Higher Education in INDIA

By Chitnis, Suma | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Higher Education in INDIA


Chitnis, Suma, Black Issues in Higher Education


A brief historical and contemporary overview

India has an old tradition of knowledge and learning. In fact, a well-established system of higher education functioned as early as 1000 B.C. In that system, the construction of knowledge, the beliefs on which knowledge is based, basic concepts and the organization of learning are very different from the European tradition. The Indian system is validated by the fact that it sustained Indian Civilization for centuries.

The European system of higher education was introduced to India by the British in 1857 with the establishment of universities for European education in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Although modeled after the University of London, these universities were not meant to be institutions for the advancement of knowledge, or full-fledged centers of higher leaning. The British government had established them with two limited objectives:

* to introduce the Indian elite to European culture, and thus, to colonize the country culturally;

* to produce a cadre of Indians equipped to serve the British administration in India and to practice the professions of law, medicine and teaching, as required by the British.

The emphasis on imbibing European culture and knowledge was so pronounced that universities never really encouraged a spirit of critical inquiry or independent thinking so vital to the advancement of knowledge.

Initially, the British had accepted the indigenous system of knowledge, and allowed institutions for indigenous education to exist. But with the establishment of the first three universities, the British declared their preference for European knowledge, instituted policies that favored European education and withdrew their support for indigenous institutions. English was established as the only medium of instruction permitted for university education.

British economic policy, similarly, withdrew support for indigenous crafts, skills and professional practice, although India was highly advanced in fields such as textiles, architecture, waterworks and medicine. Together, these two policies steadily created a climate in which indigenous knowledge was rejected and links with traditional learning were broken.

Access to higher education was restricted because facilities were meager. In addition, British policies were self-consciously elitist. Whenever it was asked to expand facilities, the British government would argue that the benefits of privileges provided to the elite would eventually trickle down to the masses. Elitism was also encouraged by the limiting of instruction to the language of the rulers.

During this period, universities were statutory bodies closely controlled by the government. The governor of a province was the chancellor of all universities within the province under his jurisdiction. He appointed the vice chancellors, his seconds in command who were directly in charge of individual universities. Government nominees sat on the all-important bodies -- such as the campus senate, the executive council, the academic council and committees for the selection of faculty and administrative staff.

The Indian Response

Indians valued European higher education as the means to acquire employment in the British establishment; to enter the professions of law, medicine and teaching as practiced under British rule; and to gain access to European social circles. They valued the English language as a window on the Western world. And they acknowledged the fact the European education had inspired the nationalist movement for freedom.

But they also felt that policies pertaining to university education in India denied Indians the opportunity to advance, distanced them from their own culture, restricted economic growth and bred continued dependency on Britain for knowledge. The determination to free university education in the country from all these handicaps shaped nationalist dreams and aspirations for higher education in independent India. …

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