How many universities are there in Assam? Few people will be able to answer this question correctly. A decade or two earlier everyone would have answered this correctly. Why are universities proliferating? With the increase in population, it is but quite natural that more universities should be established in the state to expand the reach of higher education.

Here it may be pertinent to know how universities were established first in India. The idea of an ideal university apart, all of us know how the first universities were established in our country following the famous or infamous Macaulay’s Minutes of 1845. The objectives was: To form “a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

So university making and spread of higher education were not the benevolent acts of the Britishers. Its aim was to smoothen the rule of British Raj in India.  But once established the University of Calcutta (January, 1857) the University of Bombay (July, 1857) and the University of Madras (September, 1857) played a different role.  Initially these universities were conceived along the lines of the University of London. They were empowered to examine and grant degrees but not to teach. Teaching was done by the affiliated colleges. In Calcutta it was the Presidency College (former Hindu College, renamed in 1855), in Bombay, Elphinstone and Wilson Colleges, and in Madras, the Christian College.

However, between 1857 and 1947, the growth of universities was slow in India. After independence, it became faster. In the sphere of higher education, India was in a better position compared to most countries outside the Western block and Japan. It was much ahead of China at least.

To compare the scene of India with China, here it will be better to quote Andre’ Be’teillie: “Although two countries entered a new phase of change and development at roughly the same time, India in 1947 and China in1949, no two persons could have been more different in their attitudes towards the universities than Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong. The men who wrote the Constitution of India had a very different experience of higher education and a very different orientation to it from the experience and orientation of the men who carried China through war and revolution to the creation of a new republic.

“There is a streak of chronic anti-intellectualism in India but it didn’t manifest itself in the Constituent Assembly and remained muted in the early decades of Independence. It was fortunate in having its first and longest serving prime minister a person who didn’t just suffer universities to exist but had a deep and active sympathy for them. It is well known that Nehru loved addressing university gatherings and gave many convocation addresses both in India and abroad. His sympathetic concern for the universities was expressed in a convocation address he delivered in his home town at the University of Alahabad in the very year of Independence. That address was an expression of both hope and foreboding. In it he said, ‘The universities have much to teach in the modern world and their scope of activity ever enlarges. I am myself a devotee of science and believe the world will ultimately be saved, by the method and approach of science.” (page 44-45 Universities at the Crossroads)

Nehru’s India is in turmoil now, though that is outside the scope of this discussion. Today, there are about 1000 universities across India. In Assam, every now and then a good college is being converted to a university apart from establishing new universities. As discussed earlier, it is but a necessity to expand the reach of higher education. The question is while doing so are we doing justice to quality and standard of higher education?  And what about the objective of university education? The great scholar and exponent of university education, Wilhelm von Humboldt adopted three fundamental principles concerning the objectives of a university. These are: (I) the unity of teaching and research, (II) the freedom to teach and learn, and (II) the principle of self-governance.

Should there be any change in these fundamental principles while establishing a new university now? These three things so well encompass the objectives of a university! From whichever angle one looks at these objectives they are so well founded and inclusive! Forget about the new universities, if we apply these criterions, many of our old universities will look poor and pathetic.

However, before we discuss that in detail, there is another thing which we cannot avoid. There has always been another contention of higher education. This is the dichotomy between knowledge and its practical use. The practical use in this context is employability. We should not forget that this was the sole objective of introducing higher education in India.

But if we look at the objectives set by Wilhelm von Humboldt that was never the aim of university education. That doesn’t mean that a university educated person should remain jobless. It is just the other way. Rather employability should be a natural corollary of a university graduate or post graduate.

Though that is not the objective, there is no inherent contradiction with it. The moot question for us is how educated are our university passed out graduates and post graduates today? Forget about research if they are not properly educated isn’t it a reflection on our university system? While opening one after another university are we thinking these things?

Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: malakarparesh@gmail.com

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