A couple of years ago, a friend of mine couldn’t stop raving about being part of one of the premier (and private) B-schools of India, where he was pursuing his MBA degree. I, as a teacher in a public college in Delhi, spent hours debating the merits and demerits of private and public education with him. I tried my best to convince him about the potential of public education, but one fine day, it seemed like he ended up convincing me on the merits of private education.
My friend was taught by an eclectic and accomplished faculty, handpicked from leading international business schools, on the basis of their research excellence and teaching acumen. To which I replied, that we had an impressive line of teachers in our college too, who are probably not getting the same pay package as his teachers, (not even close), but have finished their education from the best colleges in India, and abroad, and published some excellent research work.
So far so good, I thought to myself. He informed me that the professors in his college were provided with swanky personal offices. I couldn’t help but compare it to the small research room I shared with ten other professors. In addition, professors in his college were also provided with teacher assistants for attendance, assignments, and evaluation work, so that the professors could singularly focus on teaching and research. I, on the other hand, had to run around to get student attendance uploaded every month and then again next month, to correct the attendance, incorrectly uploaded for the previous month.
My friend, then went on, to share images of the infrastructure of his B-School, that would actually put Karan Johar’s school in Student of the Year to shame. Their classrooms are not called classrooms they were “lecture theatres”. The lecture theatres were equipped with a broadband communications network, ensuring global connectivity.
Students can interact by computer or video-link with faculty, industrial leaders and other students anywhere in the world. Audiovisual and video-conferencing facilities such as overhead projectors, LCDs, fixed cameras and touch-pad systems are also available. In my mind, I compared their lecture theatres to our classrooms that were made for 30 students but often had to accommodate 50. It was not uncommon to find students spilling out of the classroom during lectures because of the paucity of space. WiFi would work on and off, so to access any material from the Internet one would have to download it at home, and bring it to college on a pen drive.
Next came the topic of hostels – much needed but non-existent in our college, hostels were re-branded as “student’s village” in his college. Unlike any village you would have seen, student villages actually consisted of air-conditioned and fully furnished studio-serviced apartments.
I munched on my subsidised samosa, and had chai from my humble college canteen, as my friend went on about the other facilities available in his college, such as dining halls, a bank with ATM facilities, documentation centre, book store, mailroom, coffee shop, travel desk, etc. There was also a discotheque and supermart on campus.
By now, I was desperately looking to find something about my college that I could boast of, when I remembered, “Hey, my college has the biggest sports field in DU and a fine cricket pitch which recently hosted cricket for visually impaired children”. He cut me off, as he casually mentioned the state-of-the-art recreation centre in his college, with sports facilities, such as a swimming pool, fitness centre, and courts for badminton, squash, table tennis, lawn tennis, volleyball and basketball. His campus apparently also has a billiards room and football field. By now, I’d gone from slightly envious to slightly upset. I cut the debate short, public college didn’t come anywhere close to private colleges in the facilities provided, I lamented.
Next day, I went to deliver my lecture only to realise that the projector was not working. I complained to the lab assistant in an irritated tone, “Sir, projector nahi chal raha hai fir se” (Sir, the projector is not working again) to which he replied, “Madam, kya karein, humne complain kar rakhi hai 1 week se” (Madam, it’s been a week since we complained).
I sat down as 50 faces stared back at me, expecting the class to be called off. Instead, I started a conversation on a random topic. “So what’s it like to be studying in a women’s college?” Conversations were rich and varied. A girl commented, “No one in my family has gone to college. It takes me 2.5 hours to reach college every day, and some family members were sceptical about sending akeli ladki (single girl) so far away, but because it’s a girls college, they agreed.”
Another student spoke about how her mother didn’t want her to go to a girl’s college after being schooled in one of the leading, posh South Delhi co-educational schools – “why do we need to take admission in a girls college? Your personality would suffer and you wouldn’t be able to talk to the opposite sex.”
The day ended up being a meaningful experience for the students, and me, as we spoke about how gender and class affect our everyday lives. Meanwhile, a friend who teaches in a private educational institute had been strictly instructed to not use the ‘F’ word in the classroom, “ladkiyo ko feminism sikhake kya humein unhe krantikaari banana hai” (By teaching girls about feminism, do we need to make girls revolutionaries?). That day, I got out of the class, reaffirming my faith in public education. Our classrooms are less than ideal, but our classes keep the flame of idealism alive.
Today, public education campuses have ignited a fight to save the Constitution of India. Public university students across the country are organising numerous protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), filling us with much-needed strength and resilience. While some of us are quick to jump at them with comments like, “They are being instigated”, “They don’t understand the act”, or “They are violent”, students are leading the way with peaceful protests, articulating why they think the bill is against the democratic and secular values of the Constitution of our nation.
Even in the face of police brutality, they refuse to be instigated, reminding us to revisit the lessons in Gandhigiri we were all taught in school. Hope is reinvigorated, as scores of people come together, from all sections of the society, to demand that, which India had prided itself on for decades, the fact that it is the largest democracy in the world.
Contrary to private education, where one ends up becoming a slave to the institution first and market later, public education serves the true purpose of education – liberty of thought. The freedom that public education brings to ponder upon and criticise oppressive social and political structures is unmatched.
This is why, perhaps, our country has a rich history of student movement protests dating back to at least 200 years. Students actively participated in the freedom struggle and then during the 1984 Emergency in India where the then Delhi University Students Union president, Arun Jaitley, and Jai Prakash Narayan, who headed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti, were sent to jail.
Prime Minister Modi’s own website dedicates a page to his role in the Navnirman Movement – in which student protestors brought entire cities to a halt with its ‘extremism’ in 1974. Today, public universities struggle with fund cuts and fee hikes, but our biggest strength is that our classrooms are not slaves to the market yet.
The battle cry of azaadi has spread like a wildfire from JNU campus to at least 70 campuses and counting. Meanwhile, private universities have chosen to remain aloof from the movement. It is understandable that when a student has a hefty loan to repay, it is difficult to even think about questioning oppressive political, social, and economic structures. The taxes we pay ensure that the youth of the country remains free of debt to the banks so that they are free to think of their debt to society.
Recently, I was reading a newspaper article that discussed the absence of student movements in private universities. The article carried an interview with a student of the same B-school my friend spoke so fondly of, “The administration won’t give permission for a protest.” I turned towards my friend, “So you actually took a loan to have your fundamental right of dissent to be taken away from you. Shame!” And with that, I rested my case.