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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

The resurrection of Higher education: Musings of a Concerned Indian | S. K. Saidapur

Saturday 21 January 2023

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by S. K. Saidapur *

Soul-searching from any angle, unequivocally suggests that restructuring the Indian education system (schools to universities) and taking it to international standards is inevitable now more than ever. The arrival of foreign varsities is imminent and this will quickly drive most Indian higher education institutions (HEIs) to oblivion unless they upgrade their relevance and competence to global levels. Remodeling and repurposing the higher education system as a whole is the only solution. This involves conquering many challenges. One such challenge is to recognize the importance of out-and-out competency in the management of higher education. Also, a change in the mindset of academicians, politicians, and regulatory bodies is needed to help universities to cope with the fast-changing global scenario.

Today, in the higher education system, as in private enterprises and industries, the right people need to be in right place before expecting the desired outcome. Accordingly, it needs to adopt the principles of private enterprises with pre-eminent CEOs- the Chief Executive Officers (call them Principals/Vice chancellors) with hire and fire provisions to weed out those who fail to deliver goods with specified time frames. The prevailing faulty recruitment policies that mostly operate on considerations other than competency/merit and usefulness to the institutions will further ruin education. Any compromise on meritocracy is a certain death blow to the nation. In India, Gresham’s Law has operated for too long driving merited and competent people out of India. Thereby, other nations have gained. For instance, today as many as six home grown Indians are heading the top technology industries of the world (Microsoft, Google, IBM, Adobe, Palo Alto Networks, and Twitter). Besides, many key positions are occupied by non-resident Indians or foreign-born persons of Indian origin. Sadly, India lacks vision for talent attraction/retention.

Here I provide a few prescriptions for revamping higher education. First, the recruitment of faculty, Principals, Vice Chancellors and Chairpersons of regulatory bodies should be solely on competency and track record rather than on fulfilling the criteria of seniority and minimum qualifications or affiliations to political parties. Second, the concerned governments should create the ‘state of the art’ infrastructure for HEIs with high-speed, uninterrupted Wi-Fi facilities that are affordable to rural / urban dwellers regardless of their financial status. Third, the existing teachers need retraining to adopt modern pedagogies practiced internationally and to overcome digital divide between them and the learners. Fourth, adopt context based, totally metamorphosed curriculums with integrations of inter/intra-disciplinary fields with clear strategies for the content delivery. Fifth, the university’s autonomy must be restored completely. Sixth, an investment of say 10% of GDP for the next 5 years may be made to harvest dividends later; scanty investments result in little dividends.

There are ways to find resources. Alumni and donors may be encouraged with massive tax incentives. Expenditures on various conferences may be kept on hold for 5 years to enable diversion of funds for education. Likewise, funding for research may be restricted to nationally relevant and need-based projects and development of technologies. Importantly, industries may be cajoled to have tie-ups with universities for research and manufacturing few products. As an example, the chemistry and biotechnology departments of all universities may be asked to produce one (known or novel) compound of commercial/medical interest. Undoubtedly, it will promote entrepreneurship training and the manufacture of numerous products for national/global marketing and thereby improve institutional fiscal resources and the country’s economy.

It may be noted that people who can afford are opting for higher education in foreign countries because they expect better education and certificates that carry brand names and assure their upcoming in life. Let us look at the amount spent annually by the Indian students for study abroad in the years between 2019-2021: US $ 1875.8 billion in 2019, 1156.6 billion in 2020 and 1965.4 in 2021 under the ‘Liberalized Remittance Scheme’ (LRS) introduced in the year 2004 (The Indian Express of October 21, 2021, Google). Nearly 20 billion US dollars are remitted for study abroad and, some 24 billion dollars for travel since 2014. Apparently, there is demand for quality education and accordingly footprints of foreign universities in India are expected in the near future and good section of people may also welcome them. Besides, their entry may help the rich to get world class education in India and this in turn helps maintain foreign currency reserves. Surely, they will attract good teachers and researchers as well as bright students which may have an intimidating effect on the future prospects of our already ailing universities. At the same time, with the WTO and GATT agreements in place, India has little option of preventing the entry of foreign universities. Remodeling and upgrading our universities is the only solution. Clearly, our universities can no longer go on with business as usual.

Gratifyingly, the NEP-2020 provides hope and optimism for modernization of education system. It pleads for transformational and not incremental changes. However, it is not enough to have a good screenplay; we need good directors and actors to play the drama, not merely to entertain the audience but also to enlighten them and give meaning to the story and philosophy embedded in it. Therefore, implementing NEP-2020 shoddily in a hurry will do little good. A missed opportunity can result in irreparable damage to the education system.

The universities, now more than ever need to produce graduates who are not merely future ready with required skills, but with ability to think creatively, solve problems and make innovations. A nation fails when its universities fail. Churning out myriads of certificates and degrees without due regard to relevance, quality, and credentials is a futile exercise. Heart of the matter is imparting quality education that spearheads development of life skills and or livelihood skills rather than prepares the learners merely for higher (degree) classes. The ‘life skills’ include: creative and critical thinking, solving problems, ability for communication, management, taking decisions, understanding personal and social responsibilities and so on. The ‘livelihood skills’ include developing technical and professional or vocational skills. Further, inculcating moral ethical values and citizenry must become integral components of education.

A new challenge of the future is that in future, one cannot predict the nature of future jobs. For all probability, there will not be permanent jobs in the future. If so, all jobs will be temporary in nature. Hence, universities must take cognizance of such possibilities while designing curricula for various degree courses. As a word of caution, in the absence of political will, liberal funding, and greater participation of the academic community in the remodeling of universities, it will be incredibly difficult to reform Indian education system. (Source: “Remodeling the Universities” by S. K. Saidapur, Atlantic Publishers, Delhi, 2022).

* (Author: S. K. Saidapur, Former Vice Chancellor, Karnatak University, Dharwad. Email: saidapur[at]gmail.com)

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