Place of learning or piece of real estate?

Season in the sun Nalanda University of old

shutterstock.comSeason in the sun Nalanda University of old

University towns, typically, nurture an environment of ideas. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening in India

As India continues with the twin tasks of building universities and developing urban centres the links that are emerging between the two are worth pondering over. There is a strong tendency for universities to gravitate towards large metropolises, usually national and State capitals. Even when real estate costs make it difficult for private universities, every effort is made to locate the university where it can depend on the urban comforts of a metropolis. There are few signs of the emergence of university towns.

Don’t dismiss the idea

It is worth reminding ourselves that this implies we lose out on several elements that a university town can offer. By their very nature small towns built around a university can, when they are successful, be learning-led. The pace of these towns provides time for reflection. At the same time the overwhelming presence of students ensures the joy of frequent celebrations. And the combination of youthful joy and elderly reflection has contributed to university towns often providing the breakthroughs in ideas that keep the world going.

Idealistic as this picture of a university town may seem, there are enough successes around the world for the idea not to be dismissed offhand. It is not just Oxford or Cambridge in the England, or towns like Providence which is home to Brown University in the US that stand out. There are also examples of university towns that have survived centuries, including periods of relatively closed thinking.

Take the case of Jena in Germany. This university town traces its origins to the period of the rise of Protestantism. The university played a major role in the development of lenses. And this formed the basis for companies such as Zeiss to be located in the town and develop a still-continuing interaction with departments in the university. This academic-industry connection forms the economic foundation of this town, allowing it to retain its leisurely pace. Along the way Jena has survived the battles between Protestants and Catholics in earlier centuries, as well as the period when, as a part of East Germany, ideas were restricted. And students provide the cultural oxygen that any urban centre needs.

Ideas, not real estate

The attraction of developing a university town with strong links to history has not been lost on India. Arguably, the most notable recent effort in this direction has been the effort to recreate Nalanda University. And this effort has followed a pattern that is common in India’s efforts to develop universities. The first step is to acquire large tracts of land, or as large a tract as possible. The next step is to attract faculty by offering them attractive salaries. The expectation is that once the faculty is in place the students will follow and a major centre of learning will emerge.

It is not difficult to see that this approach has one rather fundamental difficulty: there is very little place for original thinking. The grant of land leads, more often than not, to the university first becoming a piece of real estate. Add to this substantial state support in the form of grants, and we have an economic prize that the more materialistically inclined find to be worth fighting over. This tendency is further accentuated when faculty is attracted through salaries rather than the opportunity to work on a set of ideas that allow for original thinking. The very idea that faculty must be offered substantial salaries to induce them to move to a university town makes the place seem intrinsically unattractive. As a result long before the university town produces the ideas that can make a reputation it is typically mired in controversy.

It is not even clear that if the university town were to break past the initial barriers it would be able to create a culture that generates new ideas. Such a culture would require openness to allow all kinds of ideas to be experimented with, cutting across ideologies and methods even if they appear at first sight to invite ridicule. India is nowhere near creating such a culture of openness.

It is easy to attribute this lack of openness to the government of the day. But the attitudes of governments only reflect a larger distrust of openness. We only have to look at the ideological and other divides of the Indian academic community, which are often marked by great bitterness, to recognise that we are some distance away from a culture of being open to new ideas; even in the unlikely event of governments of the day beginning to support the growth of ideas that may well go against them.

The absence of substantially successful university towns in India is thus just another reflection of the larger crisis in Indian academia.