Dialogue  April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4

The Crisis in University System – Understanding the Nature of Problems

Samdhong Ringpoche*

Year after year, the illustrious presidents of  AIU in their annual addresses have articulated their well considered views on the present state of higher education; they have presented threadbare analyses of various problems that plague our universities and have given extremely valuable suggestions for reforming, restructuring and improving the system of university education in India. They have dealt with various issues and problems-educational goals, academic standards, restructuring of courses, public accountability and the problems of management, finance, discipline, politicization etc., and I think that no major problems relating to the university system in our country has been left untouched by my learned predecessors. Their profound commitment to the cause of learning is well reflected in their thinking and there is no doubt that the topmost academicians of this country are deeply concerned about the current state of affairs in the field of university education.

I have a feeling that I am not in a position to offer better diagnoses and suggestions than my distinguished predecessors for improving and strengthening the modern system of higher education and, therefore. I would confine myself to the task of drawing your attention to certain aspects of education which, in my opinion, are vital for understanding the nature of problems that defy all solutions. I am afraid that the stray thoughts being presented here may sound much out of tune with modern times and because of their traditional moorings they may appear too out-moded and impractical to many of you. Yet I hope that you will be generous enough to bear with me.

The University is the home of wisdom; timeless and universal. The idea of university implies: (a) unrestricted scope of its task and responsibility (b) the unity of knowledge it preserves and transmits (c) the unity of diversity in field of thought and learning. In other words the university is the guardian of the wholeness of man and his pre-given and future universe of living , feeling, thinking and contemplating. The expressions ‘whole’ and ‘universe’ could look like spatial words. They are not: space-and-time are praxiologically as well as theoretically impartible: if this does not seem self-evident it is because we possess a kind of innate tendency to spatialize time and life. This unwholesome tendency further deepens our ignorance and gives a boost to egotism. It is undeniable that space-and-time are a conjugate, an inseparable pair: symbolising all creation and making it absolutely distinct from the uncreated. This relation or, if one may put it so, this non-relation is the ultimate mystery; the university is the guardian and teacher of this mystery. I should not be misunderstood if I say that an engineering university, a management university, an university of technology are contradiction in terms: a positive kind of proof of this is, for instance the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which has some of the finest department of philosophy and humanities: with, of course, some of the finest professors of philosophy, literature and language.

The modern idea of a university is primarily functional-pluralistic. Its first and foremost function today is to impart job-oriented higher education to the students. Although the production of new knowledge through research and its dissemination is also considered to be an important function of university, we all know that it does not enjoy high priority. In fact, this function is also oriented toward technological advancement as well as towards the function of educating and training young people for various jobs required by the technological-industrial-political-bureaucratic establishment.

In terms of its telos, a university in its true sense does not see itself and its grand unique vocation in terms of supplying high level personnel to the governments and managerial or technological manpower to the industrial and business houses. A university qua university is the home of the intellectual. It is the shrine of wisdom: it is the guardian of human intellectuality, yes, guardian of universe.

Such homes of learning, worthy of being called universities, existed in India about two millennia ago at Takshshia and other centres. Later, Nalanda, Vallabhi, Vikaramshila, Jagaddal, Udantpuri and many other similar centres of learning developed in this country to serve as the guardians of human intellectuality over a long period of time. During that period of history the traditional heritage of education was constantly preserved, transmitted and renewed in these centres. Similar universities also sprang up outside India in the eleventh century and onwards in centres like Bologna, Salerno and Oxford in Europe; like Cairo and Baghdad in North Africa and West Asia and like Samye, Drepung, Sera and Ganden in Tibet. The society which established and sustained these centres was itself sustained by tradition. In the traditional Indian society the purpose of life was defined by the well-known doctrine of purusarthas which lay down the hierarchy of four ends of life, i.e. Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksa. Kama stands lowest in the hierarchical order and is subordinate to Artha; both Artha and Kama are regulated by Dharma and the Dharma in its true sense is defined and understood with reference to Moksa, and final liberation. Moksa was the ultimate goal of life, it was the ultimate objective of education too.

According to the traditional perspective education is the most important means for dispelling ignorance. Here ignorance means the proclivity of human mind to follow the easiest way of seeing of appearance and reality. Once a person’s perception is awakened through proper education or through intellectual intuition he/she can see the fallacy underlying the world in its formal appearances. The awakening of perception enables one to know the truth.

The knowledge of the truth leads to freedom from all bondage and limitation. To know is to be delivered. The great selfless and wise teachers at whose feet persons like me were educated in Tibet often used to remind us that five benefits accrue from learning : (i) knowing the truth and getting acquainted with things unknown (ii) developing proper understanding of the things known (iii) dispelling unwholesome on erroneous views and clearing doubts (iv) developing right view or right perspective that enables one to see reality (v) cultivation of intellect leading to the illumination or liberation of the mind. Here I must add that this view of knowledge is not the monopoly of any one form of tradition. The basic teachings of all sacred traditions in one way or the other emphasise that knowledge is ultimately related to intelligence, the instrument of knowledge within man which is endowed with the possibility of knowing truth. All traditions hold that true knowledge is the means of deliverance and freedom; to know means ultimately to be transformed by the very Process of knowing. In other words, in the traditional perspective knowing is not separated from being and, similarly, intelligence is not separated from truth.

An extremely Important and notable feature of the universities of yore was the pivotal role of the teacher. Great institutions of learning always developed around enlightened teachers possessing immeasurable knowledge. They were not merely renowned scholars in more than one discipline or vidya; but more than that they were the embodiments of the pure, exalted wisdom. In the traditional perspective the teacher or guru transmits knowledge, instructs the students about the proper application of that knowledge, provides an example of a person who puts the knowledge into practice and acts as symbol of the ultimate goal i.e. the goal of enlightenment. Over and above all else, such teachers were extremely compassionate. Possessing boundless compassionate mentor-savants would attract dedicated students from far and wide, the reputation of a centre of learning primarily depended upon the quality of its teachers-acharyas and gurus. Such guru-centric universities were established and developed in India for the first time in the world history.

For centuries in succession the unique system of higher learning flourished in India. The great homes of the intellectuals vied with each other in maintaining the highest standards of excellence. But, unfortunately, Indian history took such a turn that from about tenth century onwards repeated foreign invasions brought destruction to the great legacy of learning. One after another, not only were the great centres of learning destroyed, but the entire legacy of traditional education was maimed. A long period of darkness enveloped India which eventually proved to be a fertile ground for British rulers. Among the most resourceful and powerful imperialists in history, they could impose an entirely alien system of education on this country. The objectives of the introduction of the western education system were (a) to develop a class of ‘brown sahibs’ who would be European in heart and Indians in colour and (b) to prepare an army of ‘babus’ and petty functionaries who were required to assist in running the gigantic administrative structure of this vast country. Apart from fulfilling these declared objectives the most pernicious aim of introducing the system was to weaken the very foundation of the Indian culture. Behind the facade of rationalism, objectivism and free enquiry the western system of education aims at moulding the mind of educated youth in such a fashion that they would be cut off from their cultural roots and become willing adopters of western culture.

There is no doubt that, by and large, the Britishers were successful in their efforts and they succeeded in crippling the traditional system of education in India, But no sooner that the new education system got firmly established grave internal contradictions began to appear. With the passage of time unavoidable contradictions also proved disastrous for the British empire. Apart from turning out ‘brown sahibs’ and ‘babus’ it also produced a good number of thoughtful and talented Indians who not only came to realise the deep significance of the Indian cultural heritage but became painfully aware of India’s miserable plight under foreign domination. It was not because of their western education that these individuals became the leaders of resurgent India during the foreign rule, it was primarily due to the submerged power of traditions, deeply rooted in Indian psyche, that awakened their hearts and minds. This small but significant section of thoughtful Indians consisted of great spiritual leaders, social reformers, educationists and freedom fighters. The highly inspired new political leadership, under whose guidance Indians were able to throw off the foreign yoke, sprang up from this very section of educated Indians.

Eventually, when India gained freedom it not only inherited the entire administrative and judicial system, assiduously set up by the British over the centuries, but it also adopted the British educational system. Inspite of all the noble intentions of India’s new political elite no serious effort was made to bring about any desirable and meaningful change in the educational set up. The most noble ideas and ideals propounded and lived by some of the great spiritual leaders, savants and Karma- yogis of this century like Swami Vivekanand, Maharshi Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi – all of whom drew most profound inspiration from the highest ideals and metaphysical principles rooted in Indian culture-were outright ignored without being given any serious thought. The westernised educational system was adopted in its totality. This was considered most beneficial for this country by the ruling elite. The consequences of this decision are there to be seen by anyone who cares to see; they are most painfully visible in our universities and other institutions of higher learning.

Where do our universities stand today? On the one hand, universities are springing up day-in and day-out like mushrooms. Yet a vastly growing number of students find it extremely difficult to get themselves admitted in their desired courses of study (the plain fact is that the growth rate of the institution of higher studies cannot catch up with the growth rate of population). And, on the other hand, the existing universities are plagued with a host of ailments – total absence of a desirable and normal academic atmosphere; ever falling standards of teaching and research; increasing dearth of good and committed teachers; unmanageably overcrowded campuses plagued with indiscipline bordering on anarchy; intractable problems of finance and financial mismanagement; unmanageable examination process that breed cheating and dishonesty; blatant  political interference; erosion of university autonomy, and so on and so forth. All the three major constituents of a university, the teaching community; the students and the administration- apart from accusing each other for the present state of affairs also lay blame at the doors of the state, the educational planners, the politicians and the society at large. Even in the face of this miserable and pathetic state of affairs there is a general tendency to skirt the fundamental issues, no serious and concerned effort is made to probe deeply to find out the root cause of such a situation. No one is willing to accept accountability and responsibility for the present state of affairs. And, in the meanwhile, the rot continues to strikes its roots deeper and deeper.

Since in all normal societies metaphysical doctrine constitutes the essential and intellectual intuition occupies the position of a principle, the basic objective of education has been the intellectual upliftment of man. The foremost responsibility of the educational institution in the past was to act as nursery for the flowering of wisdom and a launching pad for human ascent, through dissemination of right knowledge and also through the development of intellect and understanding. In the present age the foremost objective of the universities is not the transformation of man, not even the shaping of individuals for a society which possesses a stable and sane social order and maintains genuine equilibrium.

Under the present dispensation one of the primary functions of education, i.e. shaping good human beings, has no place in the list of priorities. Universities are there for the primary objective of fulfilling the requirements of the establishment and catering to the needs of the society in accordance with plans and policies laid down by the powerful elites. It is expected that whatever ‘human resources’ – an inept term indeed – are needed by society, such as technocrats, bureaucrats, managerial executives, financial experts, lawyers, teachers, doctors etc., should be produced by the universities. As the actual need for such personnel constantly fluctuates in this rapidly changing age, the universities are constantly required to change their academic environment, courses of study, methods of teaching and research and, in short, they are expected to change their entire orientation from time to time. They are expected to function like polytechnic institutes. This is an almost impossible task for any university and, no wonder, the universities have failed to fulfil the expectations. This is so because today in India there is  no mechanism to find out the exact manpower requirement pertaining to different sectors and there is a total lack of perspective planning in this respect. Perhaps in view of the ever shifting and extremely diversified nature of the job structure in the modern society, it is almost an impossibility to gauge and determine the nature of the quantum of the manpower requirement of the nation.

In the given situation, the universities try their best to keep pace with the job market and exert all their resources to produce the required ‘human resources’. But by the time they are somehow able to create the necessary infrastructure for training students for certain specified jobs, it is found that the quantum of demand for those jobs is far below the supply of the trained persons. This situation leads to unemployment of qualified and trained youth. It is a curious phenomenon that there is a rising demand for higher education in the midst of steeply declining employment opportunities. Thus, we find an alarming increase in the population of the educated unemployed along with a larger and larger expansion of universities system. Side by side with this there has been an unhindered growth of private coaching institutions for the courses in commerce management and technological subject. i.e. for reaping profits. This utterly confusing, frustrating and intractable situation is indicative of a deeper congenital malady afflicting the modern societies.

Here I would like to draw your kind attention to an altogether different aspect of the situation. It is widely believed that basically there is nothing wrong with the modern social and cultural order (modern education being one of its segments) and that its major weak point is that it ignores or attaches least importance to the moral aspect of life. It is surmised that because of this lacuna there is an all round deterioration in moral standards. Hence, it is argued that if necessary dose of moral input is inducted in the education system the lacuna can be removed and the prevailing atmosphere of normlessness in the precincts of higher learning can disappear. Most of the advocates of this line of thinking are of the opinion that whenever they emphasise the need of effective moral education they are not talking of morality in its original sense. In their view morality has nothing to do with tradition or religion or even with inner conscience. Their conception of morality is based on the principles of rationalism, utilitarianism and individualism. This view ultimately leads to making the issue of morality a matter of law and formal rules. Thus, we find that all around there is a plethora of laws, formal rules, and procedures prescribing do’s and don’ts; increasingly, abiding with law is wrongly equated with morality. This results in an ever increasing dependence on the law enforcing agencies. The expansion of the proctorial responsibilities, heavy deployment of armed police force inside the campuses and formation of a separate wing of security guards within a university bear ample proof of the growing reliance on the law enforcement mechanism.  

In this situation morality no more remains a matter of conscience nor does it become an imperative call of duty for an individual. The entire ethical domain gets totally exteriorised and moral values no longer constitute an inalienable part of the inner core of one’s heart, the heart of a good human being. It is not difficult for anyone to see the consequences of the rationalist-utilitarian view of morality. As man’s mind is no more governed by any metaphysical principle and his conscience no longer acts as the fountainhead of moral action, ethical questions do not vex him any more. This explains the rise of the widespread tendency of openly flouting or circumventing the laws and rules with impunity and, as a result, the formidable power of the law and order enforcing mechanism is rendered more and more ineffective. In this situation how one can hope for a sane and stable moral order worth its name?

The word ‘moral’ (morals, morality) is derived from “mores” which refers, firstly, to settled and inherited modes of thinking and acting and secondly, to practices of a collectivity. Evidently, these features are common to both tradition and morality. Tradition is for man and society and it is precisely under its benign canopy that morality finds its true niche.

In all normal societies immoral behaviour is considered as a sign of the deformity of the mind. This deformity is born out of ignorance and one who is ignorant becomes a prisoner of his own passions. A mind possessed by passions is an impure mind and until and unless it is cleansed of the impurities it cannot be treated as a normal human mind. It is a polluted mind. This explains why all traditions, irrespective of time and clime, exhort human beings to follow the path of the purification of mind. As a matter of fact the cleansing of mind is considered to be the preparatory stage or first stage of the multi-staged path of purification.

Morality in its true sense, is not just a means of social control. It is something much more important than that. Basically, it is a necessary means for the askesis of man, for the practice of disciplining himself to achieve the highest goal of human life. Human passions such as pride, egotism, pettiness, selfishness, falsehood, sensuousness, covetousness, anger, violence etc are not to be considered merely from the moral point of view but are to be seen essentially from the ontological point of view, from the perspective of man’s being. From this point of view one who is a prisoner of his own passions is an ignorant person just because the passions prevent his faculty of intelligence from attaining knowledge that leads to freedom from the bondage of ignorance. Such knowledge must be realised through one’s whole being. It concerns not only the intelligence but also the will and the psyche. To realise it body and mind both have to be trained and prepared. It is in this context that un-reigned raw passions are treated as major obstacles and obnoxious defilements.   

The basis of true morality or moral values is neither sentimentalism nor utilitarianism. True morality is based on the metaphysical principles and it is aimed at purification of mind and development of virtues. That is why all traditions in different languages and forms exhort men and women to tame and control their raw or animal-like passions and to cultivate cardinal virtues. Any absence or inversions of virtues, truthfulness, friendliness, forgiveness, non-covetousness, non-violence, compassion, giving or charity etc. – leads to the defilement of mind. From the social point of view such defilements leads to immorality and from the religious point of view it leads to the commitment of sin. Thus, from the traditional perspective virtuous life is a matter of paramount importance for man in his earthly existence. Any society based on this perspective attains inner equilibrium and enjoys stability. Naturally, in such a society it is not difficult for a person to control his desires and passions as well as his feelings and sentiments and there is minimal need of external control over him. Such a person who rules over his passions and rules over his lower self enjoys genuine Swaraj, the rule over himself. Here one is reminded of ‘Hind Swaraj’, the most sentimental book written by Mahatma Gandhi whiel contains his fundamental principles and in which he enunciates his concept of Swaraj in a simple and lucid way. If at the inner or individual level by Swaraj he meant one’s control over one’s passions and senses, at the outer or societal level the concept meant control of the community over its socio-economic affairs.

I think that the present system has reached a stage that is posing serious threat to the very survival of man and society. It is common knowledge that the survival of life on earth has been seriously endangered. We now face unprecedented problems like population explosion; unbearable poverty and socio-economic disparities; an ever rising tide of unemployment, crime and social disorder, the unabated arms race, both in conventional and nuclear arms, and the hovering threat of total destruction; an alarming all round environmental degradation; abnormal spurts of ethnic and religious intolerance and fundamentalism bordering on bigotry, generating hatred, violence and what not. But there is always a silver lining behind the dark clouds. When one’s very existence is endangered critically, only then does one make the last heroic effort and the best of one’s capacities come to the fore. It is not for nothing that some thoughtful and concerned people all over the world are strongly feeling that the 21st century could be a century of Buddha and Gandhi.

In my humble opinion, under the given conditions, as academicians and intellectuals our primary task is to understand the nature, the premises and the telos of the perspectives of modernity and tradition both. Once we undertake a genuine and dispassionate examination of these two perspectives we may ourselves draw right conclusions. That may transform our thinking entirely. Only a transformed thinking can find a way out of the present morass. We all know that ideas and thoughts have always moved the world in the past and brought about radical transformations.

We have to ponder and make a beginning. On our own part, we in our tiny institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath (Varanasi) have ventured to make a humble beginning in this direction by starting a special series of publication of the writing of Prof. A.K. Saran, a rare thinker and a social scientist. In his own way and through his dialectical method of internal critique he examines and dissects the root premises of the various strands of modern thinking. It is not at all necessary to agree with all he says and that is neither expected nor is possible. By referring to his writings I am simply suggesting that as Prof. Saran examines the very roots of the modern thought structure by employing the modern idiom with which our educated class is most conversant, it would be a bit easier to understand his arguments. Of course, there are other contemporary thinkers who think and write on similar lines. It may be that some of you present here have been thinking somewhat in the same manner. What is needed is that more and more thoughtful and concerned people contemplate over the present situation as responsible intellectuals and use their innate power of discernment. Is it a tall order? Is it not our sacred duty as teachers and educationists? If a radical change in the ways of thinking is brought about, right actions can flow out, individually and collectively both, Unless a wholesome social and cultural milieu is created one cannot hope to bring about any meaningful change in our education system.

    I have taken the undeserved liberty of taxing your patience for a longer time while ruminating over the crisis situation enveloping our social and cultural world and, particularly, over the gloomy state of affairs obtaining within our university system. My sole purpose of putting across these stray thoughts has been to view the things from a perspective totally rejected by the modernist long back. My words might have given an impression that I am sermonising or haranguing the most learned audience from a high moral pulpit or from a safe cloistered perch. Not at all. Rightly or wrongly, I am one of you. I do not consider myself as an outsider as far as the university system is concerned. I can only submit that I sincerely feel that if I would not have made such an attempt on this occasion I would have been failing in my universal responsibility as a human being.


*   Professor Samdhong Ringpoche was Director, Central Institute for Higher  Tibetian Studies, Sarnath and President, Association of Indian Universities and then Prime Minister of the Tibetian Government in Exile in India. This is the text of his Presidential Address in Annual meeting of the Asscoaciation of Indian Universities in 1998.  


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati