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Academia and loadshedding
Publication Date : 13-02-2013
In South Asia, the early institutions of modern higher education were established by the British during the 19th century. The first three universities were started in India in 1857. It is because of this historical connection that the history of higher education in South Asia and Southern countries in general often gets narrated within the paradigm of what some scholars have called 'academic colonialism'. Higher education institutions are often seen as transplants that were part of the design of colonial rule. They were supposed to produce graduates who would fill in the administrative job slots necessary to keep the empire running. However there were clearly unintended consequences of colonial initiatives in higher education, given that those thus educated led many an independence movement.
After the middle of the 20th century when many former colonies achieved their independence and began to expand their higher education infrastructure, their relationship with their former colonial masters got reinterpreted in at least two ways. First it was discussed within what some scholars have described as the paradigm of academic dependency. This dependency was said to exist at multiple levels within the social sciences: at the level of theory, methods, perspectives, choice of canons, etc. The teaching and research executed in Southern countries have been often described as Eurocentric. Faculty members teaching such courses have been accused of paying no attention to ‘eastern’ or ‘southern’ sources of theory and analyses in the social sciences.
The second way in which that relationship has been discussed is within what we could describe as a paradigm of lack (best exemplified by our present condition of ‘loadshedding’). In this mode, both the physical and software infrastructural facilities of the better-known Anglo-American research universities are taken as the criteria against which those found in the universities in the South are to be measured.
Such evaluations, more often than not, have concluded that the physical, fiscal, managerial and academic environments that have contributed to the success of the former universities were found to be lacking in the Southern universities in general. This ‘resource gap’ then has been used as a way to explain why the academic performance of the latter universities - measured variously - was found to be wanting, and in many cases, simply abysmal.
Most accounts of international social science production argue that countries of the global South, including those in South Asia, have at best a marginal presence in the field that is said to be overwhelmingly dominated by North America and Western Europe. The data and analyses presented in the World Social Science Report 2010 seem to suggest as much. This kind of comparative thinking is happening amidst the gradual dominance of a particular variety of audit culture in higher education in the US and in Europe, one in which ‘impact factor’ measured by bibliometric considerations is the central dance.
As can be expected, responses to both of these narratives have also been recorded. In response to the academic dependency features of Southern countries, some have forwarded a counter discourse that highlights the pre-colonial golden days of southern knowledge production systems, one that attributes the decline of such systems to colonial intervention. This kind of discourse easily slips into a nativist mode, an extreme form of which would recommend ‘delinking’ southern higher education institutions from all forms of Eurocentric knowledge production systems.
Milder versions would talk about making social science disciplines indigenous by introducing non-western sources and perspectives in them. Delinking is simply not possible and instead of trying to create the wheel again, I think it is much better to engage with all types of knowledge production systems, Eurocentric and otherwise. One could even say that through engagement based on specialisation, Southern scholars could beat the Northern masters in their own game. In response to the ‘lack’ paradigm, both insiders and outsiders generally agree on the need for massive new investments on higher education. They emphasise that trying to ‘catch up’ with the better universities is the name of the game for Southern universities. They often cite the example of China investing in its universities so that some years down the road, many of them will be ranked within the first 50-100 universities in the world. This model of talk is similar to the one that we hear in the field of competitive sports where commentators often say that investments made in sports infrastructure and people will lead to Olympic medals for the respective countries.
Is academic production an internationally competitive sport, the results of which can be neatly presented in a table resembling the Olympics medal tally? For some it clearly is that. However, to me, this is a particularly debilitating way to think about the field. Let me clarify. I do think comparison with how academia is done elsewhere is important, both for intellectual and practical reasons.
I also think we can do with more resources, namely, money and institutional infrastructure. But we are also in a situation where no matter how big a public or private investment is made in academic research in Nepal, we will still be stuck in a ‘catch-up’ mode for a long time. This is so simply because those countries with advanced research resources are able to invest much more than we will be able to do so in the next few decades. In other words, the ‘catchup’ mode can become our convenient prison in which we can find all kinds of excuses to justify our current and future academic infirmities. Academia is a productive activity very much tied to local specificities of politics (broadly understood) and resources, both financial and cultural, at any given historical juncture. These activities are executed by agents some of whom are likely to marshal their broad-based cultural resources - such as innate or learned knowledge, a sense of an intellectual mission, linguistic abilities (eg, to use Sanskrit, Nepali or English at a very high analytic level), created networks, ability to tap into funding sources, hard work and josh - to meet the challenges emanating from load-shedding conditions while others are likely to evoke those conditions as an excuse for their lack of performance.
An approach that highlights the simultaneous presence of these actors in the landscape and their differential ability to use nationally and internationally available resources allows us to seek a different vocabulary of engagement with academic production in current day Nepal. In other words, this is a much more insightful way to analyse academic production under conditions of massive load-shedding than what is offered by the dominant ‘decline under political interference’ and ‘lack’ theses.