Why have universities

Pulapre Balakrishnan

Recent weeks have seen a heated debate on academic freedom in India’s universities. In the English-language press, the view that appears to have prevailed is that there is none, having been snuffed out through political interference. What the view is among speakers of the Indian languages we cannot say, but it would be important for us to know, as this is a matter of national importance. The debate itself is timely though, as we have witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the university sector, to be understood as including all institutions of higher learning and research. Data from the UNESCO show India to be the country in which public spending per student in higher education in relation to that in primary schools is the highest. Public policy in India has privileged higher education for decades now. Whether this was justified when schooling was woefully under-provisioned is not a question that can be brushed aside. But I shall overlook this to focus on the question whether academic freedom is so necessary to India’s universities.

            Academic freedom is at times confused with free speech when actually the issues at stake can be different. Arguably, there should be reasonable restriction on free speech, excluding from its ambit hate, violation of privacy, defamation, spreading misinformation and threats to national security. Of course, the breaching of national security is not be confused with the charge of ‘sedition’, which in India has, conveniently for the state, been interpreted as fomenting disaffection against the government of the day. As the question of academic freedom arises in the context of the pursuit of knowledge it would be difficult to argue for any kind of restriction being placed on it. Hate speech, spreading lies and jeopardising national security cannot be construed as pursuit of knowledge. Of course, grey areas do have a habit of intruding upon us unexpectedly but this does not weaken the commitment to the principle of academic freedom.

            The recent debate on academic freedom in India has focused exclusively on its status in the newly established private universities, many of which identify themselves as universities for the ‘liberal arts’, understood as subjects other than medicine, engineering, law and accountancy, also termed ‘the professions’. From this has followed the rhetorical question whether the liberal arts can be engaged in without academic freedom. However, such a framing misses the point of why we have universities at all, irrespective of what subjects they teach. The university is to be understood as an entity devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and freedom is central to this exercise, whatever the body of knowledge or ‘discipline’. Historically, some of the major battles won in the cause of advancement of knowledge took place in the field of the natural sciences, though these did not always play out in universities. We may think of the response to the ideas propounded by the astronomer Galileo Galilei or of the biologist Charles Darwin. Both faced strong opposition from religious forces in their societies, the former quite menacingly. Though perhaps less overarching in its implications, a recent instance of a scientist facing the wrath of the state appeared in the field of epidemiology. Jay Bhattacharya of the Stanford Medical School had in an academic paper written in 2020 queried the efficacy of lockdowns implemented during COVID-19. Angered, the US government tried to block his access to social media to argue his case. A legal battle ensued, and the US courts ruled against the government’s attempt to curb free speech, implicitly upholding the scientist’s right to propagate his research findings. Significantly, his university did not disown him while it was on.

            The inconvenient truth is that universities without academic freedom need not fail. There are after all areas of an economy where critical thinking may not be so central to performance as an understanding of the technology once operations have been routinised and protocols exist for all actions. Now only commercial considerations are relevant. Think of the function of managing other people’s money by investing in the stock market. Here the task is not to uncover the functioning of the world, often not even of the economy, but to merely figure out the stock that is likely to be the most attractive to the other punters. When engaged in the task of producing a work force for deployment in routine tasks in the economy, universities are unlikely to encounter too many issues related to academic freedom. In fact, as the professions make up a large part of the economy, universities can coast along without so much as giving a thought to it. Their continuity is assured. But, we also create universities to imagine our common future. This task requires facing the question of how much of what we find today is inevitable and how much of it needs and can be changed. It is inextricably tied to a critique of present arrangements, involving scrutiny of the special interests in society, represented by religion, business and political parties. It would be impossible to craft a vision of the future without doing this, an exercise that is bound to rub vested interests the wrong way. So, in India we cannot avoid asking the question whether we want to produce techno drones performing routine tasks or worldly philosophers imagining a better future for humankind. Drones and philosophers, representing mindsets, exist across all disciplines.  

            Unless they are convinced that the present is the best of all possible worlds academics must engage in the task of envisioning a better future. If by academic freedom we mean the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, a society must ensure that the universities are guaranteed it. One can think of universities as having been set up by society to hold up a mirror to it. I have already mentioned how much India spends on its public universities. To set them up at public expense and turn them into caged parrots would count as a perverse logic.            

The author is an economist