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Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation and the state of higher education in India

The future of India’s youth is strongly tied to the excellence of its institutions of higher education. And government after government has acknowledged that such excellence is in turn tied to institutional autonomy, no matter how reluctant they have been to actually grant this. Institutions like Ashoka University, a premier private venture that in a short period of time has managed to establish a reputation actually stretching to different parts of the world, in part by attracting international faculty talent, have held promise of a more vibrant educational future, where higher education attracts big investments, including foreign investments, upping the R&D game and helping Indian youth walk bright new paths.

Also read: After Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ex-CEA also resigns from Ashoka University

There is no doubt that the resignation of renowned public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta has jolted this rosy vision. He has said he took this step after it was made abundantly clear to him that his association with the university “may be considered a political liability”. Noted economist Arvind Subramanian has also resigned, saying that it was “ominously disturbing” that the university could “no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom”. With the widespread perception that Mehta’s resignation has been brought on by his strong critique of government policies, this episode will definitely give further traction to the rising global discourse on the decline of democracy in India. Public universities anyway have a reputation of linking faulty hires with political pressures, but now the same trend in private universities has also become naked.

Also read: Vice-chancellor says no threat to Ashoka’s liberal values, denies charges

Such pressures make India a very difficult place to do business. Investors are constantly getting surprised by new governmental asks. In education this creates an environment full of conformity, doubling down on learning by rote, when what is desperately needed for the dramatically changing global work conditions is Indians trained in critical thinking. Government must appreciate what is at stake here, the signals that are being sent to institutions at home and to investors plus allies across the world. It must do the necessary course correction. It must not only be but also be seen to be open to criticism and tolerant of dissent. That is what the young population of India needs. Don’t let them down.

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