Upgrading higher education?

Professors of Practice

By Dr OisheeMukherjee

The recent decision of the University Grants Commission (UGC) for engaging experts and professionals from various fields as professors of practice is indeed a welcome step The objective, as per the draft, is “to develop courses and curriculum to meet the industry and societal needs and enable HEIs (higher education institutions) to work with industry experts on joint research projects and consultancy services which will be mutually beneficial”.
The initiative is aimed at bringing in distinguished experts from various fields such as engineering, science, technology, entrepreneurship, commerce, social sciences media, civil services, public administration, armed forces etc. and involve them in developing and designing course curriculum, delivering lectures, mentoring students in innovation and entrepreneurship, focusing on industry-academia collaboration, carrying out joint research projects and holding seminars in collaboration with regular faculty members.
The biggest challenge before higher education today is to impart skills that are relevant to needs of industry, farm sector and the like. The obvious idea is to make students, not just aware of the social and economic realities but make them ready to take up assignments. But there is also the need to impart quality education, which unfortunately is confined to few higher education institutions.
Delving into statistics, there has been growth from about 20 universities in 1950, to about 1040 universities at present. Only around 135 of these institutions are regarded as Institutions of National Importance (INI). Close to 39 million students are currently enrolled in the academic institutions with India’s gross enrolment ration (GER) standing at a little over 27 percent. For Education 4.0 implementation, changes are imperative in the sphere of upgrading quality.
This could begin at the curriculum level. The curriculum requires the right mix of technical knowledge, social sciences, ethics, leadership skills, design elements and it also needs to be tightly integrated with out-of-class learning. But this curriculum has to reach all universities throughout the country with an eye on those located in the backward districts of the country.
The National Education Policy has come out with some innovative ideas such as permitting undergraduate students to take courses across all disciplines, launch of four ear undergraduate degree course, incorporating vocational education in college curriculum and autonomy to leading colleges. Meanwhile, very few colleges have so far been granted autonomy and the process definitely needs to be expedited. Added to this, there is a specific and important suggestion of creation of a National Research Foundation
However, the basic problem is the setting up of more colleges in rural and backward areas of the country but experts are not talking about this. There are suggestions of amalgamating tiny colleges into one big institution without considering how students would reach that institution every day. Though the focus is on modernising education, which undoubtedly is very important at this juncture, there is equally a need to make available education for all sections of society.
A section of experts believe that the latest NEP visualises education that is in perfect sync with the politics of the corporate Hindutva alliance that currently rules India. The policy believes in privatisation of education, which will clearly make it more expensive and obviously beyond the means of socially and economically deprived sections. This also implies that quality education that the rich and middle class can afford will not be available to the lower echelons of society.
As is happening presently, the privileged section has been acquiring education that will enable them to fill executive and official positions, while others excluded from such education will be given skills and will join the vast segment of the workforce among whom limited number of available is rationed out. The globalisation of capital characteristic of neoliberal capitalism also created a global market that requires, in turn, a homogeneous education, across countries. This detaches education, say in India, completely from its Indian setting. Thus, a student of economics in the country cannot simply understand the Indian economy without reckoning with the legacy of colonialism.
The present endeavour to make education more professionalised by laying stress on the vocational angle and imparting skill education is possibly something which should have been taken up years ago. The emphasis on curriculum development has to be given special attention by making education not pedagogic but tuned to the necessities of industry and society. This indeed is a big challenge and the sooner this transformation comes the better it is.
However, the autonomy of these higher education institutions have to be guaranteed which is a vital need at this juncture. Politicians, both at the Centre and in the States, want to have a say in universities and colleges as they want to use students for their political activities. This cannot be allowed to continue and each institution has to be allowed to develop in its own way. This means they should be allowed to devise variations from the standard curriculum, keeping in view local needs and requirements.
The growth of the university depends to a large extent on the quality of education imparted for which the faculty has to be of a high order and sincere with their students. Involvement of teachers with students is very much necessary to ensure that each one of them – not just those who are meritorious – get the right education and have no difficulty in understanding. In this connection, dedication and sincerity are key words which are sadly missing from the vocabulary of most teachers.
The trend towards privatisation of education, which will clearly make it more expensive and obviously beyond the means of socially and economically deprived sections, needs to be seriously considered and proper rules brought in place regarding the fee structure. A committee may be set up to ensure that meritorious students from the poorer sections get benefits to study in private universities.
Finally, while institutions should be encouraged and allowed to grow with proper impetus and support coming from the government, in the long run, universities in backward areas should not fall behind as this would imply that quality education would be available only to the rich and middle class, as is happening now. It would be distressing if only the privileged section acquire education that will enable them to fill executive and official positions while others excluded from such education will join the vast segment of the workforce among whom a limited number of available jobs is rationed out.In fact, the leadership must educate itself as empowering the young generation is the need of the hour. — INFA