Saving the Public University


Recent policy prescriptions threaten to push liberal arts education in public universities into oblivion while carving out space for the entry of foreign universities

The Central government recently announced the setting up of the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA), conceived as a special purpose vehicle to accrue and disburse funds to certain institutions of higher education in the country. This development is an upshot of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Nairobi in December 2015 where decisions on “international trade in educational services” were made. In the interim period, some Indian public universities had to endure attacks on their institutional autonomy and research culture.

All these changes leave us, as liberal arts researchers, with little option but to address the elephant in the room — the pushing of an already marginalised liberal arts education in Indian public universities into oblivion. The fact that we as student researchers have not been made part of larger decision-making for education that have an immediate impact on our academic trajectories is a huge cause for concern. It fails to recognise our position as active stakeholders of policy advances that seek to alter the texture of the higher education space as we know it.

Researching for the public

Public universities have long held the unique mandate of being imagined as egalitarian spaces tailored for democratic engagement with the enterprise of education, in the Deweyian sense. For us student researchers in the liberal arts, they open up a world of interactions that take us beyond narrow societal preferences for a very instrumental, technical education. Liberal arts education, encompassing the broad areas of humanities, social, natural and pure sciences, equips individuals with skills to understand and engage with issues of the world beyond mere black-and-white dichotomies.

For instance, our research on issues such as everyday experiences of corruption, child soldiers in conflict areas, media freedoms in times of impunity, ideas around human sciences, clearly traverse beyond university confines and assume significance for the larger public. This is in contrast to a technocratic approach that perceives education as a “trade commodity” or “service deliverable”. It is in disagreement with this approach that some of the best of us pursue public-oriented liberal arts research, even when the private sector provides unmatched opportunities for those with technical literacy. By caricaturing the liberal arts as untenable, society at large is stymied from constructively engaging with our theoretical and empirical research work. Researching for the public, then, is incumbent on societal recognition of the larger public interest mandate our work entails.

The 2014 elections and the preceding anti-corruption movement were pitched around a burgeoning youth demography. The rhetoric was hinged on a futuristic imagination of an India that would have a place for our aspirations. Strategies like extensive deployment of social media, setting up of start-up incubators, and expansion of certain kinds of technology imperatives are indicative of this trend. However, these efforts have focussed rather wantonly on a particular imagination of our ambitions, without considering any other inclinations and talents we may possess and aspire to pursue. We seek to make inroads into this conflated imagination of the youth with certain aspirations for the entire country that the strategists seem to repose their efforts in. In actively hedging for their own interests, they have negated all attempts made thus far in nurturing other divergent proficiencies.

Public universities are spaces that serve a larger mandate of inclusiveness and social justice. They often are the only option available to those who have to travel a significant distance, literally and otherwise, in reaching the higher echelons of education. Liberal arts research in public universities allows us to engage with the sheer diversity of these experiences, that then allows us to bring deeper understanding, sensitivity and rigour to our own research.

Developments at the WTO-General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) conference last year, the New Education Policy and the recent mooting of the HEFA indicate a preference for privatising the public university — through corporate social responsibility interventions, long-term loans and structural adjustments in areas of technical education and certain kinds of scientific research, lack of quality indicators for foreign universities that can enter the Indian education “market”, and no pronouncement on the social justice mandate of public universities. The already marginalised liberal arts face a double whammy in the form of the recent approval of the third phase of the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme, by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.

Public universities do not operate in a time warp — they are hierarchy-laden and bureaucratic. Older issues and their newer articulations call for introspection every so often. Accessing high-quality journals is a very expensive affair, financial support to attend international conferences is haltingly limited, and digital and remote library facilities are still a mirage, especially in times when we look towards Digital India.

Moreover, the market-oriented shifts fail to capture larger and more pragmatic questions of pedagogy. Universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad and Tezpur University occupy the top spots in the first-ever government ranking. Over years, these universities have adopted and practised certain pedagogic approaches to public education, accentuating their relevance in recent times. How, then, do we as student researchers respond to such changes? We approach the public university as a shared space for cooperative learning and dialogic peer-group pedagogy, through collaboration and co-learning. Public universities, then, have the larger responsibility of guarding and nurturing such spaces. This would mean transcending disciplinary boundaries and traditional conceptions of teacher-taught relationships. It would call for working with technology innovators, and humanising their spaces towards further collaboration. It also demands that the larger society, including those holding public office across semi-/institutional setups, take cognisance of our research.

Sharing the global spotlight

The inherent understanding that bringing in foreign universities in itself would drastically alter and improve standards of education in India is misplaced. It does not take into account the quality research that is already underway in many of our public universities. It only feeds in to the preference for foreign degrees, to the disadvantage of those who have expressed enough commitment to and trust in the Indian public education system.

We would do well to draw lessons from current articulations and cynicism amongst the youth on costs of higher education and student debt in the U.S. In a similar vein, other European experiences with public education offer interesting ideas that we could examine, even as we appreciate our own systemic challenges and achievements. Building larger Global South solidarities and advancing them at multilateral fora are ways to engage with education reform. A better approach to sharing the global spotlight, then, is to pay heed to the urgent need to showcase research from Indian public universities on a global level — especially from the liberal arts — instead of shying away from it. These efforts alone would leave us with a sustainable higher education system.



Aparna Vincent and Preeti Raghunath, The Hindu, September 30, 2016, (


Story of Cong ‘compassion’ vs BJP ‘aggression’ in polls

The image of an elderly woman hugging Congress President Rahul Gandhi, which the Congress used to promote their NYAY scheme, has generated much controversy. Many opposed to the party claimed it was photoshopped. Perhaps it was, but that was hardly the but that was hardly the point of the picture. What the picture actually revealed was how actively the Congress sought to highlight an ‘alternative politics’ that it has been pitching with an eye on General Elections 2019.

The representative phrase for their idea of an alternative politics is a “politics of compassion”, frequently repeated in Congress campaigns and press conferences by different office bearers of the party. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – out of power at the Centre and in a majority of the States – seems to have recouped at long last.  It is trying its best to present itself as a strong contender for power at the Centre and its president, Rahul Gandhi, as a deserving candidate for the prime ministerial post.  During the 2014 elections, it was low on morale and high on lethargy. But now the party seems to have understood the need to reinvent itself to stay relevant. To this end, it seems to be trying out a mix of possitions, of which one strand that has stood out is its invocation of a “politics of compassion”. It sees this as a coherent, alternative narrative to counter Narendra Modi’s brand of nationalism.  It could be argued that the thought process behind the current political pitch of Congress began a year ago at least. Rahul Gandhi hugging Prime Minister Modi during a discussion in Lok Sabha and claiming that his brand of politics represented ‘love’ is a telling moment in the unfolding of this narrative.

As the 2019 election dates drew closer, Rahul Gandhi’s speeches and tweets made repeated references to his politics of “love and compassion” vis-á-vis, what he called, the BJP’s “politics of hatred.” His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s relatively new entry and exchanges on Twitter too were marked by praise for renunciation of violence and hatred. Sonia Gandhi, in her speech at a recent event, claimed that the “soul of the country” was being crushed under the current regime.  Congress is not leaving any stone unturned in advertising this brand of ‘compassionate politics’ as superior to Modi’s “divisive” rhetoric and in pitching this election as a battle for the “soul of the country.” Party leaders actively publicised how Rahul Gandhi aided an injured journalist in Delhi in January 2019, and how both the Gandhi siblings come to the rescue of journalists injured during their road show in Wayanad. Similarly, they have praised Rahul Gandhi’s call to citizens to vote for the “soul of India”.

Notwithstanding the important role that regional players are expected to play in this election, Congress and the BJP have asserted themselves as  major players in this war of optics. It is interesting to note that both parties are not sharing their competing narratives with their regional allies, who are also potential coalition partners in a future government at the Centre. Regional players, wanting to keep their options open, are also not aligning themselves explicitly with either of these narratives.  For the BJP and the Congress, the micro-logic of implementing the policies and programs that arise out of their respective narratives may not always tally with the larger narrative. For example, Congress has adopted a soft Hindutva approach in the states that it recently came to power in, promising cow protection and so on. Similarly, the BJP is also willing to deviate from its nationalist and divisive narrative according to the needs of vote bank politics. Recently,  one BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha polls from Kerala promised his constituents “good quality beef” if he were to be elected to power.  What is perhaps more interesting beyond the war of optics is how and why the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP – are fighting each other through competing narratives.  BJP, which rode to victory in the 2014 polls on the dynamic image of Modi, continued the brand of muscular and majoritarian nationalism during its stay in power. This was marked by its soft approach towards cow vigilantes, a retaliatory foreign policy towards Pakistan and a generally divisive approach.  Their campaign speeches and manifesto give the impression that they are planning to continue this line. It is imperative for the BJP to continue to please their supporters who were disappointed with the alleged weak foreign policy and minority appeasement of the Congress.  The Congress which was out of power for the last five years does not have the wherewithal to sell such a narrative and compete with the BJP on similar lines, even though it might want to. In comparison, the BJP led by Prime Minister Modi has plenty to boost his party’s nationalist narrative. It wants to present itself as the only party which which can safeguard the sovereignty and integrity of India.  Additionally, to appeal to the sections of the electorate that are disappointed with the BJP, Congress has to present itself as inclusive and provide a credible alternative. Through its  “politics of compassion”, the Congress is attempting to carve out a niche space for itself and tap into the discontent with the Modi regime.  Whether the “politics of compassion’ will aid the Congress or not and whether BJP’s hyper-nationalist narrative will continue to work in its favor in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be clear only post the declaration of results.

Published in Deccan Herald, April 13, 2019 :

This Whole Day


This whole day

I wanted to scream,

I smiled and sang.


My feet grew numb,

I swayed and danced.


I wanted to hide in the dark,

I faced the piercing light.


My heart fluttered in pain,

I got up and made my case.


Fear crept through my skin,

I had a warrior’s gait.


I wanted to slash my wrists,

I said “another day.”


Oh dear,

how it passed,

This whole day.


Wrath of the Water Lily

In the muddy pool of love, hate and war

My story gets submerged

I get submerged.

I dream of bombs, blood and screams

I am still fishing in muddy waters

For last dregs of love

For last bits of dignity

For last bits of sanity

But then there is a flash of light –

And under all mud

I see

Your distorted evil face.

I hear

The faint laugh of the conqueror.

You are just waiting

To pull me out of water

To skin me alive

Roast me in your anger.

But then you forget

That I have a reputation

For rising from the ashes

I rise

To become a bird of the night

I move

In stealth and behind the shadows

You think of me as a hunter’s game

But you forget

I still have game left in me.

You can wait for the day

I descend on you like nightfall.


She doesn’t know, they say,

Then the evil, debilitating laughter,

Followed by a wicked smirk.

I do know, I say.

Then I go trail the woods,

Looking for that furtive moment,

When a larva dares to become a butterfly,

I kiss it gently and whisper in its ears,

Fly high my precious little darling,

Do not let your fragile wings stop you.

So I do know, I say,

But not the way you know this world.

Holding Up


The silence of the night

Cannot quell the revolt in my mind!

Restrained tears,

Muffled Sobs,

A numb tongue,

They all speak of a deferred rebellion.

For now, they help delay a scream.

But be aware, for the night shall pass,

Light will fall on your lies,

And my sobs shall become a scream.

It’ll haunt you

And your entire being, even in the light of the day.

It will come after you—

You whose ideology knows—

Nothing but to kill!

Be afraid.


After the scream,

The voice won’t be just mine.