Indigenization of Higher Education: Trends in India, Latin America and New Zealand

Though the demand for indigenization of higher education content is genuine, there are a number of constraints in realizing it. There is a global tendency towards homogenization of higher education content.

A significant section, if not the majority, in different societies, perceive and correctly so, that acquiring higher education is the way to achieving economic and social mobility. This includes groups which have historically, for different reasons, not benefitted from higher education.
Hence, there is a growing demand for their inclusion in higher education. This demand manifests in various forms. While the less affluent sections look for financial support and other kinds of assistance to pursue an education in universities, those social groups which find it difficult to get admission in these universities due to their historical under-achievements in education (which are also due to their social and economic marginalization), demand special provisions.
This is the basis of reservation or affirmative action in admission to universities and an important strategy towards achieving inclusion in higher education and it has been analysed in a number of articles1.

A number of social groups (including religious groups, indigenous people or others) which are identified with certain distinct cultural features, want these to be reflected in higher education. Since all such cultural (and religious) ethos is less likely to reflect in content and constitution of conventional universities and higher education institutions, there is a growing demand for new institutions of higher education. However, since these social groups are more likely to be economically and socially less privileged, this demand translates into financial support from the state for the purpose.

This article assesses this demand: What are the manifestations of this demand? How are these being realized? What could be the dynamics of such an education? The paper is based on a review of the literature and also first-hand exposure to a set of higher education institutions by the authors in India, Latin America and New Zealand where such demand from indigenous people is strong.

Trends in India

The demand for inclusion in the content of higher education has manifested in India in multiple forms. Formal higher education was introduced in the country by the colonial rulers. There were two kinds of higher education during the colonial period. First, the one controlled and owned by the colonial state which remained as such even after the country’s independence. The second was controlled and run by the Christian missionaries (with or without financial and other support from the colonial rulers)2. The cultural and religious ethos of these missionaries reflected in the colleges run by them. These colleges wanted to retain their specific characteristics even as they continued to receive financial support from post-independent governments, and we will discuss this issue in a following section.

Early efforts in colonial India

Due to the dominance of English-medium higher education in colonial India, there was a demand for (or attempt to provide) other kinds of higher education in non-English languages and non-Christian religious ideologies. We consider a few cases briefly here. The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was established in 1916 mainly with Indian efforts though supported by English well-wishers3. The university wanted to focus on science education from the beginning 4, and use English-medium. In that sense, one cannot say that BHU was envisaged as an alternative form of higher education but was established through the efforts of Indians. The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) started in 1875 as a college, through the organic efforts of Indians, but the intention was to give western and English (higher) education to Indian Muslims. Its conception was inspired by well-known British universities of Oxford and Cambridge. To a great extent, BHU and AMU can be seen as efforts by local intellectuals to expand conventional higher education to the people they represented.

It was the Jamia Millia Islamia (started initially in Aligarh in the 1920s and later shifted to New Delhi) that had a slightly different focus. Its founding vision included a focus on indigenous ethos and a spirit of plurality. There was also a focus on the Urdu language. It was started by Muslim intellectuals who were part of the freedom struggle or nationalist movement in India. It also got support from non-Muslim leaders of the movement like MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, as they thought that the kind of education imparted in Jamia would facilitate harmonious relations between educated Muslims and Hindus in the country.

However, the Mahatama Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith (in Varanasi) and the Gujarat Vidyapith (in Ahmedabad) founded in the 1920s had a somewhat different orientation. Both these institutes of higher education were inspired by Gandhi’s vision of self-reliance and self-rule. In that sense, these two universities were different in their ideological traditions and linked to the spirit of the resistance to the colonial rule and the education promoted by it. In Gandhi’s view too, these institutions were for those who boycotted universities run by the colonial rulers. There was focus on Hindi, self-reliance (in production processes) and anti-colonialism in the content. These universities were outside the public education system and were supported by Indian nationalists and businesses.

However, their transition to independent India was a little ambiguous. Now, there was no need to pursue anti-colonialist content. The post-independent governments accepted these alternative universities’ as national institutes and they came under the University Grants Commission (UGC) and central/​state governments in the 1960s. However, there is no evidence to believe that the alternative paradigm’ pursued in these universities has influenced the country’s higher education, in general, after independence. The Kashi Vidyapith has become an affiliating university, and the colleges affiliated to it pursue, by and large, regular degree programs. The Gujarat Vidyapith continued with certain practices, but one can sense that rather than being able to influence other institutes of higher education, it is increasingly being influenced by the mainstream form of higher education in the country5. The mainstream higher education in India continued without much change in terms of content from its colonial form (and with English as the formal medium of instruction), though the ownership, management and academic positions were transferred to Indians.

Demands by caste groups

Different caste groups are also an important part of Indian society. There were demands from different castes (especially, ones historically marginalized in education) to get higher representation in higher education. This demand manifested in two forms. First, getting seats in institutions of higher education reserved for them. Secondly, there are certain locations (like Kerala) where caste associations started schools and, later, colleges, and most of these sought (and received as part of their political assertion) financial assistance from the state. Though such assistance brings these institutes under government regulation, the management (that is, caste organizations) has certain rights. A majority of the teachers and students in these are from the caste which controls them. However, the caste associations did not demand a different educational content which would reflect their cultural ethos. This could be because these castes were an integral part of the Hindu society but less privileged and so were integrated with a certain level of suppression, and they were attempting to follow cultural traits of the upper castes as part of their social mobility6.

One group which has been, by and large, outside the Hindu mainstream and has pursued a different cultural ethos in India are the tribal people. However, they have not demanded or pursued a different content in higher education (until recently) since they were economically marginalized and have limited political power in most parts of India. Their achievements in terms of even school education were minimal until recently. Their languages were not reflected even in school education in most parts of the country. Though there have been some efforts to get control of and better representation in school education by different sections of the tribal population, these have, so far, not extended to higher education. Though there are states, such as Mizoram, where the tribal population is in majority, so they control education and their language is well represented in school education, there has not been any major effort to pursue a different kind of higher education.

The Constitution of India recognized the need to respect the rights of minorities (whether it is in terms of language or religion) in educational institutions7. It also cautions against discrimination in terms of state funding to such minority-run institutions8. Therefore, since the mandate is beyond the provision to reserve seats in the higher education for specific (socially marginalized) social groups, one can interpret this right (under Article 30 of the Indian Constitution) as one with two objectives: (a) to ensure that students belonging to minority groups can get education, in addition to what they can get without reservation; (b) to have higher education content that reflects the cultural or religious ethos of these groups. Since there is reservation in higher education for socially marginalized groups, and others (who are not marginalized but belonging to minorities) in general educational institutes, the first interpretation is not very significant. (There could be issues of inequality if governments provide financial assistance to a minority-run institute, and this minority does not face any social and economic deprivation, but still utilize this financial assistance).

On the other hand, the need to have a higher education that reflects the cultural or religious ethos seems to be a genuine one. Though Article 30 of the Constitution recognized minorities in terms of language, not many institutions that focus on this have come up. Hence, English continues to be the medium of higher education in India. Not every scheduled or regional language is a minority language within the region and most other (non-scheduled) languages are not given importance even in school education.

There are two later developments in this regard: First, the institutes run by the minorities seem to be focusing more on providing general education which need not reflect the cultural/​religious ethos of the group. There could be a transition through which a minority-run institution becomes a mainstream educational institution in terms of content, though the ownership remains within the social group. Secondly, the right of minorities (under Article 30) becomes a contentious issue when self-financing colleges have increased in India, and there is a tendency to misuse this right to bypass government regulations regarding fee and admissions. However, these self-financing colleges provide standard or common education (irrespective of their minority status) and hence, need not be relevant as far as the core issue of this article is concerned.

Trends in Latin America

There is a notably different trend in Latin America where there has been a significant demand from the indigenous people for higher education institutions which reflect their different cultural ethos. To some extent, this is due to the failures of conventional universities to be adequately inclusive. They do not recognize the language, culture and traditions of the indigenous people. Many students coming from such groups cannot get admission in the conventional universities; cannot bear the cost of living even if the tuition fees are waived, nor cope up with the syllabus that is alien in terms of language and does not deal with their issues and reality. Also, there is a marginalization of these groups in terms of their access to resources and power in the country. These factors lead to resistance and the demand for an alternative form of education as part of it. Governments were also forced to accept this demand and provide some public funding for this purpose as and when these groups drew attention as a result of their mobilization or international pressure. Intercultural universities in various Latin American countries are a response to this demand9.

Dietz and Cortes (2011) have noted the following features of an intercultural university: Recognition of cultural diversity; development of culturally pertinent educational programs; interculturality as a new form of initiating relations between diverse cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups; democratic coexistence in society; generate knowledge in the localities of the intercultural regions through the training of professionals and intellectuals committed to the economic and cultural development of community, regional and national territories, whose activities contribute to promoting a process of revaluing and revitalising the native cultures and languages’.

An intercultural university inside an autonomous university in Mexico

In 2005, Universidad Veracruzana (UV), an autonomous, public higher education institution based in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, located on the Mexican Gulf coast, decided to open its own Intercultural Program’ prompted by the new federal government program to promote intercultural higher education in indigenous regions (cf. Dietz, 2012, 2019). Veracruz is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse states of Mexico. Throughout this state, both highland and lowland Mesoamerican cultures maintain a huge diversity of community structures, belief systems, languages and economic strategies linked to milpa corn agriculture and coffee and sugar plantations. Emigration from these communities to nearby urban centres; central and northern Mexican metropolitan areas, and; the United States has rapidly increased during the last decade.

In order to attend to these populations, and in sharp contrast to other, non-autonomous and state-run intercultural universities, Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural (UVI) was created not as a new university, but as part of an established public university. Academic interest in developing culturally pertinent educational programs was combined with the demands of indigenous organizations and movements for broader and better adapted higher education options in indigenous regions and communities.

From the very beginning, the new program decided to establish centres in the less privileged and the most marginalized areas of the state. As a colonial or postcolonial legacy, most of the indigenous population lives in these regions. Four new centres of UVI were established in Huasteca, Totonacapan, Grandes Montañas and Selvas regions. In each of the four regional centres, UVI offers a B.A. degree in Intercultural Management for Development, which comprises an official and formally recognized degree program in eight semesters that responds to an inter- or trans-disciplinary, multimodal, flexible curriculum. The subjects generate a range of itineraries called orientations’. These are not disciplinarily specialized curricula but are interdisciplinary fields of knowledge that are needed for professionals such as intercultural managers, knowledge brokers and intercultural translators. Starting from a shared study program, an individual student can choose her/​his itinerary leading her/​him to a particular field of knowledge – communication, sustainability, languages, health and rights – in which these mediating and translating skills are then applied.

Independent of the orientation the students choose, this B.A. program is shaped by an early and continuous immersion of students in activities of the host communities. The program is based on a cross-cutting methodological axis so that courses and modules include methodologies of community and regional diagnosis, ethnographic tools, participatory project management and evaluation. From the first semester itself, students begin to carry out their own research and knowledge transfer activities inside their home communities.

The total number of UVI students involved in the B.A. program in the five different orientations in the four regional study centres are approximately 600 (graduated students), half of who are women. Of this student body, two-thirds are native speakers of an indigenous language and one third speak Spanish. Classes are normally taught in Spanish, but some of the teaching and project activities are also carried out in the main indigenous language of the region: in Náhuatl (Huasteca, Grandes Montañas and Selvas), in Totonaco (Totonacapan), in Popoluca (Selvas) and in Otomí (Huasteca).

To achieve a smooth transit from UVI studies to employment, most students start intermediary and advisory activities and design of projects while still studying. Almost all of the UVI students are from indigenous regions and would not otherwise have been able to access higher education in urban centres. The B.A. in Intercultural Management for Development is taught through a mixed format that combines conventional face-to-face classes in small groups with newer kinds of workshop-based classes and intensive community outreach work, which students carry out under the supervision of a lecturer-tutor and in close collaboration with communal authorities, NGOs and civil associations present in the regions.

The UVI has signed a series of agreements with local actors and regional networks, who get involved as counterparts in the extra-curricular teaching and learning process. Through early work experience, students have to compare and translate diverse types of knowledge: formal and informal, academic and community-based, professional and experiential, generated in both rural and urban contexts by both indigenous and non-indigenous actors.

Currently, UVI is diversifying its academic program with another B.A. program in Intercultural Law offered at the Totonacapan10 campus; and an M.A. program in Náhuatl Language and Culture11 offered at the Grandes Montañas campus. Also, continuous education programs are taught on intercultural health for in-service medical staff and on intercultural education for elementary- and secondary-level bilingual teachers in indigenous regions of Veracruz.

However, these intercultural universities promoted by the state face several challenges and some of these are documented in the literature and here.

These intercultural universities, though they are an outcome of the demand by indigenous people, are conceptualized (and to a great extent managed) by mainstream academics who are non-indigenous people. There is criticisms of this and a demand for a greater role for indigenous people themselves12. However, there are some universities’ conceptualized and operated by indigenous groups in Latin America. For example, one such university in Colombia focusses on indigenous cultures and thought, and this is seen as resistance’ against the country’s dominant western culture’13. These different cultural aspects may include values such as respect for elders, and a curriculum which includes traditional music, weaving, ecological agriculture and the history of the fight for indigenous rights. Universities conduct weekend or sandwich (during vacations) programs for indigenous students who are already working as teachers or workers in their communities. Initially, such universities did not get funding from the government. However, a few European organizations involved in development cooperation have extended financial and other kinds of support. For example, the Indigenous Intercultural University network established by GIZ is one among them. There are also external interventions to provide additional courses or strengthen these universities. The following section deals with one such university in Cauca14, Colombia.

A university by a social movement

The campuses of the Intercultural Autonomous Indigenous University (UAIIN) are located in the province of Cauca, in Colombia. Its headquarters, including one campus, are in the suburb of Popayan15, the capital of Cauca and there are campuses in different parts of the province. The conventional university, University of Cauca, also one of the first in the country, has made special efforts to admit indigenous students and to create a support structure so that these students go through the conventional university education without much difficulty16.

Popayan remains the hub for the mobilization and struggle of indigenous people. Geographically, it is located towards the pacific side and is on the Pan American Highway between Colombia and Ecuador (and Peru). If this road is blocked, it can make a substantial impact on the movement of goods within and between countries. The organizations of indigenous people have used the blocking of this highway as a way to get their demands accepted by the national government.

The mobilization of indigenous people in this region came after a long period of oppression, which even now continues in some ways. Their leaders are chased by the elites and colonizers on the one hand and are not liked by the Left or the Right parties, on the other. The militant Left which has been very active in Colombia is present in this region too, and they do not recognize the need for a separate mobilization of the indigenous people.

The UAIIN was created in 2003 by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) – a movement of indigenous people in the region. This step of creating their own university was to counter the hegemony of the conventional educational system, which, by and large, continues to carry the form designed by the Spanish colonial rulers.

The government recognised CRIC as an indigenous organization in 1999, after which it took charge of the education in indigenous territories, which was until then controlled by the local governments. There were efforts towards asserting the rights of education by CRIC much before the establishment of UAIIN, and the university has borne out of these efforts. The establishment of the university was also in response to a practical problem faced by the CRIC. After they took over school education, many community members were appointed as teachers, but they lacked professional qualifications. There was a need to train these teachers with adequate emphasis on the cultural ethos and the specific needs of the indigenous people.

The university caters to a couple of hundred students and about 25 teachers. It also offers off-campus learning programs. It could so far survive without state support and minimal support from European Development Cooperation agencies. Though they want to expand, they do not have the resources. The number of teachers cannot be increased given the available resources. The students who come from different indigenous communities pay a small fee (which could be in kind, in the form of food items to make food for all during the residence), which is used for the salary to teachers who also come from indigenous groups and some are leaders of their organization.

Students are selected by their respective communities. They are mostly teachers or other functionaries working in different indigenous communities. The students are of different ages – 20 – 50 years – and most of them have previous practical experience in the subject that they are studying.

The curriculum includes the cultural ethos and those modern’ capabilities17 needed for their survival, self-defence and development. Like in any other university, some students are genuinely interested in the substantive issues transacted in classrooms, while a significant number of them see this as another or a more viable option of higher education in the absence of an accessible conventional university. There are ongoing efforts by the CRIC to get governmental recognition and resources for the university.

One can view such education as part of a much-needed intercultural education, but then the students should come from all sections of society. What about the teachers from the mainstream society who teach indigenous children? What about officers from the dominant section but who have to deal with the issues of indigenous territories? Such a university run by indigenous people with a focus on their own language and culture could be a space for intercultural education for all and should get resources from the government as part of its promotion of intercultural education.

In their current form, such universities may be seen as second-best’ spaces of higher education for indigenous groups. With their limited resources and facilities, these could become spaces of poor people’s education. As much as they need an education that focusses on their language and culture, they need an intercultural education that gives them adequate exposure to the ways and means of the mainstream society. This is especially so if the students of this university are to become effective teachers and functionaries in their territories or settlements. The requirement, then, is for conventional universities to become more inclusive. There are a few indigenous students in conventional universities. They take pride in their roots, traditions and customs but are aware of their challenges and wish to see that their own people get education from mainstream universities18.

The complex relationship between higher education and equity in Colombia makes access for indigenous people to conventional universities very poor. This fact has been overcome by some processes that have taken place since the end of the last century with multicultural reforms. First, the special quota’ policy for indigenous students emerged in some public universities in Colombia (Castillo and Caicedo, 2016). This first step made possible the entry and graduation of indigenous professionals in several areas. Second, Colombia incorporates the notion of ethnic groups and ethno-education to include the cultural rights of indigenous people. So, in mid-1994, university ethno-education began (Castillo, 2009). These are programs with an intercultural curriculum to train indigenous teachers in an intercultural higher education approach in different universities. This process is carried out in seven universities from which nearly a thousand indigenous teachers have graduated in several decades. This process is characterized by curricular flexibility, linguistic diversity, community participation, integrality and dialogue of knowledge as fundamental aspects in the curriculum. Third, there are two higher education processes created by indigenous organizations. The first one is the bachelor’s degree in Pedagogy of Mother Earth’ created in 2015 at the University of Antioquia for and by indigenous people, in order to offer higher education relevant to people’s life plans. The second one is the UAIIN Indigenous Intercultural University, described in the previous sections. These two processes are characterized at the curricular level by their ancestral, community, and multilingual approach.

Despite these achievements, compared to the demand and job offers, the Colombian situation is critical in terms of higher education and diversity. The UAIIN represents a genuine way out of the possibility of having a greater number of indigenous professionals that impact the economic, cultural, political and territorial processes of their communities. At the same time, the participation of indigenous people in conventional universities increases every year, as the special quotas’ policy exists in almost all of the country’s 34 public universities, and in more than ten private ones, where scholarships are granted for its support outside the communities.

Higher education policies in Colombia ambiguously move on the issue of equity, since the increase in enrolment does not significantly include the most disadvantaged sectors, such as the case of indigenous people (Castillo and Caicedo, 2016). In most universities, the right to higher education is subject to the issue of access. The factors associated with permanence and school success are the responsibility of the students, who in many cases must drop out of their study programs due to the lack of resources.

However, the results of the entry and graduation of indigenous people that have been promoted for three decades are very interesting in sociological terms. New relations between the national state and the indigenous people have led to the decentralization of functions, and the transfer of some resources for education, health and basic sanitation. The presence of indigenous professionals (economists, accountants, administrators, nurses, doctors, etc.) is very important to guarantee the autonomy of communities in decision-making and resource management. At the same time, the families of this generation of indigenous professionals are already present in conventional universities in greater numbers. Finally, the growing presence of indigenous students in universities enriches political life through organizations such as university councils’. In general terms, Colombian higher education needs to advance in the strengthening of this access and relevance policy, especially to offer new intercultural curriculums that can respond to the demands made by these people.

A comparison between India and Latin America

There are two ways to interpret the differences and commonalities between India and Latin America regarding the demand for inclusion in higher education. Despite the presence of a significant share of indigenous (or tribal) people, and other marginalized groups, such as Dalits (lower castes), India has not seen many efforts to make higher education inclusive in terms of the content. The inclusion is seen merely in reserving seats for them in higher education. Religious minorities are provided with certain avenues to focus on and specialize in issues of their religion, but such an option is not available to the lower castes or tribal population. It is not clear whether such an approach is due to the reluctance or difficulty in recognizing their differences. It is not only the languages of the indigenous groups but even the national and state languages are not recognized adequately in the higher education in India. The accepted medium of instruction in higher education continues to be English. There is not enough inclusion of the history, traditions and practices of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the syllabus of higher education in the country.

The key difference between Latin America and India, in this regard, is that the dominant sections in the former continue to have some connection with the colonial rulers, whereas similar groups within India are pre-colonial. The colonial other’ or imposition’ is easy to identify and fight against, whereas it is not so easy to work against the long-standing and persisting pre-colonial dominance. This is especially so when the dominated sections aspire to acquire (somewhat voluntarily) the practices of the dominant ones. The social fragmentation or the discrimination that exist in India — whether it is poor treatment of its indigenous people, or caste and gender discrimination — are the products of its pre-colonial traditions and not of colonialism. This makes their recognition and remediation much more difficult.

The indigenous people in Latin American faced suppression at the hands of the external colonizers whose cultural ethos was significantly different from theirs. Due to this, and also due to the international attention on the plight of indigenous people, which have also led to their social and political mobilization, there is a higher demand for inclusion in the content of higher education. The elites of Indian society somehow found the colonial education attractive and became its beneficiaries. Marginalized groups, such as indigenous people or lower castes, faced suppression not much from the colonizers but from the local elites. Hence, these marginalized groups were either integrated unequally into the mainstream culture or economically and politically deprived, and the demand for a higher education that reflects their different cultural ethos is not very strong in India.

The situation in New Zealand

New Zealand provides some interesting comparative examples. The first inhabitants, Māori, arrived perhaps 800 years ago followed by Europeans several centuries later. A range of pacific islanders also make New Zealand their home and both Pacifika and Māori are highly represented in lower socioeconomic groups. Unlike other countries, westerners have not started settling there through an imposed colonial rule. Instead, the settlement was facilitated through a treaty between the UK and Māori people signed in 1840. New Zealand has had a sovereign parliament’ since 1852. Hence, many key decisions in the country have been made by New Zealanders, and not by the British’.

However, the main form of education has evolved through the efforts of the western settlers19, and Māori and Pacifika people have historically been underrepresented in higher education in the country. This has led to various demands and practices to enhance their representation. Fundamentally important is a legislated acceptance of the need for affirmative action or positive discrimination. Both the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and Human Rights Act recognise that positive actions may be needed to enable particular groups to achieve equal outcomes with other groups in the New Zealand society20. By and large, albeit with some exceptions21, this positive discrimination is supported by society, as most people in New Zealand do not like to think of New Zealand as a polarised society, with historical socio-economic factors dictating how society functions in the future.

This has led to a set of measures aimed at enhancing the enrolment of students from Māori and Pacifika groups in conventional universities alongside considerable financial aid provided to students from low-income families in general that helps Māori and Pacifika students too. In some situations, Māori Iwi (tribes) also provide particular support to Māori students. In addition, in many cases, there are specific application processes in universities and other institutes of higher education to support the enrolment of Māori and Pacifika students22. Moreover, a great deal of effort is expended to provide additional support for these students as they progress through higher education23.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s universities continue to struggle to incorporate Māori and Pacifika students into their conventional higher education. Māori and Pacifika students have traditionally underperformed in higher education despite the strong social movement and legislation to emphasize that they have the same rights to enter higher education as anyone else24. All too often, students enrol for the first year of degree programs but struggle to succeed academically sufficiently well to be accepted into the second year. Clearly, the socioeconomic disadvantage in their prior schooling and upbringing is the underlying cause.

Universities claim that although there may be ethnically related differentials on entry, successful graduation is not contingent upon ethnicity. New Zealand universities are under a lot of pressure to somehow level the playing field’ for Māori and Pacifika students. Learning gains, retention and achievement by Māori and Pacifika students are key quality performance indicators in universities and considerable research into learning and teaching is underway to find the best way forward. The fewer number of Māori and Pacifika academics in the universities has been identified as an important factor but it will take many years and a great deal of affirmative action to correct this.

Secondly, there are educational institutes (Wānanga) controlled and managed by the Māori people. These are important since, even after providing these people access to higher education, higher education itself may not be adapted to the needs of such people. Hence, Māori people have for many years established tertiary education institutes that teach Māori knowledge, in Te Reo Māori (Māori language) and do so using Māori principles of education. For a number of years, these institutes have been able to offer degrees and now offer a very wide range of educational programs. One such institution, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, is New Zealand’s second-largest tertiary institution, with a presence throughout much of the country. Although, over the years, there have been some concerns about the quality of the education provided by Wānanga, in general, these Wananga are now accepted as part of the higher education landscape in New Zealand.


Though the demand for inclusion in the content of higher education is genuine, there are a number of constraints in realizing it. There is a global tendency towards homogenization of higher education content. The performance or outcomes in the labour market have an overbearing impact on the choices in higher education (though there are other desirable attributes that can be derived by society through such an education). The differences in the knowledge imparted in higher education become less and less important for the outcomes in the labour market. What is most valued in the market is some generalizable skills, and ability/​willingness to do hard work. Due to the problem of information asymmetry, the employers look for signals and here the ranking or the reputation of a university becomes important. The ranking of universities depends not only on the kind of education provided by them but also the demand by students. (The tougher the admission into a university, the higher its rank because it serves as a signal of the ability of students to work hard.) For this reason, most universities attempt to improve their ranking on the basis of, by and large, a uniform scale. This shapes the notion of quality in higher education. Hence, one should not be surprised if the funding decisions of the government and altruistic organizations are also influenced by these rankings. Though there are thousands of regular universities in different parts of the world which fail to improve their standards based on this uniform scale, yet do not pursue a different objective with determination and vigour. Hence, these are seen as failures and cater to those students who are considered not very proficient. This is the sad reality of the status of higher education in the world.

It is very difficult for a university which pursues a different cultural ethos to survive, especially if it is seen as creating manpower for the labour markets. There could be certain specific jobs available (say teachers in schools for indigenous people) for the students coming out of such universities and these may cater to such limited labour markets. The students may find it difficult to enter the regular labour markets.

There could be alternative ways of visualizing the flourishing of the spaces of higher education pursued by indigenous people or other such groups. Higher education may be perceived as necessary for the human and social (appropriate economic) development of these groups. For example, there are disproportionately few Māori doctors or such professionals in New Zealand; there are not many educated social development professionals and political activists among the lower castes and tribal population in India; there may not be many people with proficiency to run (small) businesses among the indigenous people of Latin America. Some of these professions could be such that the scarcity of professionals from within the group cannot be compensated adequately by making professionals from others available in their locality. Social and economic development must take place organically, and that requires internal capacities in the long run, and these cannot happen through a dependence on the knowledge of others. Such a formulation would see the need for higher education aimed at specific social groups which is also connected to their specific needs, even if their performance is different (or even inferior) based on a common or universal standard of higher education.

Another point worth consideration is that the current form of higher education (at the global level) does not value all desirable attributes to be achieved through education. Probably, it values the labour market or economic outcomes highly but not so adequately the roles of a (higher) educated person in nurturing democracy; enhancing human freedoms, ushering in sustainable development, and such attributes. There may have to be changes in the way higher education is perceived so that its ability to achieve a wide variety of these attributes is valued and enhanced. Such a perspective may enable the flourishing of higher education controlled and managed by marginalized social groups.

Another option for these universities is to visualize themselves as centres of learning which are not aimed at catering to any specific labour market. Then these may become spaces of informal education catering to not only youngsters but also others, not only to these marginalized groups but also others in the true spirit of an intercultural education25.

Perhaps what is missing most in our analysis is a sound research-based understanding of the impacts that our higher education systems currently have on our societies. Is higher education a tool for social change or for simply promulgating existing social structures? How would we know if we do not research our current practices and outcomes with the same integrity and passion that we apply to research in other aspects of society?


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Gunther Dietz, Research Professor, Intercultural Studies at the University of Veracruz (Xalapa, Mexico). He teaches and conducts research on intercultural education, ethnicity and linguistic and cultural diversity in Mexico.

Elizabeth Castillo Guzman, Professor of Higher Education Development at the University of Cauca, Colombia. Researcher on issues of education, ethnic groups and racism. She has published several works on the history of ethno-education in Colombia and interculturality in Latin American education, which can be accessed at Center for Ethnic Memories.

Kerry Shephard, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Kerry researches higher education and has a specific interest in the affective domain of attitudes, values and dispositions: how learners acquire them; how teachers contribute to their acquisition, deliberately or not; how universities assess or evaluate them; and how we can research them. 

  1. For a review of studies mainly from the US context: Holzer, Harry J. and Neumark, David. Assessing Affirmative Action. Journal of Economic Literature. September 2000, 38 (3), pp.483–568.; Some systematic evidence from India is available in Bertrand, Marianne; Hanna, Rema and Sendhil Mullainathan. (2008) Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence from Engineering College Admissions in India. NBER Working Paper 13926↩︎

  2. Colleges run by Jesuits started in India even in 16th century. One was in Goa, a Portuguese territory.↩︎

  3. Madan Mohan Malavya made great efforts to set up this institute for which he received support from Annie Besant (British activist and educationist).↩︎

  4. As the availability of science and technology in India was seen as a way to reduce poverty.↩︎

  5. This impression is based on a visit to and a discussion with the chancellor and the vice-chancellor of the Vidyapith by Santhakumar in 2019.↩︎

  6. Based on the process called Sanskritisation coined by the noted sociologist M N Srinivas.↩︎

  7. Article 30, Clause 1 states: `All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice’.↩︎

  8. Article 30, Clause 2: `The state shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language’↩︎

  9. The origin and the experience of such an intercultural university is described in↩︎

  10. A region shaped by land conflicts due to extractive industries imposed without due consultation processes↩︎

  11. A pioneer program in which the Náhuatl language is not limited to academic study, but all teaching and learning is conducted in this indigenous language.↩︎

  12. For example, see Gabriel R. Nemogá-Soto (2018) Indigenous and Intercultural Education in Latin America: Assimilation or Transformation of Colonial Relations in Colombia, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 39:1, 1-19, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2017.1410115↩︎

  13. There are also newspaper articles like this one: or (in Spanish).↩︎

  14. Detailed analysis of this university from the perspective indigenous education in Colombia is available in Gabriel R. Nemogá-Soto (2018).↩︎

  15. Popayan, though a small city in Colombia, is important in many ways. It is one of the early Spanish settlements in the country.↩︎

  16. There is a very active organization of indigenous students in the University of Cauca, and it takes a number of steps to see that such students get adequate peer support.↩︎

  17. One such case is the skills and methods to map the territories or those required for the planning and management of land. This was given to the functionaries of indigenous settlements.↩︎

  18. Elizabeth has the experience of interacting with these students for many years. Santhakumar had a discussion with a group of them during his visit to the university.↩︎

  19. For a short history of education in New Zealand, see↩︎

  20. See Human Rights Commission ‘Positive Actions to achieve equality’ for more information on this important matter:↩︎

  21. As with all forms of positive discrimination, the system is not necessarily fully supported by those who are discriminated against, for example by some medical students both before entry to medical school, and during the process of education.↩︎

  22. In the University of Otago, for example, the “Mirror on Society Selection Policy (MoS) is designed to ensure that the Division of Health Sciences promotes and facilitates academic equity for Māori students, and for students from other under-represented MoS category groups, who have the potential to succeed academically, and who have applied via the application process.”↩︎

  23. Strongly supported by New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Strategy and by its Universities’ representative body;āori-and-pasifika-success/building-māori-success↩︎

  24. Some universities have a Māori strategic framework and a Pacific strategic framework; but as with widening participation more generally there is a danger that these things could simply pay ‘lip service’ to what needs to be done, rather than create actual change.↩︎

  25. For example, there are many monasteries teaching meditation-related courses in the world.↩︎