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Putting scholarship first

Improve the academic ethos to spur research and critical thinking

Written by S. Giridhar |
September 21, 2012 12:03:37 am

To understand why Indian universities do not feature in the world’s top 200,with no Indian institute figuring in the latest edition of the QS World University rankings,I asked the following questions: a) Why are we not in the top 200? b) What will it take to be there? c) is it necessary or relevant to be in that list? In answering these complex questions,one is left with the problem of where and how we cut the Gordian knot of higher education in India today.

Academic culture is the soul of universities. Academic ethos will be reflected in the way universities articulate their vision,organise governance,make appointments and create an institution where serious scholarship is encouraged and respected. How many of our universities have such a culture? Absence of high quality faculty is the nemesis of current higher education institutions. The globalisation of academics in the last 20 years has exacerbated problems. “Log kahaan hain? (Where are the qualified instructors)” is the dominant theme as we desperately search for good faculty even for our best universities. A handful are spread across our leading universities but most are abroad,doing good work,no doubt,but researching problems and interests that are relevant in the West. Some would come back if they found academic freedom and integrity where regulations enable and do not stifle.

The need for quality research is noted by all,but this stems not from the “publish or perish” paranoia of universities in the West or from the furious encouragement seen in China,where one hears that professors are paid an incentive for every paper published. Rather,this notion of research as the backbone of academic excellence derives from the idea that research is one of the best ways to further and realise the vision and purpose of a university. In the Indian context,the overarching social purpose ought to drive research. Research that informs policy and can contribute towards social benefit,even if not published in international journals,should be valued. Such research by teachers serves to bring their students into the world of inquiry,discovery and to appreciate that knowledge is not something to be merely consumed but to be continuously generated.

That brings us to the dismal quality of our school education. Our children grow up in a system where rote learning and its rewards in examinations seem to be the only path. Where is the spirit of inquiry and critical thinking,the freedom to think that a question can have more than one answer or that making mistakes is also a form of learning? We manipulate instruments to get the “right answer” because understanding the experiment is less valuable than getting the maximum score. No wonder the commerce graduate is inadequately trained to do balance sheets and the engineer struggles to fix the simple iron box. Our school teachers also emerge from the same mediocre higher education system. Where debate was the nature of the student-teacher relationship,it has now decayed to a state where fear remains while respect has evaporated.

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To be in the top 200 universities is,in my view,a lesser problem. That can be achieved by identifying a handful of our institutions,such as the Indian Institute of Science and the IITs,and then gunning for it. The point is that our system of higher education is in absolutely dire straits. We have a burgeoning number of universities,over 550 of them with 16000 colleges,but most have completely inadequate resources,teaching talent or infrastructure and lack a focus on robust and accepted measures of quality. When young people acquire degrees without worth and the anticipated jobs do not materialise or when employers find them unprepared for jobs,the frustrations are likely to grow. A strong system for basic disciplines is what defines the health of higher education.

Perhaps the answers lie in a drastic overhaul of our university programmes,organisation and regulation. We need deep governance reforms that question the purpose,functioning and utility of existing governing and statutory bodies. That will address rent seeking,archaic notions of education and power equations with the students. Regulatory systems need surgery,because only then can can the structural organisation changes in our colleges and universities be possible. Academic programmes need to be free from departmental silos,be vibrant and relevant,driven by the larger social purpose. They need to move away from exam-focused rote learning and instead build conceptual strengths and the ability for critical reflection and enquiry. The best professionals have to be a part of our education system. Pedagogy should be such that the students are made to think. Reading,referencing and using the library becomes integral to a student’s life. That is the only way we will be able to answer the aspirational demands of young India.

The writer is registrar and chief operating officer of Azim Premji University,Bangalore,express@expressindia.com

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