Attending the graduation ceremony of the University of Texas is quite an experience. This university produces more graduates than any of the other great American public universities. But on graduation day, what is even more striking than the quantity and diversity of the graduates is the obvious connection between the university and the broader community. Three graduates were singled out and given the tremendous honour of rising before their graduating peers and the watching public. Not for perfect GPAs or GRE scores, or for admission to elite graduate schools, but for their outstanding contributions to their community at the young age of 21. One served his country in Iraq and graduated with degrees in history and drama. One came from an underprivileged community in Texas and was already using her Engineering degree to better their lives. Some others are profiled here.
Later that night my thoughts turned to what graduation ceremonies in India are like. Asking my friends about their graduations confirmed my worst fears. Drab, dull affairs with people being called to the podium to receive their degrees in the order of their ‘ranks’. Far from being honored, students who try to help their communities in Indian universities are ridiculed and demoralized by one and all. Part of this attitude is the fundamental flaw in Indian society, the lack of belief in a collective destiny. But a substantial chunk of it can be attributed to the nature of India’s higher educational institutions.
One thing that startled me when I started college in the US was that the university campus was completely open, i.e., there was no line or fence demarcating the university from the rest of the city/community. People could come on campus freely without having to go through checkpoints and guards. This is true across the US, I recently the visited the University of Washington which is even more mixed into the surrounding city than the University of Texas. It is hard for an outsider to exactly differentiate between the city and the university. People tell me univs like Harvard and MIT are even more integrated into the cities they are in. This is a far cry from IIT Mumbai, on whose outskirts I grew up. Even entry into the campus for the common folk was not allowed and the campus was surrounded by walls on all sides. It was as if a deliberate bifurcation was created, so the ‘elite’ students inside could be kept insulated from commoners like me and my friends. It would not surprise many that Indian universities barely think, study or teach about their surroundings.
I think this exclusionary nature of Indian univs and their campuses only adds to the narrow mindedness widespread in Indian society. At every stage, our education system reinforces the idea that those who succeed in certain exams are somehow different and superior to the ones ‘weeded out’. It is no suprise that such institutions do not generally produce graduates who consider it honorable or desirable to serve their communities. And then we wonder why America can produce leaders like Obama and we can only produce weaklings like the Congress ‘youth brigade’.
But to give another example of the strong relationship between American universities and the communities that sustain them, one of the most popular radio stations in Austin, ‘KUT 90.5‘ comes to mind. It is a joint effort of the university’s College of Communication and the national radio network NPR. The station features great programming throughout the day. The station benefits from the energy and talent of the university’s students and the university gives something back to the community. The Indian state does not even allow radio stations to broadcast news freely, forget nurturing young journalists with university operated radio.
Indian universities have received a welcome influx of money and infrastructure in recent years. Sadly, the objective has not been to make them better centers of learning that can produce an independent minded student body and genuinely interact with the vibrant communities that surround them. It has been to simply satisfy the demands of industry and corporates, and chase after the much vaunted ‘world class’ status. The structure of both admission and teaching in Indian universities inhibits them from becoming great universities. And much of this is due to their insulation from the same communities that house them.