Why the Taxpayer should fund Universities- the fight for dissent and JNU

By Devika Dutt



In India, our universities are in ferment. A Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after being targeted and systematically pushed out of the University by the administration and functionaries of the state government. The government is also considering policies to reduce public funding to universities. Because of this assault on educational institutions and because of the quashing of dissent, powerful protest demonstrations have been staged by student groups, especially by students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). This student campaign achieved a crescendo when some students held an event to mark the execution, under extremely controversial circumstances, of Afzal Guru, a convicted terrorist. Amnesty International also condemned the execution of Afzal Guru. In response, the government and allied institutions have tried to demonize the broader student movement and are prosecuting students for sedition. There have also been increasing calls to shut down the university for taking taxpayer money and then destabilizing the nation. This narrative is extremely problematic for several reasons.

We often think about progress in society on terms of how far we have come as the human race. We marvel at how innovations like the internet have changed the way we communicate and interact with each other. We can locate ourselves on this earth using a small device in the palm of our hand that can tell us how to get where we want to go. A disembodied voice from this device can probably tell you the answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and everything. The economist Marianna Mazzucato makes a compelling argument that the government, in this case the United States government, has played an important role in funding the people and institutions that have brought us this far. She argues that government has and should take risks, because no one else is likely to take risks and invest in the future of society because it does not pay immediate profitable dividends.

This is why the state should fund education and research in universities: few others would be willing to undertake this investment in the scale that is needed for the continual progress of society, and individuals would not be able to buy this progress as it would be too expensive. Moreover, the rewards from doing so are diffuse and not completely marketable. Just recently scientists detected gravitational waves, confirming the existence of black holes, and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity 99 years after Einstein came up with it. This discovery is massive in its significance, on par with the discovery of the structure of the DNA. It is significant for our purpose that the consortium of scientists that made this discovery, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, is funded largely by public institutions in the US, UK, and Germany. It is startling to think that this discovery, that allows scientist to better understand gravity and visualize the end of the universe as we know it, may not have happened or could have been delayed in the absence of this funding.

This argument is easy to make for funding for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines: they are likely to produce patentable, marketable technologies that the market eventually rewards. But what about the social sciences and humanities?

The public funding of research and study of the social sciences is even more important precisely because the knowledge cannot be immediately standardized, packed, and sold for the highest price. Moreover, social phenomenon affect human lives in profound ways, and their study and research are equally important for human progress as the next iPhone, or a miracle drug that is the elixir of life. Institutions such as race, caste, nationality, and gender are not physical constructs and STEM fields cannot go very far in understanding them without the rich tradition of social science research and development of the arts. The problems of poverty, illiteracy, public health crises, war, and institutional violence cannot possibly be eliminated without the study and research in the social sciences towards that end. This is not something the market would reward highly, because in several instances, the people who benefit the most from the continuation of these problems are important and powerful players in the market that can marshal significant purchasing power.

But what if the research that is produced, or the places where it is produced, questions the very idea of the nation state, of which the government is a part? Should the government fund that study and research as well? What if the research questions the institutional violence of the state against black people? What if it questions the racial and communal profiling of brown people, brown bearded men, burqa-clad women, and people with vaguely Muslim sounding names? What if it questions the military presence in certain parts of the country against the very people the military is supposed to protect?

The answer is unequivocally: yes, the government should continue to use taxpayer money to fund educational institutions even when and especially when they point to the excesses of the state. Since the nation state is not a natural physical phenomenon, it is the fields of social science and humanities that will study it. And if it is a problem, it is public universities that will ask uncomfortable questions and look for even more uncomfortable answers. The progress of society and the amelioration of the human condition hinges on this discomfort. It is important to remember that the notion of women as equal productive members of society made us very uncomfortable (it still does). The idea of black people as bodies that we cannot commodify and sell also made us extremely uncomfortable not very long ago. We were very comfortable with one nation state colonizing and pillaging large parts of the world of its material enrichment, and to some extent, we still are. Elimination or reduction of these deplorable facts of life involved us asking extremely uncomfortable questions. We probably don’t even know the true significance of many ideas that are being produced today. After all, it even took 99 years for Einstein’s brilliant visionary ideas to be validated.

Therefore, it is crucial for national progress, and progress in general, that societies allow and encourage people in universities to ask difficult questions without fear and intimidation. In the US, institutions of higher education increasingly face existential threats due to cuts in public funding and mind boggling levels of student debt. In India, academic freedom is being quashed and a culture of fear and intimidation is emerging. This is precisely because students and professors in universities, particularly, Jawaharlal Nehru University, are exposing the workings of the right-wing neoliberal Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, and its allied groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The government and its allies have whipped up jingoist frenzy against the University because some students questioned the excesses of the Indian state in Kashmir. The students are being prosecuted for sedition, and demonized in the media as terrorists and anti-national elements. JNU has been accredited as the best university in India, and produces stellar research. Nonetheless there have been demands to shut down JNU and starve it of taxpayer money. Giving in to these demands would be a big blow to academic freedom, education, tolerance of dissent, and freedom of expression in the largest democracy of the world.