The recent announcement of Karnataka Higher Education Minister Dr Ashwath Narayan that admission processes to colleges would commence shortly was accompanied with enthusiasm about the government’s intent to implement the New Education Policy 2020 starting immediately. When a policy on such an important matter as education is proudly put forth with intentions to implement right away, such enthusiasm quite naturally raises our expectations.
Indeed, this seems rightly placed, for the policy addresses the state of higher education as prevailing currently and the need to bring radical changes so that our youth can graduate out of college feeling that they’ve learnt something and can be gainfully employed or pursue advanced degrees in an area of their choice.
But a cursory examination of the conditions of our undergraduate institutions, and their preparedness to be the custodians of a new education approach to be implemented overnight as it were, is a source of much concern. If implemented hurriedly, it is likely to lead to a crisis and impasse in ensuring an effective shift to new ways in the education process; at best, it would reduce such implementation to a mere ritualistic exercise.
Among the welcome changes that the new policy advocates are the need to develop curricula and teaching practices that encourage active learning over mere rote learning and in an environment that is multi-disciplinary. This is so that graduating with a college degree means that one has undergone a broad-based education, imbibing from scholarship from the sciences and humanities alike at the formative stage specialising in later years in any particular branch.
The subjects offered are meant to align with developments that can lead to innovation and equip them with thinking and practical skills, ideas etc, that can contribute to advancements in different spheres of knowledge, and which address local and global needs alike.
It is well established that the requirement of an education of value demands receiving a broad-based liberal education at preliminary stages and specialising in a particular field at a later stage. Thus, an undergraduate majoring in say, physics, would do courses alongside curricula offered in the humanities, or the arts, as one may choose through introductory courses, while learning the core requirements in physics.
A sense of inter-disciplinarity is infused into the curriculum through advanced courses that are often taught by multiple faculties sourced from different disciplines and departments. Multi-disciplinary institutions are an absolute must to nurture and train our young to become innovators and contribute to knowledge, with skills that are shaped by wide exposure and rigorous training in the discipline that the student majors in.
Colleges and universities must transform into being repositories of knowledge creation and training. This demands an environment wherein autonomy for the faculty and university administration is a critical requirement to create an atmosphere of open-minded learning, fearless questioning and critical inquiry.
Even a cursory examination of the state of our higher education institutions and the state of faculties in all the departments there - most critical for institutions to grow and flourish - sadly reveals how ill-prepared these institutions are in their current state to rise to meet the demands of a re-engineered curriculum and infrastructure.
Most colleges in the liberal arts, basic sciences or commerce, are mono discipline type, which means they are colleges that specialise in single subjects either in arts, sciences or commerce. The policy that advocates universities with all disciplines under one banner, or formation of clusters that help this process, including engineering and medical education, is sure to face stiff resistance from the professional colleges and universities.
The reasons are several, not least of which include a sense of professional exclusivity of the fraternity that are shaped by old schools of thought, and possible disruptions in the professionalised education currently dictated largely by business interests.
Multi-disciplinary courses are introduced motivated by research and insights about current trends and prevailing practices that exist globally. Several stories are recounted in the corridors of educational institutions of disastrous ventures in ushering in multi-disciplinary approaches by floating ill-conceived undergraduate level programmes in biotechnology, or nanotechnology, at beginners’ levels just because these were the prevalent buzz words at the time.
The subtlety that a multi-disciplinary course is not forged through a mere concatenation of disciplines from different domains is certainly lost on colleges and universities already teetering on the brink of collapse due to lack of trained faculty. Temporary faculties are depended on to running entire programmes and courses.
Our institutions like the Higher Education Council, an advisory body that can play an extremely useful role by conducting workshops and seminars to examine what the implications are as well as carry out exercises that go into the nitty-gritty of this major paradigm shift in higher education, has so far limited itself to conducting functions and programmes of little or no consequence for addressing the real problems that our crumbling institutions face.
Unless we wake up to reality and prioritise the urgent needs of bringing in talent into our public institutions following rigorous and clean hiring procedures and staff our now-empty colleges and universities, unless managements of our private colleges realise that starting new courses solely following market trends is no longer adequate in forging excellent globally competitive programmes for long term gains, implementing the recommendations of the NEP right away is likely to result in a big mess.
That this can lead to major disruptions in whatever is present now is anybody’s guess. It has also the danger of trivialising the notion of multi-disciplinary education itself by doing it wrongly. It’s common wisdom that one shouldn’t put the cart in front of the horse.
(The writer is Professor, School of Physics, Hyderabad Central University)