Class & classroom

We need to articulate why education is most crucial for removal of poverty, and for India’s development

Written by Pankaj Chandra | Published: January 2, 2018 12:10 am
education, poverty, development, indian universities, education in india, classroom, indian express We need to articulate why education is most crucial for removal of poverty, and for India’s development. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna/Files)

It was 1937 and the Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University, Amarnath Jha, had invited Amrita Sher-Gil to show her paintings to the entire city in an exhibition at the university. This was also the time when the university had academics like Meghnad Saha working in its laboratories. In 2017, a government-backed audit declared the university as being on the brink of becoming “unviable” and “unworkable”. One of the most illustrious universities of the country has been all but declared sick. Academic institutions mature with time, and hence, they last hundreds of years with growing grace — well, not in India.

A Sher-Gil exhibition on a university campus today, if a vice chancellor has the aesthetic courage to organise it and that too from university funds, would evoke a question from the government’s auditor without realising that when a university opens such an exhibit to the public at large then it is teaching the society about excellence and about art through the works of the highest exponent of the craft. That is its role.

The university has changed. From being a safe place to think differently and say things that one wished, from spending weekdays and weekends in laboratories and libraries, from making friends who aspired for more than you do, from sitting in on lectures where you wished the clock would stop and the teacher would go on, from meeting folks who would engage you in a debate on the cutting edge in their field, from learning leadership through co-curricular activities, the university has become a holding ground in decrepit campuses with broken spirits, with uninspiring faculty who, at best, teach to examinations and not learning, as well as an administration that does the bidding of the government of the day. The university has lost its ability to imagine its role.

And all this while, governments and their regulators emasculated the abilities of universities by prescribing how every decision had to be made and how the lecture could be imagined. The best left teaching and the not-so-good flourished, becoming directors and vice chancellors. The few good faculty who remained struggled or retreated in their quiet labs. That a few unusual institutions survived and made admissions highly competitive, made society feel that god was in heaven and all was right with the world.

Four challenges face the university as we enter the new year of hope. First, the debilitating effects of “sarkarikaran” of higher education. Universities cannot remain domains of control. They are supposed to be pathways of possibilities. They are not extensions of the government, not even the public universities. Each has a distinct aspiration, culture, and capabilities. They need to be enabled as individual entities and attempts to standardise their systems, curriculums, ways of teaching, ways of doing must end. The integrity of an institution is based on the fearless minds of its academics to pursue areas of research that others may find difficult or inconvenient. The “sarkarikaran” mindset has made this academic mind subservient to the administration both within the university and outside it.

Second, building quality institutions is about people. Hungry students, India has in abundance; hungry faculty have largely left. All systems have to be geared to bring the best and the most engaging to become part of the university. It has to be the most compelling profession in society in every sense — in its richness of experience, in its conversations, in its freedoms and possibilities, and even in its compensations. Only the best can bring the university back from the brink. And if we continue to pack our institutions with faculty hired on considerations other than merit, the nation’s misfortune will be where a generation of the bright will be taught by its mediocre.

Three, the classroom has to be reimagined. Teaching and learning for the examination has been our forte but the new demands of society and the future of work require critical and independent thinking, learning through doing, asking questions from multiple disciplinary perspectives on the same issue, using evidence for building arguments, and reflecting and articulation. The warning of contemporary educational philosopher, Ruth Johnson, must be heeded when she says that higher education should not “either be a mere servant of the government policy or a passive respondent to public mood: Higher learning does not teach what to think but how to think”. Teaching has to be re-invented.

And finally, quality education requires resources. Laboratories and workshops that allow students to conduct experiments rather than learning as spectators or low student-teacher ratio or tutorials and teaching assistants that help students learn better and remove their deficits or journals and databases or laboratories to improve on the language of learning — all require more funding. Unless the government spending on higher education doubles, our institutions and students therein will remain impoverished.

At a more fundamental level, we have not articulated why education is most crucial for the removal of poverty in India and for its development. Access to education without quality is no education at all. It reduces the capabilities of our institutions to enable our students to become better citizens with high-quality skills. Let us make some progress in that direction this year.

The writer is vice chancellor of Ahmedabad University

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  1. DAD PRITHIPAUL
    Jan 2, 2018 at 9:55 pm
    VC Chandra is right. But the fault lies in the Article 45 of the Cons ution which places Education under the jurisdiction of the state, not under the federal government's. There is no Ministry of EducAtion in Delhi. Art 45 blocked the right and the duty of the Central Government to implement a reconstruction of the nation by means of a new educational system tailored to enable India to realise its tryst with destiny. Nehru who had a Cambridge U education did not think that the common citizen deserved as good an education as his father's wealth enabled him to have. None of the elite managers of the Congress Party, with their formation in foreign universities, had the desire to promote locally the excellence which they had had the privilege to acquire. More:why are the billionaires not concerned with education? Half of the Billion dollars spent on a tower for one family could have been used to sow the seed of a Harvard type of ins ution to upgrade the attractiveness of high learning.
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    1. V.S. Malhotra
      Jan 3, 2018 at 4:23 am
      Our early leaders who took over the work of governance after independence did a very good work for the development of the country. They set up steel mills, undertook the construction of several irrigation and power generation projects and established many IITs to produce engineering professionals who have done a marvelous work. But unfortunately we forgot completely to pay any attention to primary school education and with it to the most important task of inculcating in our work force values and at udes essential for an individual to be able to work for the common good. The result has been that we have become a bit too greedy and selfish unable to pay enough attention to common good. This is one great flaw in our present education system and we need to remove it.This task must be now be taken in hand immediately with full commitment. What is more, while selecting our work forces for public works, the selection processes must ensure that selected individuals do posses such at udes.
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    2. Raman Govindan
      Jan 2, 2018 at 6:32 pm
      the concept that a class room only provided atmosphere is to be discarded! the parents, the neighbors, society, media etc. take major part nowadays. the class room takes in the benefits and lacuna of the society
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      1. Shyam Sunder
        Jan 2, 2018 at 10:38 am
        The writer says "Unless the government spending on higher education doubles, our ins utions and students therein will remain impoverished." He is a hypocrite, he wants to enjoy at govt expense. Modi govt is giving autonomy to the Universities so that they become world class and thus attract students from far and wide including from foreign shores to become self financed universities rather than depending on govt doles. The universities should stop making big h.o.l.e in govt's pocket.
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        1. Shyam Sunder
          Jan 2, 2018 at 10:36 am
          The writer says "Unless the government spending on higher education doubles, our ins utions and students therein will remain impoverished." He is a hypocrite, he wants to enjoy at govt expense. Modi govt is giving autonomy to the Universities so that they become world class and thus attract students from far and wide including from foreign shores to become self financed universities rather depending on govt doles. The universities should stop making big in govt's pocket.
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          1. Dr.Yogesh Sharma
            Jan 2, 2018 at 10:29 am
            API system has destroyed the class room teachings. Now teachers are always running to collect the point. Similarly, students are also highly indiscipline. Lawlessness, bad manners and indiscipline are the trade mark of modern students. So called reforms initiated by the Dr.Man Mohan Singh government have destroyed the education system completely.
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