Driving excellence in varsity education need of the hour

Driving excellence in varsity education need of the hour

Institutions of higher learning have a mandate to contribute to the development of society and transform our demographic leverage into national strength by turning out well-educated youth at all levels. This can be from vocational skills to the intellectual calibre of professionals in science, technology, law, medicine, management in millions.

Existence of elite institutions of higher learning is critical for a country’s prosperity. Driving excellence in university education is the need of the hour. It is presently subdued by several fault lines undermining its performance in every sphere – teaching, research and innovation.

Insipid global competence: The latest QS World University ranking largely reflects the status of the Indian higher education sector lagging far behind its American, European and some of the Asian counterparts. There has been one line of argument which strongly supports foreign hand in higher education to foster global competency.

Then HRD minister Kapil Sibal even proposed Foreign Educational Institutions Bill in 2010.The Bill was considered a milestone that would enhance student choices, increase competition and benchmark quality in higher education. But, with globalisation at the forefront, nations have understood the significance of growth through collaboration. India can pursue this path of collaboration in the field of higher education.

Prof Philips, Director, International Higher Education, Boston University, has rightly warned that inviting foreign universities is a bad idea. We have before us the successful Chinese model based on collaboration and partnership. The Government of India’s Global Initiative of Academic Network (GIAN) is a positive step in this direction.

The GIAN needs to be expanded to ena­ble universities to establish long-term links and networking with reputed international institutions/universities for joint research projects, twinning degree programmes and international training of students.

Compartmentalisaton of knowledge: Higher education system in India is regimented and restrictive. Most of the universities, including the 100-year old University of Mysore, continue with the practice of creating exclusive departments of studies wh­ich function in complete isolation. In all advanced universities, the ‘school’ model has emerged replacing the ‘department’ model, to provide an interdisciplinary platform of education that empowers students with ability to connect and integrate knowledge.

A major initiative, at the instance of the UGC, taken by the universities in the recent past to provide for ‘integration’ of knowledge is the adoption of choice-based credit system (CBCS). Under CBCS, the students have the opportunity to choose subjects and engage in academic programmes across cognate areas which is not possible in the traditional system.

It is a pedagogy-centric process aimed at creation of cross/multi-disciplinary learning opportunity for students. However, CBCS could deliver goods only if teacher-student ratio is ideal. With overcrowded classrooms and anaemic faculty strength, CBCS is rendered ineffective and exists only in name.

Quantity at the cost of quality
The government’s policy to boost gross enrolment in higher education to international standards is understandable. But extending it to the post-graduate departments of studies and research is wrong.

Admissions for several PG courses like MCom have crossed 80 students in a class with little value addition either in terms of skill development or intellectual capacity building. Perhaps the best solution is upgrading all degree programmes to four-year honors programmes with a focus on vocational training in the fourth year.

This should be a terminal degree programme and help reduce pressure on PG enrolment. Simultaneously, admission standards to PG programmes should be hardened and intake capped at some reasonable level for each PG degree class.

Financial tribulation: Severe funds crunch has hit hard the universities’ ability to grow and develop state-of-the-art campuses. The problem is limited scope for increased public spending, particularly in view of political compulsions forcing the governments to open at least one university for each district.

Universities need to unleash the potential of professors to generate funds by way of conducting high-end government funded and international research projects, collaborating with industry, establishing study chairs, filing patents/copyrights, organising academic events, taking up consultancy, crafting new diploma/certificate courses on self-finance basis, floating journals/periodicals, and engaging alumni/philanthropists.

A potential new source of finance for universities is via bond issues (UniBonds). The Union government’s initiative in establishing a higher education financing agency in 2016 is a bold step in this direction.

Implausible governance: Given the profound social changes and new demands placed on universities, the greatest challenge is balancing their historic commitment to scholarship and excellence against the goals of equity and social justice. The government’s interference is justifiable to ensure that standards of affirmative action are fully observed by the universities in their student admissions and staff recruitments.

At the same time, the government needs to realise that its interference on the ground of affirmative action should not jeopardise the very mission for which a university is created. Several study committees on university autonomy, including the prominent Gnanam Committee, have observed that politicisation of university governance is the root cause for deterioration in the academic quality.

Politicising the appointment of vice-chancellors and registrars and the practice of nominating professional politicians and non-academicians to university bodies not only tantamount to infringement of provisions of university law but also would cause widespread intellectual distress. The poor show of our universities is a blunter.

It calls for unified efforts of all the stakeholders – governments, universities, educators and businesses to fix these fault lines and transform the university education as the most important engine of growth for the youth and the country alike.

(The writer is professor, commerce department, University of Mysore)