November 15, 2014
One legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru that has been systematically dismantled over the years: his instinctive understanding of higher education.
The financial outlays to higher education have increased. The clamour for more higher education has been growing. But we have failed to create the capillaries that can sustain and nourish a vibrant higher education system. It is a sector peculiarly resistant to reform. This has one reason, which Nehru recognised well. Education, more than any other sector, depends on the accumulation of a lot of soft skills and tacit understanding, which if lost, are hard to recreate. This is reflected, for instance, in his deep concern about the quality of academic leadership in education. It is a concern we barely seem to understand. Nehru’s weakness on primary education was, in retrospect, a great failing. But he was more clear-headed on higher education. He realised that independence in thinking and technical capacity was a necessary correlate of political independence. While it was necessary to be open to ideas from everywhere, it was also important to develop an independent locus of thought. Above all, this has meant that we have an elite that is not content with the idea that much of our research and higher education can be outsourced. But, though we do not say so, implicitly, we are quite content with outsourcing higher education to the United States. We cannot “make in India” if we don’t “think in India”.
Nehru realised that higher education is also the main instrument of a new form of sociability. It should be a site where group identities can be transcended. Just read his speech from the Aligarh Muslim University convocation, in which he warns against the dangers of aligning reason and identity. But sectarian universities have become even more ghettoised. Nehru also realised that an indigenously educated middle class that has not seceded is necessary for an enlightened vanguard. He was perhaps overly optimistic about how higher education could produce it, but the aspiration was not off the mark.