Facelift for higher education

Facelift for higher education

Innovative Universities


The recent Reuters Ranking of world’s 100 most innovative universities (2015) revealed that Stanford University in the US stood at No.1 position ahead of the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Fifty institutions in this category were from the US alone, 27 from Europe and the rest from other countries. China and Singapore had one each. Of course, no Indian university figured in this list.

India has not been able to produce icons of the kind of Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Steve Jobs (Apple) and of founders of Google and Amazon although our doyens like Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw have done well to change the lifescape of our educated youth.

It is strange but true that the CEOs of Google – Sunder Pichai and Microsoft – Satya Nadella are of Indian origin. Generally, it is held that we have brains but lack creativity. We have high scorers (of marks) but not high thinkers. We have rankers on paper (certificates) but not in society. There are a large number of teaching centres (‘shops’?), a few learning campuses but hardly any thinking sanctuaries.

It is the domain of higher education that churns out captains of industries, stalwarts of business, wizards of finance, magnets of management, leaders of public administration, doyens of the judiciary and the entire gamut of the elite intelligentsia of a country.

Prosperity and development of a nation are inextricably linked to the quality and relevance of its higher education system. Although universities per se are not to be likened to industrial training centres or workshops or factories, across the world, they are conceived to be incubators, nurseries and cradles of creative knowledge, sound hypotheses and fundamental inquiries.

These are so crucial for enriching intellectual capital and knowledge economy as recently but amply demonstrated by China and South Korea – the two countries that went for massive investment in quality higher education to reap rich dividends. Absolute freedom for free thinking is the progenitor of innovation. Innovation and creativity blossom in a milieu of good work culture, utmost trust and abundant encouragement.

Innovators dare failures. They don’t believe in ‘safe’ or ‘comfortable’ zone of working. They think ‘out of the box’ and do things with novelty and ingenuity. They are non-conformers and are not imitators or duplicators. These attributes need to be nourished in youth in our colleges and universities such that at least a few of them are inspired to establish their identity in later life and career.

In the current competitive scenario of higher and professional education, every university needs an ‘innovative team’ to take care of emerging issues such as cutting edge technologies, modular curricula, changing pedagogies, thrust areas of research, new strategies of governance, novel means of resource  mobilisation, careful planning of phased development, etc.

Inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and international approaches to studies and research pave the way for innovation. It is believed that in the 4th century BCE, our Takshashila University had interdisciplinary and international approaches for learning. The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA that fetched the Nobel Prize in 1962, was the result of a collaboration between James Watson (biologist) and Francis Crick [nuclear physicist). Nobel Prize was awarded to Venkataraman Ramakrishnan – a scientist of Indian origin – who was a PhD in physics but became a Nobel Laureate in chemistry.

Innovations are the products of unrestricted, concerted and non-regulated academic pursuits. What innovators do and how they do are entirely left to them.

The fact that one country – the US - has bagged more than 75% of Nobel prizes awarded so far is a glaring example of abiding support to innovative research. In fact, universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge have dozens of   Nobel Laureates on their faculties.

Innovation is possible only through total commitment and concerted efforts. Our system of higher education needs to produce a few life-long learners and explorers. Millions of degree seekers and job hunters that we see in our universities seldom end up as innovators.

The essence of entrepreneurship, the desire to be different and the spirit of treading the unknown path are hardly kindled in our universities. Our system of education in schools, colleges and universities should promote attributes of free inquiry, a thirst for learning, unlearning and relearning and a quest for acquiring new knowledge. Mere access to information does not lead to intellectual prowess and scholarship. Sparks of enthusiasm and curiosity, created and harnessed through proper grooming, will open up new vistas of inquiries.

We do have a few models of innovative institutions like IISc, IITs and IIMs. But the pity is that their best practices have not percolated into 900+ universities across the country because of excessive controls by the bureaucracy and the governments.

Adverse factors

Even our judiciary interferes in many academic issues, often disregarding the fact that universities are autonomous statutory bodies. Consequences of several adverse factors including poor governance and financial status have ironically made our universities ‘autonomous’ only on paper. We are yet to adopt global innovative approaches and benchmarks of quality.

In a ‘cafeteria mode’ of highly flexible learning with a spectrum of subjects to choose from, there must be unconventional, unorthodox and non-traditional programs in a university alongside cutting edge courses in emerging thrust areas of science, technology, humanities and liberal arts.

Our vice-chancellors should not only be qualified but also be competent performers. Academic brilliance is different from leadership for good governance.

Quality begets quality. Universities should be the real harbingers of change and innovations. Our higher education system needs major radical transformation to give rise to the twin doctrines of ‘self-governance and self-reliance’ which will foster innovation and accountability.

There is so much to learn from world-renowned universities like Harvard, Stanford and Yale (USA), and Oxford and Cambridge (UK). Their greatness is derived not from their centuries of existence but from their uniqueness of functions in terms of learning, research and governance. Innovations usher in a distinctive identity to an institution as well as prosperity to a nation.

(The writer is former vice-chancellor, University of Mysore)