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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

The Idea of a ‘University’: What it should or should not be!

Monday 24 April 2017

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

“A University is a place ... where students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge; ... a place for the communication and circulation of thought ... It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward ... discoveries verified and perfected, and ... error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. ... Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes”. 

John Henry Newman, 1854, The Idea of a University

John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University is a classic work on university education which conceptualised university as a society in which the student absorbs the graces and accomplishments of a higher form of life. It is a place where the pursuit of truth and the active discussion of its meaning integrate into a wider culture, in which the ideal of the gentleman is acknowledged as the standard. (Ker, 2011:19)

This commentary appreciates Newman’s idea of ‘University’ and the analysis of universities in India being ‘steered’ from outside and ‘managed’ internally to accept changes as per the political anticipation of the ruling parties. For the last five decades, after every general election, whenever there is a change in government at the Central and State level, universities are the first to be affected by the ideology/policy-related ambitions of the political party which forms the government. This trend is in fashion since long and is not specific to India alone. Even in Germany, when Hitler seized political power, Frankfurt University was the first one targeted for ideological reasons, owing to which the liberal democratic-minded professors and intellectuals were forced to leave Germany. This eventually benefited the UK and US universities not only in making their higher education more liberal with the help of these intellectuals but also enriching their scientific research and inventions in the post-World War period.

In India, the political parties inherit the same tradition of intellectual subjugation by interfering in academic affairs, appointments, and syllabus of universities and try to make them a place for their political and ideological battles. When a university is politicised, it is compromised. It stops growing for the good of mankind. Even the concept of the university is supposedly beyond the national boundaries. Sadly, owing to regional/local political interests, we have regionalised the university system by making it specific for a regional community like the Himachal Pradesh University is for Himachalis, Panjab University is for Pubjabis, and Osmania University is for the citizens of Telangana and many more. This vested political interest and regional aspirations are already killing the spirit of the university system and it has brought the whole State university system to the crossroads.

The ethical dilemma is that every government wishes to take initiatives to make the universities globally competitive and socially progressive and at the same time curtails ‘academic freedom’ in the name of ‘national interest’ and ‘public good’, though it is not clear whose interest and good it is. Academic freedom is always the foundation of universities to discover, improve, and disseminate knowledge. Ideas were always contested and tested in universities even though these challenge the existing socio-political norms and practices. But unfortunately, the Indian universities are hanging in between the Left and Right-wing political ideologies and are nowhere in a position to set a direction for secular humanism which is possible only by connecting all branches of knowledge and ideologies together. Knowledge and ideologies need to be complete and correct, and should balance each other and that is what Newman considered as the art and science of learning. (Newman, 1873)

While emphasising the importance of univer-sities in a socio-political system, the present Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari, in his convocation address to the students of Panjab University on March 25, 2017, said that universities can help to address the challenges and identify solutions in areas essential to a transitional society’s political stability and socio-economic development, especially in issues like inter-ethnic relations, protection of minorities, nation-building and good governance. While quoting Newman’s ‘Idea of University’, he argued that universities in the 19th century transformed themselves not only into catalysts of change but also as vehicles of equalisation of chances and democratisation of society by providing people of all sections an equal opportunity to grow. (Ansari, 2017:9) President Pranab Mukerjee also reiterated the need for free speech and liberal ideas in the campuses of higher education in his convocational speech at the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata on April 1, 2017 and emphasised that all efforts should be made at the socio-political level to create an atmosphere in Indian universities for free debate, discussion and dissent rather than making them a place for political confrontation and conflict. He stressed that the universities should be known for their liberalism and confluence of various thoughts and ideas, not for suppressing opposing views against established ideologies.

Every year, hardly 15 to 20 per cent of young people in the world have the opportunity to breathe in an exciting air of discovery that Newman illustrated as a University in 1854. As an under-graduate, a post-graduate or a doctoral student, one always wishes to realise that there is something very special about being in a campus with so many other people thinking and exploring ideas. This is something which fascinates every youth to explore universities as great places to learn and understand. Unfortunately, the case with Indian universities is different. Our universities are in the news mostly for the wrong reasons. Whether it is JNU, Delhi University or University of Hyderabad, they were in the news in recent times only for violence, harassment, intimidation and for stifling independent voices. This repeats the history. The decade of the 1970s and 1980s also witnessed an intellectual turmoil and unrest in university campuses when established political ideologies were challenged by the emerging ones, as it happened in West Bengal and Bihar. The JP movement only became a mass movement because of the way student unrest was channelised to challenge the power at the helm. Now, once again the campuses are on the boil but for different reasons. This has led to a debate across multiple academic and media platforms about what a university should or should not be.

In Newman’s seminal work, the university is defined and illustrated as a place where a learner lives for scholarship and arranges his/her life around the sacrifice that scholarship requires. It is not just a repository of knowledge, rather it is a place where work and leisure occur side by side, shape each other and produce well-formed human beings. (Newman, et al., 1996) But the actual picture of the university life today is quite different from the one painted by Newman. The academic session of most State universities grind in between students’ protest, semester pattern, examinations, teacher’s issues, hustle-bustle of finishing the syllabus and in maintaining law and order in campuses. The expectations from the student are ideological conformity, rather than critical appraisal. In the place of condemning the opinions and views of the anti-social minorities, the moral voices of the majorities are suppressed to appease a specific political ideology of the party in power. Rather than promoting academic and intellectual freedom, the Indian universities are making the students more conservative and hardline in the name of religion, ideology and faith thus promoting dubious social mores.

At the disciplinary level, universities all over the world are already facing a lot of challenges due to the expansion of the knowledge economy. Pure thinking, the philosophical base of any discipline, is already replaced by applied, problem-centred and trans-disciplinary approaches. The liberal knowledge engaged with the problems of human life has now shifted towards hyperbolic discourses often accommodated in a university system in the form of knowledge management. (Culler, 1955) The rational critical thinking and ethics of scientific inquiry, a onetime USP of universities across the globe, have now shrunk into the academic enlargement of the technology of communication in the form of virtual learning. In the race for making the universities globally competitive for wealth creation in the so-called ‘new economy’, universities are becoming more financially progressive rather than socially, thus becoming a place for social exclusion. In the process of consolidating and enhancing corporate business links to place their students in jobs, our universities and other institutions of higher learning are deviating from their core responsibilities of being a place for learning and practicing democracy and social inclusion.

The Indian universities are also facing quality issues. Presently there are 45 Central and 677 State universities in India but unfortunately none of them is there in the top 200 universities of the world. Contrary to this, we had a rich history of higher education. Universities like Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramashila at one time were world famous as the best ancient learning centres. But the paradox is that we were not able to sustain the rich history and also have lagged behind on the modern parameters of higher education. We failed to develop our universities as sources of intellectual energies which can be utilised to serve mankind (not a physical structure like State). For any developing society, it is critical to understand that universities are important places because they work for a social system in the same way as the brain works for the human body by channelising the energy in a right perspective.

It is ironical with the Indian education system that every time when a party, whether it is the Congress, BJP or any other alliance, comes to power, it revisits the education policies already in practice and starts rewriting the textbooks and revising the syllabus in their own ideo-logical interest. The higher education system in India hardly took serious distinctive steps to validate and award universities to enlarge their academic responsibilities by ensuring the issues of quality and standard of higher education by placing greater trust in student decision-making like the way the UK system has validated the academic role of several universities including the University of London through the academic advisory committees. This is something which is required, especially when democratic societies are becoming more open, accessible and knowledge-based. It further requires more social participation of students in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and disability within the growth of the education sector as a whole. This may not be possible without redefining the role of universities and their need in a democratic society.

Hence, it is an appropriate time to revisit the idea of what a University should or should not be given by Newman especially when he conceptualised it not as a birthplace of poets, immortal authors, founders of schools, leaders of colonies, conquerors of nations or a place promising Aristotles, Newtons, Napoleons, Washingtons, Raphaels or Shakespeares, but as a place where the intellectual tone of society is raised; public minds are cultivated; national taste is purified; true principles to popular enthusiasm are supplied; aims are fixed to popular aspiration; ideas of the age are enlarged...... a place where a student can breathe pure and clear air of thought irrespective of his/her ethnic, religious, ideological or linguistic identity.


Ansari, M.H. (2017, March 30), ‘A University for our times’, The Tribune, 137 (87): 9.

Culler, D.A. (1955), The Imperial Intellect: A Study of Newman’s Educational Ideal, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ker, Ian (2011), ‘Newman’s Idea of a University and its relevance for the 21st Century’, Australian e-Journal of Theology, 18 (1): 19-32.

Newman, J.H. (1873), The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated, London: Basil Montagu Pickering.

Newman, J., Garland, M., Castro-Klarén, S., Landow, G., and Marsden, G. (1996), The Idea of a University (Turner F. & Turner F., eds.), Yale University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npknj

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. 

Sandeep Sharma is presently doing his Ph.D from the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

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