Higher Education – Challenges and solutions – Rural Universities to play a leadership role

By Professor R.N.K. Bamezai

India is the land of great thinkers and planners who from time to time have worked towards community up-liftment and generated ideas to kindle our lives with meaning and purpose. This has been true in the realm of higher education as well. We find Gandhi’s philosophy of Sarvodaya- development of all- reflected in the initial goal outlined by the Radhakrishanan Commission, on University Education set up by the Government of India in 1948-49. This First Commission in independent India echoed the philosophy of Sarvodaya by enunciating the goals of Higher Education in transforming education from mere learning to changing lives. It was pitched at fulfilling the needs and aspirations of the people and making it the powerful instrument of social, economic and cultural transformation to realize the national goals.”
Establishment of such higher educational institutions with the twin purpose of nurturing young minds with higher knowledge and skill-sets on one hand and inculcating motivation for community service on the other is of grater relevance today as it was at the time of independence. Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University set up in a rural setting at Kakriyal; Katra fulfills the same vision anticipated by the First Commission on University Education. It is a matter of pride that SMVD University and other associated institutions are living that vision by serving the society through education, extension and service.
Creating Learning Grid
Realizing how education at SMVDU could work in tandem with lives and aspirations of people in the region and bring in social, economic and Cultural Revolution, the need to harness the strengths of such an institution of higher learning becomes important today. We should look at extending these possibilities by creating mechanisms of network that institutions like SMVDU can spearhead with other institutions of higher learning to create a ‘learning grid’. This propels in motion a chain of linkages based on exchanging curricula, material, and learning experiences.
As an educationist, a researcher and now an administrator, my ‘mannan’ on higher education in the country has been an on-going ‘mind-game’, a process of continuous learning and de-learning. What is of utmost significance is of keeping the energetic youth of today engaged in a meaningful exercise of knowledge gain and information generation, through the process of learning to innovate, and become employment generators instead of just settling as job seekers. Equally binding would be imparting moral and ethical values which can be imbibed and readily accepted through involvement in community outreach services. Somehow our education today, despite the willingness to bring changes, has not been as successful in achieving the goals set by the First Commission on higher education. Focusing on the anticipated projections set by the commission would serve the primary purpose instead of devoting our energies in redefining or deviating from axioms of higher education in India.
Gross Enrolment Ratio : A chimera?
Despite keeping pace with times by creating world-class institutions with brand value, we have fallen short of producing innovators and retaining a competitive edge. Issues of equity, inclusion, level-playing field for all and non-discrimination between state and central institutions of higher learning are some new challenges confronting the higher education today. Our universities are expected to attain global parity in average enrolment, as a sub-critical component with optimum use of land and infrastructure, which could lead to a substantial higher intake and enrolment. The desire to increase the figure of 20 million learners to 30 million in the conventional system and 4.6 million to 6.6 million in distance mode could take us to a coverage of 30% GER, as suggested by Professor Ved Prakash, the Acting Chairman of UGC. As a marker for a wide and uniform coverage of education, GER has had a limited success so far. We could not achieve the set goal of 20% of gross enrolment ratio (GER) in XI Plan though we intend to take it to a new high of >30%. Not only does this deficit become a stark reality in comparison to the developed world, we also confront the challenge of overcoming lack of innovation and achieving excellence.
Yawning Gap in Filling Positions
Another significant area of concern is of acute faculty shortage that ranges from 30 to 40 % in IITs and up to 30 % in IIMs and the yawning gap is as high as 50 % of the teaching posts in the university system. Many new universities are operating from temporary campuses and offering limited courses because of faculty shortage and space. Concerns of quality and research output not matching up to international standards have been plaguing the higher education. An addition of four new IITs, 14 innovation universities and 374 model colleges, announced in the 11th plan will be carried forward into the new 12th plan. However, random additions of institutions without prior preparation amounts to ‘putting a cart before the horse’ which is likely to keep the problems festering. Same situation would persist even if proposals of GER by higher enrolment or conducting classes in off hours with a provision of additional resources, allocation of funds and raising of more universities with tags of ‘world class’, or even IITs, materializes.
We need to address certain basic issues and find appropriate answers. Invariably, despite a huge network of colleges and universities, we continue to fail in attracting good and knowledgeable faculty, a requirement fundamental to any educational institution. Apart from lack of innovations, absence of new discoveries and with least prevalence of a happiness index in almost all institutions of higher learning; the faculty, staff and students present themselves as fatigued who largely have a limited desire to earn their livelihood. Need for motivation and suggesting the principles of development to the students is alien to most mentors. There are exceptions and very good teachers in these institutions who grow as individuals without creating any potential influence on their non-performing colleagues. Absence of a supportive environment to deserving teachers, lacking in the system, acts as de-motivator for those who are performers. Motivation, therefore, is the casualty at last. No wonder that the knowledge base, the innovative thinking and the passion to do something different is lacking among the majority. Silver lining though, where one finds very bright from within the country and abroad hunting for jobs in India. What a paradox? Something is amiss, not in policies, but in perspectives and ground-level executions.
No one would discount the need for higher allocation in education, equity between central and state institutions, optimal utilizations of existing infrastructures and increase in number of institutions with higher GER. All these inputs, however, would not necessarily ensure quality and innovation. Since assumptions to resuscitate educational institutions through extra funding; more inductions or a single monitoring central body would still prove insufficient. Success as desired is not necessarily ensured by mere announcements of flexible academic framework, self development and acquisition of skills, free pursuit of knowledge and innovation, or inter-disciplinary approach to learning to match global standards and similar such measures. Shared heterogeneity of institutional framework and its human resource would render implementation of same set of instructions differently. Thus, there are certain fundamentals we need to address. In a network of >600 universities, >33,000 colleges, we need all pervasive and time to time updated databases of different sets of information. This would be essential for strategizing the effort against the background of principles set forth for achieving excellence in vocational, technical and professional higher education while maintaining the common goal of societal good. We need to quickly adjust our approach to accommodate some radical changes in the educational pedagogy with electronic and virtual approaches to incorporate uniformity, objectivity and equal accessibility of knowledge across the whole country.
Meeting Challenges and Working with Solutions:
Our primary challenge today is of establishment of strong fundamentals and adoption of an appropriate model of higher education and governance. The guiding principles for the higher education should include: provision of equal opportunities, equity and inclusiveness. Simultaneously, a gateway of opportunities for drop-outs and late-bloomers would enable them to catch up with others and acquire a competitive edge. Guiding and counseling should become the core and an inbuilt mechanism in the entire system. Excellence, knowledge generation and innovation for social good should become the new mantra. Morality, ethics and social consciousness which constitute the fundamental base should be nurtured right from the school education to the higher level.
In the prevailing system, the real talent of the child is neither supported nor channelized into a positive engagement. Parental and peer pressure guides the student in exploring avenues through professional and non-professional courses. For some it is like floating with the current and reaching a conventional and compromised position. Obviously, there is dearth of passion in what a student is involved in; and innovation becomes the biggest casualty. Higher education cannot be divorced from the education provided at the level of Schools and Colleges. Principles laid down above should become mandatory to build a generation of committed citizens and not just qualified individuals, who have no other defined purpose cut out beyond earning and living. The moot question then is which model to adopt for higher education in the country?
Monitoring Mechanisms and the Model
Any model not monitored with well defined evaluation indices to gauge institutional health would fail to serve the purpose. A general framework of indices could be: (i) vibrancy in its educational pedagogy, (ii) the happiness index of students, teachers and employees, (iii) the performance in curricular and extra-curricular activities at regular intervals, (iv) placement record of past students, (v) efficient governance in academic, administrative and financial sectors and similar such issues of relevance. However, for any alternative proposal to the present educational system at the national level, the model has to be pragmatic and appropriate for the needs of a pluralistic society living in diverse geographical cultures. In principle, it has to be a good blend of Gandhian-Nehruvian paradigm: Gandhian as an embodiment of development alternatives amalgamated into Nehruvian vision of Indian modern ethos. Gandhian in its perspective of novel philosophy of making local needs as the central point of focus , using local resources and innovation and blending with Nehruvian outlook of global competition, excellence and visibility.
Virtual Networks and linkages
Institutions like SMVDU can play a critical role in creating a virtual network amongst similarly placed rural universities in J&K and neighbouring states and establish linkages with State and Central universities / colleges and other research institutions in the state to create the desired critical balance between the proposed paradigms. Such a model would not require any cumbersome and capital intensive procedures of physical exchange, visits etc; but would link all institutions with the ‘learning-grid’ created for limitless exchange of knowledge and expertise through the process of sharing of resources in a virtual manner, available 24×7. This possibility seems feasible since it entails re-orientation in thinking at the institutional level and making use of facilities provided by the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) and National Knowledge Network (NKN) to give a wider platform to implement ICT in learning processes. The model further envisages the recognition and establishment of Rural Universities with programmes and course curricula relevant to the region in imparting vocational training and education. This is done to fulfill their needs through knowledge, awareness and professional approaches of using their skills in developing local entrepreneurial ventures besides the prospects of getting gainful employment. Establishing such linkages amongst all institutions of higher learning, R&D establishments and Industries would ensure creation of consistent sustainability. Formation of such ‘learning-grids’ at regional level (interconnected networks), connected to a Central grid, and with each other within the region would allow quick sharing, objective evaluation, maintenance of standards, and strengthening problem solving and solution providing capabilities.
Each grid could have ‘Knowledge Generation Centres’ for creation of modules of teaching, curricula development, virtual experimentation, virtual class rooms etc; ‘Evaluation and Coordination Centres’ and ‘Feed-Back and Distribution Centres’. Each regional grid would act as a facilitator for the universities and colleges of a given region. This model allows achieving a common goal despite multiple institutional administrative structures with uniform approaches and guidelines. The on-line system for examination and evaluation, accessible even in the remotest corner of a region, would further normalize the uneven standards of education and grading systems. The system would be a better combination of conventional and distance education to increase the GER beyond the projected percentage of 30%. An official decision to allow abridge courses for those who have taken vocational training and intend to pursue higher studies would increase the net catchment. A system of free movement from a Rural to a Central university or vice-versa for performers with excellent track record should be feasible. Excellence and established credibility should decide about the mobility either way of the students and teachers. Hubs and Grids would have curricula, syllabi, teaching modules, Hands on training modules available along with the virtual class room teaching and practical available to access at any time. The range of availability of subjects from humanities to social sciences and languages and literature to sciences and engineering would facilitate involvement of more numbers and less teachers. Indices for evaluation of institutions once meticulously worked out would make any other mode of evaluation redundant. The evaluation would be automated and electronic. Funds would be released according to the performances and the contributions expected of the institution based on the mandate. Mandates would have to be redefined for institutions which of course would be a mammoth exercise. Same would be true for generating the reading materials and virtual modules. Nevertheless, the model visualizes a transparent system of learning and evaluation which is uniform and inclusive.
E-learning is no longer a chimera or a distant dream since plethora of content is now available virtually. Providers of e-content and delivery platforms have joined hands to offer various material and courses 24X7 to defray any lag in enrollment through conventional educational route. Many young entrepreneurs have pegged their efforts in delivering e-learning in the form of videos, live classes and interactive videos through host of sevices in the form of online classes, discussion boards and student communities. The major area of work would be to deliver high quality e-material even in low bandwidth in India where access to such services is limited. In this task the work laid out for institutions is to endorse such efforts by providing linkages with district level educational systems.
Reshaping existing institutions on these lines would not only reduce duplications and reduce concerns of local versus global, creating a harmonious continuity between the two. Moreover, in this model an integrated approach to local area development i.e., villages, tehsils and districts, with other civic and social bodies and the Rural University is also envisaged. This would provide a cutting-edge to the essential sanitary, health and other community development programmes. There is no gain saying to suggest that it would lead to higher level of accountability, maintain single monitoring and adjudging system and serve the societal role of education at the doorsteps for the masses and empower them. The quality and social skills imparted through education becomes an essential ingredient of sustaining a healthy and progressive society. The requisite quantity of such a competent manpower helps fuel this healthy progress, visible at global level. India falls short of these essential requirements in its higher education system.
A sustainable and meaningful higher education requires meticulously worked out school educational system where cross-cultural and civilizational input / exposure is provided equally for all; which is scientific, with diverse non-extremist opinions, vetted and available uniformly. This allows people from different geographical and cultural domains to explore each other’s domains, leading to reduction in selection bias and encouraging experimentation. Controls desired would be at the level of governance and not knowledge acquisition. Regulatory frameworks need to be positioned but not at the cost of killing initial curiosities, questions and inquisitiveness of young minds. For science as well as non-science students, a well documented history of science natural, biological, environmental and spiritual and moral should be essential in the course curriculum.
Higher education institutions function at varying growth levels and funding mechanism. Governance accordingly differs. Categories of funding at Centre, State, and Private levels again add to the layer of differential governance patterns. Political, local influences and interferences make the governance mechanism still more complex. Inefficiency, diverse group dynamics within the institutions, disgruntled elements and their activities against the interest of the institution; and above all the indifference at various levels add to mis-governance. Rigid guidelines, average administrators and academicians who only like to stick to the lines written in rules and not in the spirit with a narrow vision of running day to day affairs, compromises the growth of educational institutions. The governing system purely with clinical approach to problems on day to day basis and absence of vision in developing an institution has been responsible for ills. Poor training of support staff, communication gaps between administration and rest adds to these problems.
The proposed model envisages providing a collective leadership through virtual interactions in real time, an opportunity to learn from each other and establish a healthy competition. The suggestions made also provide voice to voiceless, a step necessary for inclusive education and growth, involving one and all in the process of development of nation.[A major part of this was presented in the form of a convocation address at Pravara Institute of Medical Sciences, Loni, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra on 31st March, 2012]
(The author is Vice Chancellor, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University,Kakriyal, Katra, Jammu, J&K)

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