Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The Idea of a University in India

India is witnessing a massification of higher education, with the establishment of more universities and an increase in enrolment. Under such circumstances, what merits examination is whether universities are producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or training individuals to fall in line with a neo-liberal nationalist agenda of economic development.
By IASToppers
April 08, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Universities during colonial period
  • Massification of Indian Universities
  • Active and Passive Massification
  • University–Knowledge Coupling
  • Conclusion
  • Way Forward

The Idea of a University in India

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  • The idea of a university was coined by the British Catholic priest John Henry Newman (1996).
  • India was fortunate to have universities as early as in 1857 (Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Universities were all established in the same year), which were premised neither on the Western prototype of a university nor on gurukula-vihara-madrasa tradition.

Universities during colonial period

  • Unlike the West, universities in India emerged not to keep pace with the growth of knowledge, but to fulfill the interests handpicked earlier by colonial rulers, and now to satisfy sectional interests, and the interests of a neo-liberal regime. 
  • In India, the idea of a university was established in another context to fulfill the immediate interest of producing graduates to fill up the salaried positions emerging in the wake of colonial rule.
  • Universities in India largely failed to fuse teaching and research, to produce communities of scholars and scientists, but turned into graduate-producing institutions.
  • If the universities in colonial India were expected to be graduate-producing institutions, universities in independent India came to complement the idea of state welfarism.

Massification of Indian Universities

  • The idea to grant equal opportunities to its citizens in accessing national resources converted university converted it into a mass product with less quality.
  • In the wake of liberalisation, the number of universities and even the enrolment increased further. Assessing these transformations in Indian universities, Apoorvanand (2018) compared them to a stagnant pond and an expanding desert.
  • Massification of higher education happens through:
    • Changing policy perspectives (that guarantee rapid expansion of higher education institutions and enrolments),
    • Growing impact of democratic forces in politics (democratisation of higher education), and
    • Strong voices from the civil society (endorsing accessibility and spread of higher education). 
  • Extent of massification in higher education is measured usually in the light of the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER). Higher education in India stands out to be in a stage of initial massification with 25.8% GER in 2018.
  • Massification of higher education is an obvious phenomenon, and will occur in the context of each country, although in varying degrees.
  • Higher education is therefore to follow a trajectory in which it will transform from being the privilege of a few (elite phenomenon), to a resource of the majority, more as a right (mass phenomena), and finally a collective obligation (a universal phenomenon).

 Active and Passive Massfication

  • Scholars have identified two different modes of massification at the global level, namely an active mode and a passive and catching-up mode.
  • The “active mode” is exemplified by developed countries, where the massification of higher education took place more as a natural outcome of economic development.
  • The “passive and catching-up” mode can be experienced in developing countries where the massification of higher education is often pushed as a leap forward by the government, while the level of economic development might not have increased adequately.
  • India is a classic case where the “passive and catching-up” mode of massification is in operation.
  • Consequently, countries characterised by the “passive and catching-up” mode of massification have to rely more on private rather than government-aided institutions for obvious economic reasons. 
  • Further, the heavy dependence on privately-managed institutes as a means of massification has often resulted inequality in accessing higher education.

University–Knowledge Coupling

  • In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (2004) talks about three approaches to knowledge, namely episteme (theoretical knowledge), techné (technological know) and phronesis (practical wisdom).
  • The germination of “the idea of a university” was premised in the search for episteme. However, in the course of its evolution, the “idea of a university” also responded to national concerns, state interests and ideological overhauls (aspects of techné and phronesis).
  • The “idea of a university” in India began with contradictions and the 162-year-long journey of Indian universities since 1857 has been a journey of ineptness and deviations.
  • Serving the “national agenda” has lived on as the singular agenda, which has in fact worn out the entire field of university activity in India.
  • As per National Knowledge Commission (NKC) Report (2009), knowledge has been primarily visualised as an application-oriented enterprise, and thereby making the entire process a commercially exploitable property.
  • Consequently, universities in India more often than not failed to foresee education beyond the limits of training their incumbents in professional skills.


  • With the massification of universities since 1960s and mushrooming of private, state and even central universities in non-metropolitan zones which began since the new millennium suggests that the university whose character do not solve immediate practical problems is doomed to be at a loss.
  • It is significant to note that research were never institutionalised in Indian universities during the colonial period. Immediately after independence, universities in India were directed towards the “national agenda” of greater economic development.
  • And in the present-day context, universities are dictated to fine-tune their research and teaching practices in consonance with national priorities.
  • In the recent past, “the idea of a university” in India came into limelight as the Ministry of Human Resource Development passed a resolution in December 2018 to make research in these universities fall in line with national priorities.

Way Forward

  • Of late, serious rethinking about the “idea of a university” has begun to take place, particularly at that point of time when universities in India are gaining a more and more utilitarian focus.
  • Even the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) or the UGC incentivise socially relevant, need-based, innovative policy research for universities.
  • Be it the dictates of the state or of momentary nationalism, universities in India have to be responsive to the glaring contradictions that have mired the path of higher education. 

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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