The new regulations on providing graded autonomy to institutions of higher education might just be the thin edge of the wedge that can transform the higher education sector and strengthen the foundations of a knowledge economy. To make that happen, universities, teachers and students need to create many more forums for interaction with the wider world since it is such interaction that would lead to generation of workable ideas and workable courses that can generate wealth.
Forums for interaction between people with diverse skill-sets and different problems, might sound mundane. But it is the widespread dissemination of information and exchange of knowledge that produces ideas that work.
In the real world, it is hard to predict which idea will work. That requires constant reality testing. When we think of innovation, many of us tend to think of that one Eureka moment that can change the course of history. The fact of the matter is that such Eureka moments are few and far between. For the most part, innovation happens in increments and builds on what has gone before. And innovation needs to be tested against reality. It is this kind of reality testing that needs to be encouraged. Setting up incubation centres is just one step. We need much more: Internships for students, work on real world problems and building databases of knowledge that could be useful for artificial intelligence. Getting your hands dirty is the first requirement of any ecosystem that hopes to jump-start innovation. Interactions like these would provide good guide maps for what students should be taught and the research that is needed.
Today teaching in universities is largely guided by convention and to some extent by what is taught on foreign shores. Two factors are responsible for this: One, the need to constantly look to the UGC for guidance and two, the lack of discussion with local communities about their needs. The new regulations have removed the first obstacle. We should now direct our attention to the second.
There are many people who are already doing great work. We just need more of them. Universities need to set up structures to encourage such people willing and able to devote their time to real world problems and to improving productivity. For universities to be able to generate wealth, they need to encourage and fund all kinds of ideas. One possible way to do this would be to give greater value to project work.
Today, most bachelor programmes have this component but few students care to work on a real world problem. Part of the reason for this is the low level of interaction with business groups. The reason why the apprenticeship system in Germany has produced great results is the existence of a curriculum developed by educational institutions in collaboration with business groups and with employees. The government provides a framework; the rest is done by higher education institutions and businesses.
Another possible way to generate funding would be to offer doctoral and post doctoral fellowships in many fields. To focus on any one domain would be putting brakes on innovation. Data analytics, cyber security, macro economics, IT for retail management and warehousing need expertise just as much as healthcare, travel and tourism and linguistics. It is when innovation jumps from one sector to the next that the cycle becomes self-sustaining.
All this does need investment in human capital, namely faculty. The government can facilitate this entire process by funding capability building of teachers. The trouble with governments is that they veer between total control and a hands-off approach. To provide funding that is linked to outcome indicators, and let universities figure out the rest, shouldn’t be such a hard task.
We need to invest far more in our teachers than we do. Given the scale of the task, and past neglect, we need to move fast.