ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On Higher Education

Philip G Altbach’s recent and current views on education have been rather disconcerting to people like us who had felt a sense of liberation on reading his path-breaking articles during the 1970s. The article “The Past, Present and Future of the Research University” (EPW, 16 April 2011) seems typically remote from his concerns of those days when by unravelling the impact on education of the “centreperiphery” paradigm imposed by colonial cultural and economic hegemony, he had raised searching questions on access to education the world over and its social implications. Yes, there were certain simplifications in his formulations, but they were necessary for making his point forcefully and sharply. His present article wavers half-heartedly between an academic report and an uneasy admission of social injustice and political inequality. He deals with education as a socially neutral service which different societies have the freedom to organise and dispense as they like, while totting up the inherent diffi culties in such an approach. He also empirically infers the optimum efficiency from such a pattern as states could support. It is a wonder he does not, for a scholar of his perceptiveness, notice the impact of the neo-liberal ideology concealing the neo-imperialist world order on current ideas on education, and how the ideal of higher education he holds up may help reinforce that disorderly world order.

The concept of education as an instrument of production and transmission of “knowledge” obscures the nature of this knowledge, and it turns out that it boils down to basic research in science and technology (and perhaps social sciences insofar as they help social management) that contributes to economic production. But the wheels of production are kept moving not by knowledge per se but by decisions to invest in it for profi t. Giant firms keep useful inventions and discoveries unused for years because the current gadgets or machines or drugs over which they might have a mono poly are giving the current masters of capital a satisfactory profit. When, as in the case of tobacco research, results might tell on profit, they are hidden from the public for decades. Hence the pertinence of the question: knowledge for whom? Further, there is a notable uncertainty about the ends of education and a dispirited admission that in future, for lack of funding, education in humanities might suffer. That presumably is no serious damage to “knowledge”. Hence, again, the unavoidable question: knowledge for what? If the good of society is presumed to rest on the ubiquitous continuity of profi t-making production, then of course, the problem of equitable distribution of its benefi ts does not arise, nor that of extending the capacities for production of know ledge more widely. Production must be concentrated, perhaps in imitation of giant agribusiness and drug manufacturing fi rms, which consider small farms and businesses uneconomical and wasteful. The idea of worldclass centres and academic “excellence” may thus mask utilisation of the country’s resources and the best talents available for devising methods of boosting production for the profit of a few. Excellence will justify concentration of resources in a few institutes and skimping resources to the rest of academic institutions.

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