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'Little reason' to agonize over Ashoka Varsity, Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation

By Aviral Anand* 

A certain section of the Indian intelligentsia is very perturbed at the recent events at Ashoka University. The alarm seems chiefly about the resignation of one of its star faculty, Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
It is almost laughable this should have elicited the horror that it seems to have, given that Ashoka is a private university with a good number of businessperson-types among its founders. And the fact that PB Mehta has always been a sedate intellectual, his critiques quite mainstream and even good natured, most often.
At a time when public universities in India are contested ideological spaces and under constant pressure from various forces to alter ideological direction to the right, it is hardly surprising that Ashoka took some political heat also for Mehta's occasional transgressions.
But beyond that, one must stop lavishing so much attention on Ashoka as some kind of shining example in the academic space, even with regards to its much-touted claim to focus on the liberal arts. It has been and remains a space that only perpetuates a certain exclusiveness. For undergraduates, Ashoka wants you to drop a cool 10 lakh or thereabouts per year for the privilege of its special sauce. As a point of comparison, the fees for Delhi University range on the upper end from around Rs 40,000 (St Stephen's) to Rs 4-5,000 at the lower end at various colleges (for select courses).
It is probably worth mentioning that Delhi University saw a record number of applicants (close to 6 lakh) for its UG courses in 2020. It goes without saying that the public universities in India still take a bulk of the load of educating India's aspiring students. An Ministry of Human Resource Development list counted mostly public universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Banaras Hindu University among the top 10. Even the much-maligned Jamia Millia Islamia came in at number 10. As an aside, in an internal assessment survey, Jamia scored the #1 spot among all central universities!
It goes without saying that a lot of solid academic work has been, and continues to be done at public universities. Liberal arts departments at several top Indian public universities boast of highly competent faculty and produce fine scholars. Two of India's highly regarded public intellectuals, in the English-language space, Ashis Nandy and Ram Guha, are products of Indian universities. 
Guha's glowing forward to a recent book on the Chipko movement by Shekhar Pathak, a Kumaon University professor, gives one a sense of the high level of research work possible even in Indian universities. Not to mention non-English, Indian-language academic spaces and the contributions of the likes of the late Basava-scholar, MM Kalburgi.
For undergraduates Ashoka charges a cool Rs 10 lakh, as against Delhi Varsity colleges' Rs 40,000 (Stephen's) to Rs 4-5,000 at the lower end
Given the affordability, intake capacities and the acceptable level of competence of these public universities in India, there is a need to strengthen them in every way possible. Even in the USA, the land of world-renowned private universities like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Yale, public universities are much sought after and maintain excellent standards. The "UC" and "UT" network -- the various University of California and University of Texas institutions -- are highly prized and valued.
The Ashokas etc. are meant to be India-to-the-West-pipeline, educationally speaking -- for the privileged. A good number of its students, especially undergraduates, have clear plans to move on to schools in the west. Instead of jostling for an undergraduate degree in a public university in India, with its myriad archaic hurdles such as multiple cut-off percentages etc., they choose to buy a ticket to a pricey private university, hob-nob with professors from top universities around the world, and then armed with recommendations from them, head on over to the west.
In this connection, it might be relevant to mention that a "Young Fellow" at Ashoka chose to write a piece titled, "Ashoka University- Of the elite, for the elite, by the elite." As the piece observes, "Many of the liberal professors at Ashoka criticize the BJP for their exclusive nationalism, without acknowledging the exclusive education the university perpetrates. I always wondered how professors of such high esteem agreed to teach at the university."
This sentiment seems to sum up much of the contradictions inherent in various institutions, especially private educational institutions. When government run educational institutions are known to further various political agendas and toe the ruling party's line, what can one expect of institutions that count among their "founders," fund managers, investment bankers and other flavors of business people?
As a recent piece on the pedagogical priorities of one of the top universities in the world notes, "It is sometimes said that Harvard is really a hedge fund that happens to maintain an educational wing." It is probably not very different at private institutions like Ashoka.
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*Writer based in Delhi NCR

Comments

Does-not-matter said…
Ashoka University is rich people's JNU.

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