cult of the few has perhaps thwarted us to look beyond the metropolis, legitimizing the popular perception that talents exfoliate only in the elite metropolitan academic gardens, and the so called “provincial” academies are mere “teaching shops” supposed to be producing degrees only for middle rung jobs in the market. This validation of systemic academic stratification has been continuing for long and modern hypes of institutional hagiography built on over-sized governmental support and care to these star institutes has constituted a social rating system that earned the approval of everyone – all parents quite naturally would love to see their wards being enrolled in these celebrity centres of excellence. Now what happens to countless others who cannot make it to such dazzling echelons of institutional grace? One general hypothesis that has popular purchase is, all are not bearers of excellence and meritocracy needs to be nurtured with special care and support. Our friend Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s play, might look back in anger at such mindless advocacy of elitism that enjoys complete social sanction.

There is a large section among academic scholars who promote a regressive and disempowering sense of sympathy for the suburban poor, essentializing them as the “provincial underprivileged students”, dismissing all attempts to upgrade their standards on the easy pretext that these students cannot grasp advanced cognitive sophistications which are generally practised at elite metropolitan places. Common among these dismissive and pre-emptive tendencies are dogmatic opposition to the introduction of advanced theoretical texts, or the use of English as a mode of instruction, pleading that these non-metro students are ill-equipped to understand them. Even promotion of E-modes of learning (as access to mobiles has gone up drastically in rural areas, even though a large number of people still do not have smartphones) are obstinately opposed, arguing that they are acutely under-privileged (which is correct) and such “digital idealism” cannot be imposed on them under the prevailing conditions of underdevelopment. Such dogmatic logic of soft-pedalling or denying digital power creeps into policy level inaction and apathy, perpetuating the “under-privileged” status of these students for ever. It is like opposing the inflow of electricity to villages on the ground that many cannot subscribe to electric connections. One may recall here the devastating after effects of abolition of English education in the primary level in Indian states like West Bengal in the nineteen eighties and the misguided motto of opposing the entry of computers in India in the early nineties. Many of those self-appointed custodians of ‘people`s democratic voice’ who hit the street in the 1990s, opposing the introduction of computers in India (opposing it as imperial conspiracy!), can be seen today delivering keynote lectures, aided by branded computers and they communicate with their students and peers in WhatsApp groups! Their and their followers’ obstinacy and sophistry have shifted today in newer domains of opposition in the name of people and underdevelopment. Non-elite academies mostly suffer due to this malaise of academic prejudice and unbearable negligence of duties on the part of many of them, presupposing that dissemination of advanced knowledge is futile in these “backward” places as students in these regions are almost inherently incapable to internalize advanced research or advanced modes of learning; in other words, “provincial” students are prejudged most of the times even before they can begin.

Any call for novel and ground-based innovative methodologies, contingent on local needs to inculcate higher education to these marginalised students who are mostly first generation learners are often discouraged as the outcome is already pre-decided by the teaching class who are mostly city-trained. Caught between governmental apathy and dismissive dogmatism, combined with metropolitan snobbery or social disconnect, these small-town students are the biggest losers. One fails to understand why an underprivileged student, while truly struggling because of terrible poverty and decapacitated living conditions should continue to deprive herself normal E-literacy or competence in English proficiency while her metropolitan compatriots enjoy excellence in those domains. Instead of exploring non-modular remedial measures for local needs, the predominant reaction from the teaching community in many cases is marked by a reiteration of stereotyped narratives of infrastructural deficiency and absence of merit. Any new draft education policy of India, while thinking of infrastructural and economic up-gradation, must also address this nagging cultural and at times vested ideological problem of Indian higher education. The general tendency among educational pundits analysing problems of Indian higher education rotates around instrumental reliance on data-ism (something they regularly accuse as being a capitalist trend!), flooding the discussion table with statistical data on student enrolment, their economic background, their locational position, teacher-student ratio, etc. All these high sounding paper works and rhetorical power play surprisingly overlook the abysmal dwindling in pedagogic accountability (a favourite word regularly used by us teachers to critique the political class or the administration). While statistical records on materialist aspects of living conditions are absolutely necessary, this exclusive data-centric analysis cannot wish away the larger reality of attitudinal and ideological corruption among the teaching community. There is an acute ethical deficit and double speaking among them. The old notion of teaching as a “noble profession” needs to be substituted with norms of professional rigour because nobility is by and large an obsolete word and new education policies can focus therefore more on professional accountabilities and concrete measures to flatten the urban-rural divide in higher education, undoing the hegemonic and outrageous practice of categorizing students and teachers as “backward” or “provincial”– a stigma that has terrible disempowering effect.

This proliferation of ‘urbanism’ is not at all surprising, as decentring or plurality of openings has remained mere theoretic words in India. Our weather reports even today only speak about weather in and around metro-cities and only a few in urban centres might know about newly established universities, located far away from metropolitan centres! Such is the normative rule of metropolitan indifference and ignorance that it sometimes borders onto another version of internal Orientalism. The colonial elites denigrated the colonized Orient, essentialised it, classifying it as a “lack” or as “the inferior”, or irredeemably exotic, justifying in that process their ruling over the far off Orient. Similarly the snobbish metropolitan gaze continues to look down upon the province as the deficient zone of non-performance, a fit case for a patronizing pat on the back, or an enlightened philanthropist sermonizing on what the province should learn and know in its underprivileged condition. So corrosive is this hegemonic urban conditioning that even the non-metropolitan herself has given consent to it, granting credence to this inferior status and narrative of lack. One regularly comes across scholars and teachers hailing from semi-urban locales in India, apologetically introducing them in academic forums as someone who “is coming from the backwaters of the suburbia”. This is a pathetic instance of internalisation of metropolitan codes of superiority that pushes the “provincial” academic to a state of complete self-negation. One can rarely expect much from such positions of non-affirmation and surrender. With the advent of the internet, access to books, study materials and knowledge portals have become comparatively easier today and such facilities are no longer restricted to metropolitan locations only. Yes, there are still miles and miles to go in improving such material support bases as many remote villages do not have internet connections, but until that happens, what a student at the fringe needs, is not misguided political-academic indoctrination for blanket hatred or distrust of E-learning or English education as they are alleged of being “elite affairs” unfit for implementation in “provincial public universities”. A real acknowledgement of the strivings of this peripheral student and her dreams to grow in spite of her constraints would be to help deepening her conviction in attaining her self-worth and this is where a new education policy can intervene by addressing this continued logjam in reaching out to ruralized students or teachers, rescuing them from being subjected to misguided inaction and self-denial. Along with massive budgetary allocation to improve these remote universities, huge perceptional overhauling is also very much in order.

The 2019 Draft Education Policy of India proposes its objectives to be in tune with the emerging twenty-first century ethos of a “knowledge society” and the “fourth industrial revolution” that necessitate multi-skilled jobs, demanding multidisciplinary and creative knowhow among learners. To actualize that, it proposes the gradation of higher educational institutions as Type1 (Research Universities), Type2 (Teaching Universities), and Type 3 (Degree Colleges) institutes. On the face of it, such measures might appear to be effective and more streamlined in terms of structuralization, but there is a strong possibility of this gradation model degenerating into educational hierarchies again where elite institutes, because of their easy access to resources, can become more high profile bodies while marginalised institutes can end up becoming defunct or impoverished “provincial” academies. This is a real danger that we need to keep in mind. The proposed gradation system, if not monitored and handled properly, might lead to some forms of educational Darwinism. Can we, in other words, think of “provincializing” the Type 1 institutes, generating excellent research universities in non-metropolitan areas? Or should we continue this common policy and social approach of stigmatizing the province?

The Draft Education Policy also speaks of “Eight Challenges” before it, namely, moving towards a higher education system consisting of large multidisciplinary universities or the HEI (Higher Educational Institutions); moving towards a newly defined liberal undergraduate education that will empower students with more critical 21st-century capacities; moving towards faculty and institutional autonomy; revamping of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and student support; reaffirming the integrity of faculty positions and institutional leadership through merit-based appointments; establishment of National Research Foundation, etc. These are high sounding goals and as one of its prescribed solutions to meet these goals, it proposes consolidation or clubbing of existing universities and colleges in remote areas into selected educational clusters under the category of Type 2 or Type 3 institutes. Such moves are hierarchic in nature as dividing universities into different types will further deepen the metro-non-metro divide and might seriously deprive students from remotest regions the access to higher education as they may not come to these metropolitan or semi-metropolitan consolidated educational clusters. This will jeopardise the basic democratic rights of Education for All and will keep alive the existing rural-urban divide. Instead of enhancing the material provision for mentoring existing institutions located in far off regions so that they can upgrade themselves gradually to better quality institutes, their complete merger with proposed educational clusters can seriously defeat the ultimate goal of higher education, i.e. Equity. Excellence is a laudable objective in education but that cannot be prioritized at the cost of equity. Moreover, there is a direct proposal for upgrading the existing central universities to Type 1 universities but no such direct transition package is there to boost state-funded universities to scale up as Type 1 universities. This is again stepmotherly towards non-metropolitan institutes and will lead to further widening gaps between state and central universities, resulting in wider discriminations.

Leading academics have been offering theoretical hair-splitting on the new Draft Education Policy but more attention should be placed on this issue of centre-margin discrimination that continues to act as serious stigmas. Developed countries across the globe have set up excellent centres of higher education which are located at remote places and they attract students and scholars from across the globe. Their remoteness from metros like New York or London does not make them “provincial” universities. The Draft Education Policy 2019 has been critiqued from various angles, accusing it mostly for its corporatist connotations etc, but along with those valid allegations, it is high time we bring on board this long drawn problem of an urban-rural gap in higher education. There is no gainsaying that material support – including infrastructural and up-gradation cost – are prerequisites for any upliftment of existing standards; but unless a complete attitudinal and ideological transformation is actualized under which teachers and students working in remote areas begin with the conviction that they can be at par with their metropolitan brethren, this hiatus between Type 1 and Type 2 or Type 3 institutes will continue to jeopardise higher education. This academic caste system must go. To concretize, can one think of turning some of the existing state universities situated in non-city locations into Research Universities or Special-status Universities where faculty and scholars will be encouraged in various ways to pursue research along with their usual pedagogic practices? Or can we at least think of some posts in these universities as Research Fellows or Research Professors (irrespective of their designation or ranks) as they exist at various foreign universities? Can there be greater mechanisms of providing more direct academic and financial incentives to meritorious students in those remoter universities? These attempts of promoting merit and research-based teaching can be promoted purely on the basis of merit and a robust track record of research.

Universities are said to be unique zones where critical thinking thrives, a practice that subsequently spills over to the larger social space but in reality certain handful of celebrity institutes in a country of 1.38 billion people have taken the sole responsibility of irradiating critique – a fact that signals stark disconnect with the larger ground reality. One can argue that recent virulent rise of right wing religious fundamentalism in India can be ascribed to a certain extent to this exclusive form of urban-speak that swears in the name of people but in actuality might alienate the average man on the street for its bookish sophistication and social disconnect. Critical practices supposedly strengthen horizontality of vision and it cannot promote coercive epistemic verticality in the name of people`s progress. Let people speak and let alternative views have their dues to end this monologue of the singular path. One may conclude with the caveat that this is not a generalised and one-sided chastisement of everything metropolitan, neither is it a black and white conflict between the urban and the rural, or the mainstream and the province. Numerous laudable works are being done by countless city based academics and they set exemplary trends for others to get inspired. This is not at all a polemical invective against urbanites, on the contrary it is a call for “rhizomic” imaginaries that amplifies the horizon and redefines “ideology critique” through a denunciation of ‘urbanism’ or cultural hegemony masquerading as the only progressive game in the town. So, next time, when we utter the term “provincial university” or “public university”, let us brainstorm and explore how to provincialize the all-powerful centre. Universities are after all universities – dignity or talent cannot have mere geographic registers and material, locational disadvantage or infrastructural lack cannot be the pretext for academic stratification or strategic inaction in the name of progressive politics.


Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Professor, Department of English, Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal


Subhendra Bhowmick, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Sidho Kanho Birsha University, West Bengal

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