How Higher Education Got Criminalized – OpEd

By

If I were not a firsthand witness to the criminalization of higher education, I would not be in a position to write about it. I am a witness to wholesale corruption in teaching appointments which involve bribery and the use of political influence, heads of institutions sitting in selection panels and appointing their partners and personal favorites for various positions, falsifying of administrative records without fear of consequences, manipulations in admissions, use of public funds for expensive lawyers to indulge in lying and deception, the bribing, bullying and blackmailing of teaching and non-teaching staff into servility, influencing and buying of journalists so that no news comes out, harassment and intimidation – all of this happening with the blessings of higher-ups in the political party heading the government, while the devil declares its loyalty to Power with a capital P. 

In all of this criminalization there is a dark side where the supposedly marginalized are in cahoots with establishment politics. Such complicity with power cutting across political ideologies by those who claim to be “weak” and “backward” is rarely admitted and even more rarely spoken or written about. This suits the agenda of the status quo which needs people from sections of the population who could pose a threat to the government, as they speak from the position of the disadvantaged. Those who happily surrender their individuality and self-respect for monetary and other benefits do so in order to preserve their interests.   

The broader context to higher education getting criminalized is that corporatization of the economy in effect meant making ethical compromises, not simply because of the introduction of the profit motive into the life of the mind, but because education became intertwined with economics, money occupying a central place, instead of learning for learning’s sake. Learning for profit’s sake became the new dictum. You can’t be learning something that does not translate into money in one form or the other. Learning for a job’s sake, I understand. But if you’ve to learn just to make money, whether for survival or to have a comfortable life, it means that the knowledge will never translate into an authentic person. That explains the emotional quotient of doctors, IT professionals, legal experts and bureaucrats who acquired positions without the required amount of empathy.

I don’t understand courses like Business Administration. You need to have a business in order to make sense of a degree that qualifies you for administration. How can you be working for a company and have a degree in Business Administration? A degree in Hotel or Tourism management is another of those pointless degrees where whatever little is learnt could easily be garnered through taking a job in a restaurant or as a tour guide. I do not think everyone needs to go to a university in order to acquire norms of civilized life such as self-restraint and basic human decency or the language and awareness that will prevent you from being exploited and abused. These things can be learnt through apprenticeship without wasting time and money in the university. In other words, higher education has been overrated and unfortunately countless youngsters with degrees are walking the streets of the world without employment opportunities along with the tragic realization that whatever they were taught at the university has no immediate relevance to their daily life. 

While corporatization has created quite a few pointless degrees, what happened is that the very concept of education that stood for learning, got diluted. In the process academic leadership went for a toss; in private institutions we have “yes-sir/madam” teachers and administrators who endorse whatever the institution expects of them without questions. In public universities, the academic leaders tend to be incompetent, completely indifferent to the future of the institution and corrupt, doing whatever it takes to hang on to the seat for as long as possible. The semblance of order in private institutions is only because of the fear of getting kicked out. Change in a real sense would mean striking a balance between institutions offering the freedom to ask the right questions that lead to more platforms for inclusion and the socialization of the young to non-abusive, non-patriarchal and gentler forms of living.

I don’t intend to dwell on the bigger issue of the progressive decline of ethical standards along with the related decline in original thinking. No person who is not honest with him or herself could ever be creative in the real sense of the term. Fame and money in the form of prizes and sales mean nothing before the pursuit of the truth. My point is how bare minimum academic standards have been brought down to the level of zero because of the contempt that the semi-literate class in power has for anything that looks like an objective, truthful understanding of the world. What they fail to realize is that every great invention, discovery and production of knowledge took place through a right understanding of how things work. The scientist is an artist who examines nature and the artist is a scientist who observes social behavior. 

Therefore, corruption and dishonesty at the level of higher education can be disastrous for the entire order. Broadly, fraud in an academic setting falls under a tentative definition of white-collar crime. Often this has little to do with political ideologies and more to do with the greed and ambition of particular individuals and members within institutions who are a part of a coterie or mafia working to defeat academic goals and replacing them with vested interests. The criminalization of higher education has different facets to it. What is common to all the facets is that money in one form or another is foregrounded at the expense of thought. 

While the prostitution of the mind for material gains is more or less an accepted fact of life, what makes it worse is that every other crime is given a shade of lightness in order to disguise the moral vacuum that institutions have been reduced to. The Oxford Handbook of White-Collar Crime uses the term “white-collar crime” in two different senses: one of them “refers to the corrupt, exploitative, and socially harmful acts of respectable and powerful individuals and organizations” and another “refers more broadly to economic crimes that involve deception” (4). White-collar crime is a reality because there are individuals who are “corrupt, exploitative and socially harmful.” Such individuals often enjoy political support simply because one of the items in the corporatization of higher education always meant the suppression of any discussion related to meaningful change. “A majority of offenders hail from middle-class backgrounds and have some level of higher education, are married, and have stronger ties to community, family, and religious organizations than traditional street offenders” (Handbook 119). Sometimes there are reasons for “street offenders” breaking the law such as personal or social background; but no excuse is good enough for white-collar criminals, when they happen to occupy higher positions. 

What is strange is that in countries like India corruption has been normalized because of the fundamental dishonesty of the average person on the street. Most people in fact approve of corruption-based success to such an extent that nobody feels that there is anything wrong in it. Corrupt people are admired, seen as respectable and surrounded by well-wishers looking for a favor. When the corrupt stand on platforms and speak about moral values, the thunderous applause they receive is mind-boggling. There is a context to it: 

“A considerable element in the trivialization of white-collar and corporate crime lies in the fact that politicians who set the tone and to a large extent dictate the decibel level of the response to such illegalities depend very heavily on campaign contributions from people and organizations that supply the roster of white-collar criminals. There is a folk saying about not biting the hand that feeds you or, in white-collar crime terms, “Don’t defeat the elite.”

Whether called “white-collar crime,” “economic crime,” or “abuse of power” or given some other label, higher forms of political, professional, and business delicts typically are complex, obscure, and somewhat esoteric. Unlike street offenses, there never has been, or likely will be, an annual tabulation of the extent of such behavior.” (Handbook 42)

The context can certainly be changed provided there is a willingness to call the spade for what it is – a tool for digging. Where injustice and exploitation are the norm, more or less everyone becomes complicit in keeping the inequality going. In one of my favorite Brecht plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the legal system complements the powers that be. In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. As one of the characters puts it: “The judge was always a chancer! Now the chancer shall be a judge!” Establishment politics needs to bank on institutional support, mostly from the universities, media and courts of law. 

By trivializing white-collar crimes, universities create the base that offers justification for the corruption and abuse of power happening both in and outside the government. If higher education is a part of the status quo to begin with, for one to expect change through learning (which is a real possibility) means that we create avenues for sharing information and ideas in truthful, non-violent and accommodative ways. When educational institutions are corrupted it also means that the legal and other institutions such as the media are severely damaged making it impossible for common people to find expression for their concerns. Once the majority of people are voiceless and powerless, they have only one alternative left, which is to resort to “any means necessary,” to use a phrase popularized by Malcolm X. That’s how colonialism came to an end; that’s how colonial forms of oppression will come to an end. 

References:

Van Slyke, Shanna R., Michael L. Benson and Francis T. Cullen. Eds. The Oxford Handbook of White-Collar Crime. OUP, 2016.

Brecht, Bertolt, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Trans. Eric Bentley, 1983.

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *