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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 34 August 13, 2016 [Independence Day Special 2016]

To Overcome Societal Inequalities and Deep-seated Prejudices: Need for Transformative Potential of Universities

Monday 15 August 2016

by M.Hamid Ansari

The following is the text of Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari’s Valedictary Address at the Centenary Celebrations of Mysuru University (July 22, 2016).

One hundred years is an important milestone in the life of any institution. For a university, which ignites the light of knowledge in the minds of women and men, it is especially so. For the past hundred years, your university has been contributing to the making of India’s knowledge society. Thousands of students and scholars have passed through these hallowed portals.

The genesis of this university lay in the extraordinary vision of two individuals, the then Maharaja of Mysore, Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, and Sir M. Visvesvaraya, one of the most brilliant engineering minds that India has produced. It was the first university in India outside of the British governed areas. Today, it has grown into one of India’s largest, providing higher education to about 85 thousand students, of which over 10,000 are Postgraduates. Some 1400 students from 50 foreign countries are also enrolled at the picturesque main campus and various satellite and extension facilities.

The University has an excellent track record in research, especially in the field of micro-biology, and it is no surprise that it has out-standing rankings in the NAAC surveys. Your success, and your reputation as a centre of excellence, is due to the efforts and excellence of the faculty and the hard work of students. On this historic day, I congratulate you all.

The value of universities has long been understood across different cultures and societies. In this ‘age of Information’, few would dispute the importance of universities. Universities are seen as crucial national assets in addressing policy priorities, as sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking and as providers of skilled personnel.

However, recent events in our own country have shown that there is much confusion about what a university should or should not be. It is pertinent therefore to examine in some detail what the role of a university should be in our society in its present circumstance as well as its future trajectory.

The term ‘university’ originates from the Latin word ‘universitas’—simply meaning ‘a whole’. Universities, therefore, are meant to deal with the universality of knowledge and humanity in all its manifestations—physical, biological, mental, emotional—both objective and subjective—as well as all aspects of social, cultural and economic organisations and interactions.

The idea of a university, wrote Cardinal Newman in the late 19th century, is to be deter-mined without recourse to any authority and should be based on human wisdom. It should be a place for the diffusion and extension of knowledge, adding that ‘an academic system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron university, and nothing else’.

A High Level Task-Force constituted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Bank in the year 2000 to deliberate upon the nature of Universities in the 21st century identi-fied some important roles for the universities. These included:

• Unlock potential at all levels of society, helping talented people to gain advanced training whatever their background;

• Create a pool of highly trained individuals that attains a critical size and becomes a key national resource;

• Address topics whose long term value to society is thought to exceed their current value to students and employers;

• Provide space for the free and open discussion of ideas and values.

Speaking about the role of modern univer-sities last year, the President of the Copenhagen Business School, Per Holten-Andersen, similarly, identified four classical and one modern function of the university:

• To act as ‘knowledge vaults’ or the repository of the knowledge of mankind, maintaining and securing crucial knowledge for present and future generations;

• To generate new Knowledge—to undertake the activity that we call research;

• To transfer Knowledge to the Next Generation, or what we call education;

• To transfer Knowledge to Society, or what can be called dissemination; and

• To generate economic development by playing an integral role in furthering economic growth.

In the last few decades, increasing importance has been attributed to this fifth goal. However, the addition of economic development to the accepted role of universities should be about augmenting the role and purpose of universities. To see universities simply as instruments for immediate economic benefit would be a fundamental error. To confine universities to such a mechanical place in the progress of society is to diminish them.

The universities, even as they valiantly play the role of ‘growth engines of the society’ have a larger, long-term and transformative role to play. The transformative potential of universities is most acutely needed in societies like India where we struggle against societal inequalities and deep-seated prejudices.

 Our Constitution, in its Preamble, promises to the citizen of our republic social, economic and political justice as well as equality of status and of opportunity. It seeks to promote fraternity among them while assuring liberty of thought and expression. Universities can be agents of social justice and mobility. They can foster fraternity and must contribute to social and cultural vitality and building an egalitarian society.

Some ways in which universities can contri-bute to these goals would include—

• Universities are seen as progenitors of ‘useful knowledge’. But this knowledge cannot always be limited to serving ‘immediate’ needs, whether technical or social. A university that moulds itself only to present demands is one that is not listening to its historians. Today’s preoccupations are inevitably myopic, often ephemeral, giving little thought for tomorrow. History is at its most illuminating when written with the full consciousness of what people wrongly expected to happen. Even in the domain of technology, future developments only a few years away have been shrouded from contemporary eyes. Many, possibly most, have arisen unexpectedly from research with other objectives, and assessments of techno-logical potential have invariably missed the mark. One of the roles of the university, thus, is to prepare knowledge that an unpredic-table future may need.

• Universities are also forums of free speech and debate. The long term viability and stability of a democratic polity is crucially dependent on the maintenance and develop-ment of the educational level of our population, and on the individual’s ability to form independent and enlightened opinions. The universities can act as both the weather vanes and safety-valves of political dissent and direction. Suppression of such discourse only breeds mistrust, and begets social malcontent.

• The inculcation of general knowledge and ‘learnedness’, which are the classical roles of the university have strong and long-term economic impacts on our societies in the form of increased trust, transparency, ability to handle change and social cohesion. Erosion of social cohesion can have massive personal, social, as also economic costs.

I am sure that this University, one of the premier institutions of the country, will continue to play its role as a neutral assembler of talent; that of an unmatched idea factory where the passion, creativity and idealism of young minds can be applied to meeting the transitional needs of our society, polity and economy. May your success continue to inspire you to ever greater heights. I wish you all the very best for the future.

Jai Hind.