Draft higher education bill: Sophistry for modern times

In ancient Greek philosophy, sophists were teachers who took money to teach wealthy young citizens of Athens how to make a weak argument look stronger. They taught the skill of rhetoric to persuade the public with false logic.

In several of Plato’s dialogues such as Apology, Meno and The Republic, the pseudo-wisdom of sophists is demonstrated by tangling them in the essential questions of virtue and ethics at the heart of intellectual knowledge. The sophists in these dialogues turn out to be pseudo-intellectuals making fallacious arguments with dubious conclusions.

The metanarrative in higher education in India nowadays is that we have an academic quality deficit as our higher education institutions are far from ranking highly in the international ranking systems. Hence, we need reforms to overcome the crisis of quality.

The latest addition to the series of proposed reforms is the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) bill which aims to repeal the University Grants Commission Act of 1956. However, this reform, proposed in 2018 by the then Ministry of Human Resource Development, also seems to follow the tradition of sophistry in modern times.

The draft of the HECI bill of 2018 claims to be a progressive and much-needed step towards promoting uniform quality in institutions of higher education and maintaining academic standards. The grounds for its institutionalisation in the form of the Higher Education Commission is justified in the name of the existing flaws in the workings of the University Grants Commission. However, the draft document carries inherent logical flaws.

The free pursuit of knowledge

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates argues that a conclusion taken in the light of incomplete evidence or information leads to dubious conclusions and results. Now, consider the following statements from section 15 of the proposed draft describing the functions of HECI:

• Specify learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education (subsection 3a).

• Specify norms and mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programmes and employability of the graduates (subsection 4g).

• This act takes measures to promote the autonomy of higher education institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunity to all and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment (subsection 2).

The idea is that the HECI will work to promote the autonomy of higher education institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge. Before looking at the measures to be taken to achieve this, let us recall the basic tenets underlying the idea of the free pursuit of knowledge embedded in Immanuel Kant’s description of the university as an institution of higher education.

In his Lectures on Pedagogy, Kant asserted that human beings should be educated to develop a disposition that enables them to choose good ends rather than being merely skilled for all sorts of ends. Good ends refers to those results that promote the highest common good.

The idea is to encourage people to develop a predisposition that enables them to freely choose those actions that help in the achievement of the highest common good, leading to the happiness of the whole society.

Kant believed that this was only possible through higher education. Hence, in his book The Conflict of The Faculties he stressed the need to cultivate such a predisposition as being an integral function of the university and said this should be based on scholars freely engaging in criticism of existing knowledge for the pursuit of truth rather than the achievement of other organised or pre-defined ends.

The essence of the idea of the free pursuit of knowledge was based on the pursuit of knowledge that seeks the truth through debates and discussions held among a community of scholars which aims to achieve the highest common good.

Restricting the social imagination

Coming back to the premise proposed by HECI to achieve the free pursuit of knowledge, let us situate specific learning outcomes within the trajectory of learning for the free pursuit of knowledge.

Having specific learning objectives provides a concrete framework for teachers to plan their teaching to achieve the intended purpose, but at the same time, it restricts the social imagination that can take place in academic interactions.

Teachers and students guided by learning objectives may read the prescribed readings and learn theories, but this does not ensure critical engagement with the text. That involves a constant dialogue between teachers and students, among students and between text and reader.

Learning from the perspective of specific learning outcomes limits the immense potential that the classroom as a space of critical inquiry can have. The specific learning objective approach carries within it the threat of a kind of checklist syndrome. And mere checking ensures knowing what is written in the text without taking into consideration what could have been written in a different context, what could not be written and why it could not be written.

Critical learning stems from a conflict in the classroom, tapped by the teacher who begins the dialogue, sustained to provoke reflection and carried past the classroom to enable introspection. Specific learning objectives transform classroom experiences into lessons aimed to improve efficiency, but leave no scope for conflict and experiment.

Learning objectives may guide teachers to teach the theoretical underpinnings of a subject, but they cannot ensure the engagement of learners with the historical trajectory of the evolution of such theories and without undertaking learning of such depth and breadth, the free pursuit of knowledge will not happen.

Effectiveness and employability

Another premise of the draft act in relation to the free pursuit of learning is the specification of norms and mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programmes and the employability of the graduates.

An important point to note in this is what parameters will decide the effectiveness of programmes? If effectiveness will be decided merely based on employability, that gives a direct indication that the government is seeking to tailor learning to market forces that may control learning as per their desired needs.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses may be promoted or given extra grants at the expense of humanities and social sciences, especially fields like philosophy.

The employability of graduates, though necessary for survival, is not an indicator of the free pursuit of learning and basing success on this will not ensure the ultimate purpose of the free pursuit of knowledge as described by Kant, that is, general happiness.

Students motivated to learn simply to get a good job will not become conscious citizens or carry the responsibilities that come with personal liberty. Are we to assume that our universities, constrained by measures of effectiveness and employability, can no longer bear the burden of critical and conscious minds?

Without paying any attention to critical pedagogy and thinking for oneself, putting in place specific learning objectives and measuring effectiveness according to employability will not ensure the free pursuit of knowledge and will lead to further constraints on it rather than promoting it.

Hence, like sophists in Plato’s time, the government’s proposals in the draft HECI bill are a form of sophistry for our modern times.

If the Department of Higher Education seriously intends to reform higher education in India, then it needs to develop policy measures that reflect a critical understanding of the grounding principles of the free pursuit of knowledge where dialogue and critical pedagogy are at the centre, rather than promoting a new institution built on invalid premises.

Monika Maini is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, India. E-mail: