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The Fading Role of Universities in Society

Context:

The directive from the University Grants Commission (UGC) instructing universities and colleges across the country to display the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao logo on their premises is viewed as another effort to limit academic freedom, already under threat. Previously, institutions were directed to engage in activities such as raising awareness about G-20 meetings and participating in Swachhatha campaigns. In a letter dated December 1, the UGC mandated colleges to create selfie points featuring the Prime Minister.

Relevance:

GS2- Education

Mains Question:

Despite assertions by the government about India’s commitment to upholding democratic values, there seems to be a lack of concern for the freedom to engage in civic discourses essential for participatory democracy. Comment. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

Universities and Free Thought:

  • As the government’s insistence on educational institutions serving as platforms for its political agenda becomes more pronounced, the idea of universities as advocates for free thought is gradually being undermined.
  • In the past year, there were numerous instances that sought to constrain academic freedom. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the nation’s top-ranking institute, had to cancel a discussion on the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
  • In March, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) administration initially imposed fines amounting to ₹20,000 for campus protests, a decision later rescinded.
  • Recently, two prominent scholars resigned from Ashoka University following the publication of a paper analyzing the disproportionate share of seats won by the ruling party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Academic Institutions and Democracy:

  • Academic institutions serve as crucial platforms for such discussions, which are vital for a functioning democracy, irrespective of ideological differences.
  • Imposing restrictions on expressing opinions or ideas can have detrimental effects on academic work and harm the overall research environment.
  • The decline in academic freedom is evident in India’s position on the indices by the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. India’s academic freedom index is in the bottom 30% among 179 countries, with a score of 0.38 on a scale of 0 (low) to 1 (high).

Academic Freedom Index, 2023

  • The collaboration involved 2,917 experts globally, with the Swedish V-Dem Institute and Germany’s Friedrich Alexander University Institute of Political Science overseeing the report. It highlighted 22 countries, including India, China, the United States, and Mexico, where universities and scholars are experiencing significantly reduced academic freedom compared to a decade ago. The index evaluates five indicators:
  • Freedom to research and teach
  • Freedom of academic exchange and dissemination
  • Institutional autonomy of universities
  • Freedom of academic and cultural expression and campus integrity
  • Absence of security infringements and surveillance on campus
  • Notably, this score is even lower than that of India’s perceived adversary, Pakistan, which scored 0.43. Independent India has witnessed such low rankings only during the Emergency years.
  • Unlike in New Zealand, where academic freedom is explicitly stated, the Indian constitution incorporates it within the broader concept of the right to free speech as part of fundamental rights.
  • Although constitutionally guaranteed, academic freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions. The constitutional assurance of freedom of speech often faces challenges due to the application of sedition law (Section 124A) or more frequently misused clauses under Section 295A, pertaining to hurting religious sentiments.
  • Defamation lawsuits are increasingly being utilized as tools of harassment against artists and academic scholars.

Diminishing Academic Freedom:

  • The diminishing academic freedom is also evident in the gradual erosion of institutional autonomy, including the selection of Vice-Chancellors and heads of academic institutes.
  • The UGC Act of 1956 explicitly states that its core function is to monitor standards in universities “in consultation with universities.”
  • However, it has been noted that the UGC has accumulated power and tends to function as an instrument of the ministry.
  • University appointments are now often made based on political considerations rather than merit at both the central and state government levels.

Way forward:

  • It is suggested that global institutions can contribute by incorporating “Academic Freedom” as an indicator in university rankings. It is essential for universities to establish system-wide protections against impinging on academic autonomy and freedom of expression.
  • Taking inspiration from the Education Act of New Zealand, where academic freedom is defined as the freedom of academic staff and students to question received wisdom, propose new ideas, and express controversial or unpopular opinions within the bounds of the law.

Conclusion:

To enhance academic freedom and autonomy in the country, political parties should engage in consultations with faculty bodies and student associations. As India celebrates its 75th year as a Republic, it is crucial to remember that Tagore’s vision of a nation where the “mind is without fear” is yet to be fully realized.


February 2024
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