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.

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