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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Jun 2024  Sanjaya Baru | The pursuit of learning in Nalanda’s homeland

Sanjaya Baru | The pursuit of learning in Nalanda’s homeland

The writer is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Published : Jun 24, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jun 24, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Controversy in Education Shadows PM Modi’s Praise for Nalanda’s Legacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the new campus of Nalanda University, in Nalanda district, Bihar, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the new campus of Nalanda University, in Nalanda district, Bihar, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (PTI Photo)

It is ironic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was extolling the virtues of Asia’s oldest centre of higher learning at Nalanda in Bihar in the same week when a controversy around the national testing of the educational attainments of students was engaging nationwide attention. Nalanda University did not become world famous overnight. It took long years of scholarship of learned men and women for the institution to earn its reputation.

“Learned men from different cities who desire to acquire renown in discussion, come here in multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams of their wisdom spread far and wide”, wrote the Chinese Buddhist monk Hieun Tsang after his mid-7th century visit. By then Nalanda was already at least a 100-year-old institution, if not more. How many Indian universities set up in the 20th century have been able to protect their reputation into the 21st? Nalanda is a question and a reminder.

The Indian civilisation, with all its faults and inequalities, was a knowledge-based civilisation, like any other great civilisation. It respected scholarship and the flights of imagination. On his visit last week to the Nalanda University campus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lamented its destruction. The point is moot that the person responsible for Nalanda’s destruction was a Muslim invader. In the same week, a movie aimed at damaging the already “blemished” reputation of contemporary India’s best-ranked university was released in cinema halls. Titled Jahangir National University, the movie has been pitched as an attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University, a public university that the Union education ministry’s own ranking places it at the top of Indian universities.

Of what use is the lament of past tragedies when new ones occur every day and we learn so little from the experience of the past? There is, however, no point in engaging in the usual political blame game. No political party, no PM, no CM, no minister for education at the Centre or in the states can be absolved of the responsibility for the sorry state of public universities today. Nor, indeed, can they be pardoned for presiding over the extensive privatisation of education at all levels.

None other than the political, business and intellectual elite of the country have demonstrated their lack of pride in the country’s educational system. Just look at how many of them take pride in the fact that their children have studied or are studying overseas.

Till a couple of decades ago, most students going overseas went for post-graduate education. Today they also do for under-graduate and even high school education. The Covid-19 lockdown and suspension of cross-border travel brought the extent of such elite dependence on overseas education to the fore. Some attribute the rise in numbers to the growing prosperity of the Indian middle class. Perhaps so.

However, what is striking is that even as more Indian students go overseas, fewer foreign students are coming to India.

According to data collected by the ministry of external affairs, the number of Indian students studying overseas was estimated to be 13,24,954 in 2022. This does not include the 20,000 students forced to return home that year from Ukraine after the outbreak of war with Russia. The MEA data also probably underestimates the number of Indian students studying in China, at 6,000, since many who returned home after the Covid-19 outbreak did not go back. Given news reports of increasing numbers of Indian students going overseas in the past year, one can safely presume that the number in 2024 would be upwards of 14 lakhs.

By comparison, the number of foreign students studying in India was estimated to be 46,878 in 2022, according to the All-India Survey on Higher Education conducted by the Union ministry for human resources development. While most Indian students going overseas are concentrated in the United States, Canada, Australia and the UAE, most foreign students in India are nationals of Nepal and Afghanistan.

Most foreign students studying in India are concentrated in four states: Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Delhi.

There was a time when Indian universities attracted many students from Africa. The numbers have dwindled with many Africans headed to China. In 2019, before Covid-19, over 80,000 African students were studying in China compared to 25,000 in India. There may be any number of reasons why foreign students do not prefer Indian universities over campuses in China or elsewhere. We must reckon with the fact that we are not considered to be an attractive destination by comparison to others.

There was a time when Western governments did not recognise Indian degrees. A medical graduate had to pass an examination administered overseas to be able to study and work abroad. The IITs succeeded in building a global reputation that enabled its products to secure easy admission into American universities. The same political system, under different political parties, that destroyed the credibility of public universities also allowed the growth of private institutions. These private institutions were able to cater to the elites and the wealthy, who then secured access to education and employment at home and overseas. As long as the two lived in non-intersecting worlds, few bothered about it. The Neet and NET scandal shows that when the two worlds began to intersect, the system unravelled.

As long as different parts of India performed differently, the system was able to pull on. Large numbers of good students from backward states migrated to states that had a better system of education or where education could be bought with money. But then, it is easy to destroy the reputation of institutions that have been slowly and studiously built over the years. The Neet and NET controversy may have already damaged the reputation of the best Indian institutions if it is discovered that the recently exposed lapses have been long in occurring.

There were good reasons why the architects of our Constitution kept certain areas of public policy within the realm of state governments and a few on the concurrent list. The federal structure was built with care. Recent attempts to weaken this structure have partly contributed to controversies such as the present one in the sphere of education. We are paying the price for over-centralisation.


Tags: nalanda university, neet, national testing agency, prime minister narendra modi