Higher education: Reform or perish
India’s higher education is at a crossroads. On the one hand, universities are becoming ‘localised’; on the other, private institutions are benchmarking themselves against the best in the world
As more and more people get educated and the impact of education on quality of life and success becomes known to the people, demand for good and global education increases. Mobility for good education has been in practice and it will increase in the future as modes of transport becomes available and affordable.
If we look at some of the best universities in the world, it will be clear that universities, which attracted students from far and wide, emerged as the best centres of learning. The opposite is also true; centres of learning where the best students went, emerged as renowned centres of learning.
We have evidence of learners travelling to distant locations in search of knowledge. The better known amongst them are the Chinese travellers Fa Hien, Sung Yun, Hsuan Tsang and I Tsing during 400 to 700 AD. They travelled all the way on foot to India to get access to knowledge preserved in Sanskrit and Pali texts. Knowledge is for global good and countries, which succeed in generating knowledge, emerge as leaders and India has been one such land which was a global leader in knowledge generation.
In modern times, internationalisation of education has also been seen as a process of brain drain in favour of the rich nations. Resource-rich nations are able to establish and sustain universities. Universities require constant supply of funds for supplies to the library, laboratories and also human resource.
Bright students from poor and developing nations, either for a small scholarship or on their own, migrate to the best universities for higher education to rich and developed nations. The best minds who could have contributed to their own countries also migrate to the rich nations for a small scholarship. Even the few bright students from poor nations migrate to the rich and prosperous countries but this a natural process which we can subvert artificially.
We often lament on none of the Indian institution finding a place in the list of best 100 institutions in the world, but we never try to introduce measures to catapult our institutions to the group of best institutions.
The first condition for any institution to become ‘best’ will be to attract the best learners. Internationalisation means attracting students as well as teachers from all parts of the world. The brightest students be attracted from different countries through offer of scholarship and other facilities, like safe and decent accommodation and teachers with good academic background and publications be invited to teach from any part of the world on competitive salary and not identical salary structure.
Most Indian institutions do not have learners from more than 300 kms away from its location. Indian universities which use to attract learners from other parts of the country now mostly have local students. Universities have become local. Look at the student population of universities like Calcutta University, Madras University, Mumbai University, Banaras Hindu University and Patna University, it will become clear that these universities used to attract learners as well as teachers from all parts of the country but today, they neither have learners coming from distances more than 500 kms and also the teachers appointed in last 10 years are mostly local. Even the Vice Chancellors are all from the same State or nearby States.
A major drawback of institutions becoming ‘local’ is that their curriculum too slowly becomes local. If we were to look at the curriculum of some of the best institutions, it will be apparent that their curriculum is global. The international student and teacher community make it unavoidable for the institutions to constantly update their curriculum to remain in the list of best institutions.
A number of colleges have been given autonomous status in the last few decades. These colleges could constitute their own Board of Studies for the disciplines they were offering. On examination, it has come to notice that the invitees to the Board of Studies were all local and in the minority autonomous institutions, the invitees were mostly from their community.
The content of education cannot be local and also cannot be community driven. A good scheme of providing autonomy to good institutions has been reduced to more localisation and parochialisation of education.
Only brick and mortar institutions do not have the capacity to go global. More and more distance mode institutions are now global. Neither the faculty nor the learners need to re-locate. The best institutions would be providing courses on-line and across border.
We have badly meshed up our distance education in the last five years since the Distance Education Council (DEC) was merged with the University Grants Commission (UGC). This is a national loss. We could have reached out to global teaching and learning communities through the SWAYAM programme if our distance education policy was not neglected. The Government set up a committee in 2014 to submit its report on revamping distance education but the recommendations were shelved and no change was brought in distance education system. The real benefit of digital education will not be reaped if we do not quickly re-energise the distance education system and make it globally accepted.
The Indian higher education is at crossroads. Private institutions are fast adopting ways and means necessary to become global and a must to become the best. Private institutions are attracting students and teachers not only from different parts of the country but also abroad.
The most alarming trend is that of the best teachers from public universities migrating to private universities because they are paid for academic achievements and allowed to teach and research in dignity and peace. One of the crucial gaps has been the failure to enforce quality parameters in our institutions. The assessment and accreditation policy has not worked. We either reform fast or be prepared to perish.
(The writer is Chairman, National Institute of Open Schooling. Views expressed are personal)
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