In accordance with the resolution taken in a meeting organized by the Union HRD ministry in December last year in which the Vice- chancellors of all 40 universities had passed a resolution suggesting research projects focus on “national priorities”, the VC of the Central University of Kerala recently asked its concerned departments to discourage research in “irrelevant areas”. This has elicited critical response as it would be an attack on freedom of researchers. It is also feared that any effort to limit the scope of pursuit of knowledge as facilitated by the universities would reduce them to caged parrots in the grove of academe.

It’s generally agreed that higher knowledge is a joint product of direct and indirect cooperation of scientists and seekers of truth all over the world. By this worldwide cooperative enterprise of a very special kind, which hardly requires for its special functioning a central controlling authority, the frontiers of knowledge are guarded and extended continuously in all vibrant societies. This is an enterprise in which a university must participate with all its strength. There are, of course, other institutions which have other important tasks, but none of them can be a substitute for the university in respect of the role that properly belongs to it.

The principle of universality which belongs to the essence of the idea of a university has to be balanced by what may appear, but only appears, to be an opposite idea. The quest for the universal must be synthesized with a sympathetic interest in what concerns our immediate neighborhood, what Gandhi and Rabindranath understood by swadesh.

While pure knowledge aims at the universal, applied knowledge is concerned with problems at hand. In the search for knowledge all over the globe, the university must be as open as the sky, yet, at times, as close as the nest. This is the spirit which Tagore sought to capture and encapsulate in the motto for his university, yatra vishal bhavatyekanidam. It’s interesting to note that Gandhi in his Ashram at Sevagram got inscribed the words which are strikingly similar in meaning, visvam pushtam grame asmin anaturam, to which was added in Hindi, “is gaon men paripusht visva ka darshan ho”.

From these facts emanate the idea that the main object of university education should be to produce sufficiently competent researchers and scholars. However, while universities are recognized as producers and distributors of knowledge and are vested with the authority to assess and certify the acquisition of such knowledge by those who seek such a thing, it would be a pretentious folly to imagine that all new knowledge originates within the precincts of universities.

Apart from the fact that higher education is yet to open up diverse windows, the socalled advancement of learning pursed in our universities more often than not fails to negotiate the immediate necessities of life. In fact, the exodus in higher education in the post- independence era has practically ignored or rather sacrificed quality. This rush has made education for research and innovation, creative and critical thinking a matter of secondary importance.

A radical approach to higher education should include the idea of making education a living stream of finer sensibilities. Universities are indeed assigned the task of bringing about a radical change in our concept of education not simply as a process of growth within but a vibrant means of learning the invaluable lessons of love, sympathy and togetherness. When one thinks of sustainable development, one cannot but admit that universities have a great role in synthesising and disseminating the best thoughts, visions and sentiments and is the outcome of human erudition and experience.

The Dolors Commission observes, “As autonomous centres for research and creation of knowledge, universities can address some of the developmental issues facing society. They educate the intellectual and political leaders and company heads of tomorrow as well as many of the teachers. In their social role, universities can use their autonomy in the service of debate on the great ethical and scientific issues facing the society of the future and serve as links with the rest of the education system by providing further learning opportunities for adults and acting as a centre for the study, enrichment and preservation of culture. “(Learning: The Treasure Within, UNESCO Publishing, 1996).

It must be noted that higher education should concern itself with the benefit of the whole society rather than the fulfillment of the aspirations of an individual or a group with a distinct political vision. In the prevailing atmosphere of disenchantment, with the purpose of education blurred and confused, when priorities are being jumbled up, it is altogether difficult to impart meaningful education. The narrow specialisation of academics, the little exchange of views and ideas, the total neglect and hostile attitude the moment accountability is mentioned– all this constitutes a common scenario in our education system. It is travesty of truth that academics are thinking creatively and responsibly about what comprehensive higher education ought to be.

Apparently, there exists a crisis of purpose in higher education establishments in our country. lt is surprising that despite spending thousands of crores of rupees for the dissemination of knowledge, the university seems to be alienated from the rest of the society.

There is certainly a mismatch between the activities on the higher education front and the obvious aspirations of society. The role of a university needs to be reexamined in the context of its creation, control and extension of the frontiers of knowledge including research. If the universities fail in the implementation of this social responsibility, society will be forced to generate a new mechanism to meet the needs. The principal role of higher learning will then recede to a secondary one.

Universities should be hospitable to freedom of thought, and, therefore, to the struggle of ideas, the excitement of a debate based on a genuine difference of ideologies. But no academic community worth its name should fail to register its strong distaste for fanaticism. Limiting areas of research would mean limiting the scope of the pursuits of knowledge which is not good for “make-in-India”.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)