‘University education isn’t just about examinations and degrees’

Haris Zargar

Given the nature of conflict in Kashmir and the repressive regime it spawns, it isn’t surprising that universities and educational institutions in the Valley face a massive state onslaught. These educational hubs have fierce administrative controls; are significantly militarised, or policed; and are repressive towards any form of student activism. These educational establishments continue to suffer from institutional corruption, state apathy and massive public derision. The general attitude towards education in Kashmir lacks any real concern for any genuine social and personal reform or institution building. Promotion of critical thinking and knowledge production through research is never a priority here. The entire process of education is thus effectively reduced to holding customary examinations and awarding degrees. Globally, more importantly historically, universities in free societies are supposed to be ‘safe spaces’ for intellectual and personal growth. These highbrow ‘autonomous’ spheres are the bedrock of formal education that provide a decisive break from parental supervision and offer guidance through peer influence that foster individual personalities. Most importantly, universities are laboratories where ideas are generated and tested through critical reasoning and debate.

My experience of having studied at Kashmir University was no different than this dreary scenario. I believe this is what every student in Kashmir has to go through. Or, more accurately, is forced to go through. Planners, and those who run our universities, are happy with running these institutions like any other thoroughly-bureaucratised government department, immune to criticism and resistant to change. The oppressive apparatuses with which our universities operate make it impossible for student voices for reform to be expressed or heard.

My understanding of what a university can be and what university education should be like was that of any other student in Kashmir — classroom, teacher, examination and degree. That was until this opportunity of studying abroad landed my way. Although I had been working as a journalist for over five years in New Delhi, I always wanted to pursue formal education at a top international university to gain better understanding of international politics and global conflict. In 2015, I got an offer for a coveted scholarship to study MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) — one of the premier institutes for development studies in the world. What began as a chance soon turned into a life-transforming experience.

Even before I was to embark on this new journey, I was unsure of what to expect from living and studying in London. Soon after my flight ascended over the Delhi skyline, I vividly remember asking myself: Am I truly going to a place where I can speak my mind out without any inhibition or fear of reprisal?

London is a very special city. For me it was welcoming right from the start. Having some of the best universities in the world, the city is built to cater to international students from different ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. One doesn’t feel left out. But, it wasn’t until I entered the SOAS university campus that I realised my journey to experience something truly enriching has begun.

For someone who has studied at University of Kashmir, better known for its beautiful landscape and sprawling unaesthetically-designed buildings than education or quality of research, studying at SOAS was a complete eye-opening experience. SOAS doesn’t have a massive campus, but instead well-managed couple of buildings, which are student-friendly in every respect.

A stark contrast struck me right in the beginning of my entry into SOAS. During the first weeks I was at SOAS, there was a big banner at the entrance of university that criticised the newly-appointed SOAS Director, Baroness Valerie Amos, for her support to the invasion of Iraq by US forces while serving as a senior United Nation’s official. The banner wasn’t taken down for several weeks. I wondered what action would have been initiated against students had any such banner been put or flashed against any university staffer or more so against a vice-chancellor in Kashmir.

SOAS attracts a large number of international students, which makes it one of the most diverse campuses in the United Kingdom. On the very first day, I began interacting with a group of students from Palestine, Luxembourg, Lebanon, Sweden and Turkey. As I was engaged in a discussion over the unfolding of events in Middle East and war in Syria, in that very moment I sensed the opening up of new doors. This space around me became a new window for me to the world. I was intrigued to know their perspective on global humanitarian issues, and how their understanding on same subject significantly varied.

It was also quite interesting to experience how classwork was conducted and how evaluation was done to examine progress. After every lecture, students would be divided into small groups, which would discuss the lecture note and express their opinion on the topic of study whether they agreed or disagreed with the analysis underlined by the professor during his/her lecture. This exercise was very rigorous and made students to critically analyse all the possible perspectives on any subject of debate. Interestingly, the discussion wouldn’t cease even after the class was over. Most students would take the debate informally to the student common rooms, library or even cafeterias. Studying became life, and everyone enjoyed every facet of it. Everything in the campus and outside it was about analysing the lecture note, critically examining reading material and endlessly debating the nuances of an issue.

On one of the many such days of intense discussions, I asked a friend why she had chosen to study at SOAS. To my surprise, she told me that she also had an offer to study at London School of Economics (LSE) and University of Oxford, but chose to join SOAS. She explained her interests in Middle East and Palestinian studies, and that she was fascinated by the work of Dr Adam Hanieh, a leading academic on the subject. For me this was a revelation, as conventional wisdom (at least in Kashmir context) would expect anyone to take up studies at Oxford over SOAS given the reputation.

Most students in UK don’t pursue Master’s degree soon after their undergrads, but usually return after few years of work to take up postgraduate courses that allows them to follow their passion and interest. It is a well -thought out conscious decision. In Kashmir, one degree follows another like a chain and the student never gets any opportunity to discover himself or herself and explore his or her talent before joining up for a PG degree.

The culture around the campus is further built by the academics who teach at these universities. Most academics, who taught me or with whom I interacted, were very humble and friendly irrespective of their work, knowledge and reputation. This warm attitude comes apparently from the view that learning is effectively a two-way process, wherein not only do students learn from their teachers, but lecturers also gain from the insights of students. Unlike in Kashmir, students aren’t seen as subservient to their teachers.

From what I heard from my peers in London, just like SOAS, most other UK universities provide individuals an opportunity to learn no matter where you are – inside or outside class, which is what makes the experience studying in these spaces of learning gratifying and unforgettable. I spent only one year at SOAS, but it profoundly shaped my vision how I perceive the world, and how I want to carry on with my life.  That is something university education in Kashmir never gave me despite spending two years at Kashmir University. Mostly, students in Kashmir end up more confused about themselves and their future after spending a valuable part of their life in universities here.

Universities prepare you to challenge existing power relations that are suppressive and unjust, and foster a deep sense of social responsibility, other than being centres of learning and research. Unfortunately, hardly any institution in the Valley  has these free spaces for students to thrive intellectually, experience freedom of thought and pursue ideas and creativity. Such an atmosphere obviously helps the individual grow at multiple levels. But one shouldn’t miss out the fact that such an environment immensely promotes the growth of the institution itself. That is something administrators of our universities don’t appreciate. And that is perhaps one reason why our universities are faltering and failing.

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