2600 Years of the University

The Dharmarajika Buddhist monastery — ruins at the Dharmarajika, Taxila archaeological site. CC, author missing
April 20
Yuliya Klochan MIT '18

Imagine: you are a prospective university student in India, 600 BC, traveling to Taxila, India, where roads and civilizations come together. A professor at the gate asks you a question—your entrance test. You are intimidated by the great scholar. Just last week the king had stood up to honor him during the morning assembly. But you are determined to get into Taxila despite the 10-20% acceptance rate. You have come prepared for any question. Never mind that your family cannot afford to pay for your university education. You are confident that you will receive generous financial aid to pursue your studies, regardless of your caste, gender, or religion.

2600 years later, we have forgotten the prospective Taxila scholar. For centuries, history had largely ignored the 1800-year development of higher education in India. After the final five Indian universities were destroyed in 12th century AD, few records of them remained, even in their home country. Instead, the Indian tradition was recorded and spread by travelers from China, Japan, Tibet, and Korea, where it influenced new university chains. Now scholars are bringing back the knowledge of Indian higher education, and Shailendra Raj Mehta is a prominent voice in the movement.

Many are surprised to hear that the first university in the world was founded in India in 6th century BCE. The common narrative points to 11th century Europe as the starting place for higher ed when, in fact, the history of universities spans through three vastly different geographic regions: India (~ 600 BCE - 12000 AD), Europe (~ 1100 - 1900 AD), and finally the United States (~1900 AD - present).

No one has considered the history of all three epochs together, and so Professor Mehta’s talk on the 2600-year history of universities was particularly fascinating. The most surprising part of the talk was outlining very similar challenges that the three region’s university leaders had to tackle. This is especially shocking considering that none of the Indian tradition made it to 11th century Europe and influenced the subsequent development of European universities.

The common features of universities throughout history and from different parts of the world, are summarized below, as described by Shailendra Raj Mehta. Sixteen of these features are of Indian universities, later adopted by both the European and US systems. Three are European developments. The final three are additional developments that allowed the US to become the current world leader in higher education. Note the resemblance of the ancient Indian system to our current US system.

Features of the Indian System:

  • Diversity of Subjects Studied: for a university to gain its status, it must be a place where many fields are studied. This was certainly the case for Taxila, where students were exposed to 18 branches of knowledge, including Law, Liberal Arts, Theology, Medicine and all the Sciences.
  • Residential Education: the idea behind this was (and still is) to completely transform an individual by taking them away from a familiar home environment.
  • Global Education: many famous political figures and scholars stopped by Taxila, including Alexander the Great and Democritus.
  • Peer Review: this included various global and medical conferences and thesis defense (after which the presenting scholar was told, much like in our time, “well done!”).
  • Case-Based Reasoning: this was the Indian precursor to the modern scientific method, a model for medical diagnostics and legal reasoning, as well good argumentation.
  • Financial Assistance for Students: even in the 6th century BCE, meritorious students were not turned away because of low income. University teachers could even offer students “work-study” opportunities.
  • Public Funding: most Indian universities were fully supported by private donations (including by women) and the state. Though the universities were Buddhist, they were additionally funded by the Hindu king.
  • Endowments: like the universities today, Indian universities controlled endowment funds to finance the institutions’ operations.
  • Corporate Form: all Indian universities were Buddhist, and the Buddhist Monastery was the first corporation.
  • Certification/Degrees/Licensing: Indian universities had many different degrees available, including Acharya, Upadhyaya, Pandit and Mahapandit.
  • Knowledge Repositories: one Indian university, Nalanda, was reported to have had three libraries, each one nine stories tall and extending “into the clouds.”
  • Admission standards: each prospective student had to pass a literal “entrance test” with a top university scholar situated at every gate. Only 10-20% of applicants made the cut.
  • Competition: the seven Indian universities and other academic centers competed with each other.
  • Academic Freedom: no scholar was ever censored for violating the precepts of religion, and even the Hindu king would rise for the Buddhist scholars.
  • Women’s Education and Democratic Access: students of all castes, religions, and regions were welcome. For women, there were separate colleges within the larger universities.
  • Centralized Structure: universities were a centralized whole rather than a co-location of scholars.

Additional Features of the European System:

  • Scientific Method: European universities appropriated the modern scientific method.
  • Unity of Research and Teaching: the Humboldtian model of higher education promoted a holistic combination of research and studies, and the integration of the arts and sciences.
  • Learned Societies and Journals: these adopted seamlessly into the university system and were later used for peer review.

Additional Features of the US System:

  • Unitary Governance: a university president decides on non-academic matters under the guidance of a board of trustees.
  • Alumni Governance: the boards of top US universities are almost entirely comprised of alumni. According to Professor Mehta, this is the defining feature for the excellence of American higher education.
  • Bayh-Dole Act: enacted in 1980, this Act allows universities to commercialize research by allowing them to pursue ownership of an invention made with federal funding.

Imagine: 2600 years after your entrance exam to Taxila, you are filling out the holistic MIT application. The MIT acceptance rate is under 10% but no professors stand at the gates to decide your fate. Students of all genders share the same dormitory and classroom spaces. The Institute is not affiliated with any major religion and is governed mainly by alumni. Many things have changed, but the spirit of the university remains. Both Taxila and MIT embody the mission of transforming lives. And after 2600 years of challenges and inventions, universities remain essential centers of learning. Imagine now all the possibilities for development of higher education in the centuries ahead.

Video recording and slides of Mehta's talk are available.


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