Questioning the commercialisation of universities

On the 23rd of August 2018, the Australia India Institute hosted a Question Marks Seminar on the topic ‘How can Universities Contribute to the Public Good?’ In the context of the increasing commercialisation of higher education, the seminar reflected on ways in which universities can serve as providers of ‘public value’, through reference to their research in India. The two speakers were Craig Jeffrey, Director of the Australia India Institute and a leading authority on South Asian youth, and Fazal Rizvi, Professor of Global Studies in Education at the University of Melbourne with expertise on globalisation and education policy.

The speakers explained how the historical development of higher education in India has led to a ‘hub and spoke model’, where state universities in central locations are connected to numerous affiliated colleges – in some case hundreds – in regional towns and rural centres. In theory, this hub and spoke model may assist with the provision of the public good through teaching and research-led community engagement, as colleges often retain close connections to local realities while the universities with which they are affiliated can provide strong institutional supports. Yet, as Professor Rizvi outlined, this is not how the model works in practice. Staff in state colleges – within which a majority of India’s higher education students are enrolled – function more like administrators of a complex examination system than as researchers or even educators in any conventional sense. Although there are individual efforts by students and staff to promote reforms in India’s higher education system, these are often stymied by corruption and an institutional environment that discourages innovation. Professor Jeffrey described this state of affairs as a ‘public secret’: widely recognised as a major problem of public policy within India, yet ignored because the magnitude of the problem is bewildering.

The speakers did, however, offer reason for hope. Recent years have seen the emergence of progressive, largely philanthropically funded private universities, who may be offering new models in research-led regional engagement. Professor Jeffrey and Professor Rizvi argued that Australian universities could partner with these institutions to assist them with their mission.

Missed the seminar? Watch the recording below.