Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani has spoken of a new education policy. The president indicated the contours of such a policy, stressing the need to use technology such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and virtual classrooms and to create institutions of excellence in all states. The Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) seems to be alive and well. But what is needed is not just a new policy, but a new generation of higher education.
Poor infrastructure and technology, inadequately trained teachers, lack of autonomy for institutions, absence of a research culture and the failure to develop international linkages are the major reasons for the flaws in our higher education system. They are interlinked and need to be addressed through a holistic approach.
The RUSA document, which envisages a paradigm shift in higher education, addresses these and other issues. The thrust of its approach is to free the planning, funding and monitoring of education from bureaucratic controls. But most states seem to believe that education is too important to be left to the educationists. The change envisaged runs counter to the political and bureaucratic interests entrenched in the present system, but it must be pursued.
Simple living and high thinking are traditional attributes of students, but comfort and convenience are key to creativity, as we see in the best centres of learning. Brick and mortar are as important as brains and dedication for academic achievement. As we train our teachers in modern pedagogy and update their knowledge, online material such as MOOCs and TED talks need to be used liberally. The system of “flip schools” should be adopted, making it possible for students to listen to lectures at home and do their homework in class with the help of teachers. Resistance to technology, combined with the lack of connectivity and even electricity, pushes us back to the blackboard age. The time is not too far when lectures in class will be outdated. Even the examinations of the future will take the form of “gaming”, which tests the ability of students to tackle real situations. Innovation will come from hands-on experience, not from writing essays.
In the separation of universities from research institutions, the fundamental role of learning has been eroded. Patents of products and processes, and even Nobel prizes, should emerge from the laboratories of universities. If Indian universities are not graded high, it is because research is not given priority. Exceptions like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Panjab University have been noted for their citations. Merging research institutions with universities and linking them to industries will ensure the pursuit of research with a purpose.
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The affiliation system and bureaucratic control of funding have sapped the energies that autonomy gives. Things have come to such a pass that many students, teachers and even managements dread the idea of autonomy. When Kerala introduced autonomous colleges for the first time this year, there was widespread opposition. Academic freedom should lead to administrative and financial freedom, leaving the government to fashion broader strategies and monitor their implementation.
Universities and autonomous colleges should determine what to teach, how to teach and how to evaluate the students.
Globalisation has brought international competition to our doors and we can exploit the demographic dividend only if we integrate our educational system with the revolutionary changes taking place in the rest of the world. Like political power, academic excellence is also moving from the west to the east. Our intellectual strength, the tradition of academic linkages with the world, our innovative skills and the cost advantages in India should attract international students, faculty and even great institutions. But we have isolated our education system by restraining contacts, making it difficult for faculty and students to go abroad. No serious effort is being made to attract foreign students to India. By offering courses that are unique to India and creating comfortable facilities, we should be able to attract foreign students to our shores. The success we have achieved in medical tourism should be duplicated in educational tourism.
Creating a new higher education system is by no means easy. Years of lethargy and the acceptance of mediocrity have created a mindset that is hard to change. Too many vested interests will resist change of any kind, not just stealthily, but also openly in the name of preserving the noble purpose of education against commercialisation and commoditisation. But unless India catches up with the education revolution around the world, it will not be able to realise its full intellectual potential. We need nothing less than higher education 2.0. We may not get on the list of world-class universities immediately, but we will be on our way there as the system begins to work.
The writer is former ambassador of India and governor for India at the IAEA, executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and director general, Kerala International Centre