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In the spirit of Gandhi-Ji: Thoughts on Higher Education

Dr Budd Hall, UNESCO Co-Chair on Community-based Research & Social Responsibility in Higher Education, Professor Emeritus, University of Victoria, Canada

September 25, 2019

I have emerged from several days of conversation and reflection on the value of Gandhian thought to the issues facing Higher Education Institutions in the first quarter of the 21st Century.  These reflections have been made possible through a two day symposium jointly organized and hosted by our UNESCO Chair in cooperation with the Association of Indian Universities, UNESCO New Delhi and the Asian Office of the International Development Research Centre September 18-20, 2019.  The participants and speakers included senior leaders in Indian higher education, leaders of Gandhian practice today and representatives from higher education institutions. Gandhian concepts of Nai Talim, Sarvodaya, Swaraj, and Jai Jagat were shared within the conversations.  Our international guests shared practices from their universities that they thought were in the spirit of Gandhi-ji. Gandhi’s thoughts interacted with Ubuntu in South Africa, Ujamaa na Kujitegemea in Tanzania, Indigenous epistemologies in Canada, and Sejahetra in Malaysia.

Of the many stories of higher education innovation that were presented, the story of Dayalbagh Educational Institution, provided the most complete example of a contemporary higher education institution incorporating practices that could be said to reflect Gandhian principles. Dr. Anand Mohan, the Registrar of Dayalbagh made the presentation to the conference.  I was reminded of the visit that they had made to Agra for a field visit to Dayalbagh in April of 2015.  What was fascinating is that Dayalbagh Educational Institute was founded in the early 20th Century by followers of the Radhaswami faith, many years before Gandhi’s own ideas on education were to be articulated and practiced.

The goals of Dayalbagh are to reach the least, the last, the lowest and the lost.  This corresponds well with the Gandhian concept of Antyodaya, or service to the last or lowest person. Fees are kept low so young people of little means may attend. They have a system of education from Primary through University. Mental and Manual labour are united with all students taking a role in farming, cleaning, and making practical items. Respect for manual labour is combined with the newest technological approaches to the running of the school. Solar power provide all the electrical needs. They grow the food that they eat. Solar generated steam heat cooks the food. Students are treated the same without reference to caste or class. I have never seen such a complete integration between core functions of teaching and research in a university with society around it. This university truly practices the core principle of engaged teaching and scholarship in its fullest manner.

The practice of Nai Talim by Mahatma Gandhi emphasised several of these principles of learning and doing, of teaching and service, of expertise for larger service to society. Dayalbahg’s spiritual moorings have given it the inspiration and an institutional ethos that integration of theory and practice in everyday life. What I saw four years ago in Agra  is still unique in this respect.

Our conclusion after several days of conversation is that indeed Gandhi’s ideas can provide important philosophical grounding for our contemporary concerns with community-university engagement and the social responsibility of education for the common good.  And further we have evidence of many smaller innovations already in place around the world and at least one institution, Dayalbagh,  shows us how total institutional transformation is possible. Its spiritual and normative foundations are strong for sustainability.

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