Barriers to a knowledge society in Kerala

Even as leaders of the dispensation that presently governs Kerala have repeatedly spoken of their intention of transforming the State into a “knowledge society”, a public spat broke out between the Governor and the Chief Minister. This concerned the governance of the State’s higher education sector. Far from this being seen as a source of embarrassment, it should be welcomed as an opportunity to ensure that the Government’s ambition is fulfilled. Particularly as it comes soon after the Kerala government constituted three Commissions to recommend ways to improve higher education.

No mirror to society

It is customary when discussing the state of higher education in India to wring our hands at poorly educated youth, devoid of analytical ability and communication skills, lacking in an understanding of India’s past, unmindful of their role in the success of democracy and certified by companies as “unemployable”. While all of this is applicable to Kerala, arguably, the production of employable youth is not the principal task of a university. A society maintains universities so that they hold a mirror up to it, in which it is able to discern itself, warts and all. It is in this role that Kerala’s universities fail the most.

The State faces challenges on multiple fronts. Its economic future is tenuous as remittance from West Asia begins to slow. Its ecological security is threatened by the assault on the earth to extract stone for the construction of luxury homes that signal social status. Its record of gender equality is questioned when we see the abysmally poor representation of women in decision-making bodies, itself related to the masculinist culture of its political parties. Its commitment to democracy is moot when religious interests and a small minority of the working class behave with scant regard for those outside their fold.

Now, most societies have their vested interests but they also have independent intellectuals, often based in the university, who call them out. Where is Kerala’s Noam Chomsky, or Medha Patkar? We do not have to agree with them to see how important a role they play in securing the democratic space free of commercial and religious interests and the dictates of political parties. The last time Kerala had one of its own critique its elites was when Arundhati Roy wrote her debut novel almost a quarter century ago. Predictably, there had been the response that ‘religious sentiments’ were hurt by it.

A knowledge society can exist only if religion is kept at bay, for, historically, organised religion has stood in the way of the revelation of secular truth. Where, we may ask, are our universities when it comes to drawing attention to the tenuousness of Kerala’s economic prospects, its high consumption inequality, its grim ecological future and its religion-and-patriarchy-sodden civil society?

Left’s error

Neither of Kerala’s political fronts has any answer to the pathetic state of its universities. A fatal error of the Left political parties in Kerala is to have worked to undermine excellence and encouraged the illusion of the possibility of unbounded material consumption without regard for productivity. It is instructive that Russia soon after the Revolution was the site of high creativity both in the arts and agriculture, and its people were encouraged to think of the country as their cherished motherland. Not even Stalin’s ruthless suppression of freedom could stamp this out. The Red Army reached Berlin first in 1945 and Khrushchev gave the Americans a fright by sending a human being to outer space. None of this could have been achieved without the concerted application of high intelligence and the expectation that everyone in society pull their weight.

This is something decidedly missing in the approach of the Kerala Left, who seem to aspire for little beyond pension spread thinly across the population and condiment kits handed out through the Public Distribution System, even as the State cries out for solutions to its problems of polluted rivers, destabilised hills and accumulating household and industrial waste.

Congress empowered groups

While the Left’s contribution to the decline of the university was more the collateral damage of its obsession with levelling down the population, the Congress, which constitutes the greater part of the alternative to the Left political parties, has had a more direct role in the decline of not just higher education but education itself. This the Congress has done by empowering caste and religious groups who virtually “own” educational institutions.

The original sin, so to speak, was committed in the late 1950s when the Congress party encouraged these groups to oppose the educational reforms initiated by the government of E.M.S. Namboodiripad. It is not obvious that his Education Minister, Joseph Mundassery, was particularly concerned with academic excellence but he could see the pernicious influence of these communal groups. The staged agitations that followed were used by Jawaharlal Nehru, in a disappointingly partisan act, to dismiss a democratically-elected government. Having tasted victory, caste and religious groups have never looked back.

After Nehru’s death, the Congress was to joyfully interpret secularism as a profusion of religions in public spaces and Kerala’s private educational institutions capitalised on this. It is widely put about that they indulge in the practice of selling teaching appointments to the highest bidder. The latter may be unproven but rumoured estimates of how much the last zoology lectureship fetched serves to keep suspicion alive.

The apotheosis of the Congress Party’s approach to education in Kerala is its history of appointing as Minister of Education legislators from sectarian parties confined to specific regions of the State. That this can be done so brazenly should be a source of shame in a democracy. At least, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has refused to do so, rejecting the practice of apportioning vice chancellorships according to caste and religion. But the Left’s weakness is their cadre, and so long as it rules the State, one cannot expect anyone but craven loyalists to make the cut.

Between the strategy of communal mobilisation and the adherence to political ideology, respectively, practised by Kerala’s two main political formations, the higher education sector drifts rudderless.

No will

As I have stated, the true purpose of a university is to hold a mirror up to society. But the claim of pursuing this goal does not mean that our youth should not receive the education that they deserve. What protocols exist to see that instruction is of the highest international class, that new institutions or even programmes are started only when there is capacity to deliver excellence and that heads of institutions have demonstrated intellectual leadership and commitment to democratic practice? Over the past 50 years we have become far richer, and both disciplinary knowledge and awareness of global best practices in the administration of education are easily accessible. It is just that there is no will in Kerala to leverage this knowledge.

While structural barriers to improving the state of higher education in Kerala, which I have outlined, exist, workable solutions that may be implemented with immediate effect exist too. Principal among them would be the institution of student evaluation of courses. These should be comprehensive without being extensive, revealing the distance from the global frontier of the instructional material, the quality of the instruction itself and the attention paid to learning outcomes. This information must be made public, as is the case in public institutions in the United States. In an IT-enabled environment, this should not be difficult to achieve. It will turn students into stakeholders, encourage teachers to give off their best and make the administrators, public and private, accountable.