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Friday, June 30, 2017

Higher Education At a Cross-Roads!

India should learn to use its highly qualified diaspora to impart experiential-learning to its students back home.
Observing that higher education in India is at ‘cross-roads’, former Chairman of Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister C Rangarajan, opined that “the excellent quality of the best students of our universities and colleges is well recognized at home and abroad …But, it is the average which is causing concern.” Airing his concerns at the poor status of our educational system he further stated that agricultural, industrial and scientific growth of the country depend on creating a ‘corps’ of well-trained professionals in these areas and it would happen only with good quality higher education.
Indeed, that’s what even the growth theories of economy too state: the ‘exogenous theory’ of Solow, the Nobel Laurate in economics, posits that economic growth is determined largely by ‘extra-economic factors’, for the progress in science and technology relies little on monetary and fiscal policies; two, even the currently in ‘endogenous’ growth theory of Romer asserts that growth depends on advances made under economically useful knowledge, along with, of course, a panoply of attendant factors such as openness to trade, vibrant entrepreneurship and skilled human resources. It thus become evident that it is the creation of knowledge and its wider diffusion across the society which boosts productivity.
Against this backdrop, let us examine the current status of our educational scenario. Though it is a cliché to say that higher education in India is at a cross-roads, there appears to be an element of truth in this hackneyed and overused phrase for reasons galore. Immediately after independence, our higher education landscape was represented by IITs, IIMs and IISc. However, in terms of scalability and accountability, there was no further addition to this setup until 1995. As a result, a number of private professional colleges sprouted, particularly under the engineering discipline, across the country but with poor faculty and infrastructural support. Governance of these institutions is seldom separated from the ownership. As a result, interests of key stakeholders like students and faculty are often ignored. There was hardly any respect for meritocracy, both in faculty and students. There is also a desperate shortage of faculty with postgraduate qualifications across the country. And ironically, even the government-run institutions are no exception to these shortcomings. Thus, technical education in the country developed a distorted image—institutes have grown but quality declined terribly.
Perhaps, alarmed by these developments, government has recently established or proposed to establish a dozen new IITs, IIMs and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) for turning out quality graduates and postgraduates in science and technology. At best, this may reduce the gap in the availability of institutional support. But the real crux of our educational system is: poor learning outcomes emerging out of our half-a-century old tradition of rote learning. For, it cannot deliver India such workforce which is nimble, highly-skilled and ready for the digital age. Simply put, there would be no greater crime than equating good grades obtained through rote learning with good education. Hence, this needs to be replaced immediately with a kind of ‘mentor facilitated learning model’—a shift from ‘teacher’ as source of classroom-centric ‘knowledge’ to ‘mentor’ as facilitator for ‘learning’. Which means, faculty will be playing the role of a ‘mentor’ to facilitate peer-driven experiential learning through projects, field experiences, practicum, group discussions, etc. Simultaneously, there is a need to redesign the curriculum from time to time to remain abreast with changing market demands.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. For, the real challenge to our educational system is: availability of qualified Ph.D. faculty as the number of Ph.Ds produced in the country is about 1,000 per year. Here, it is in order to look at what Sanjoy Chakravorty and Davesh Kapur, authors of the book, The Other One Percent: Indians in America, said in an interview to The Hindu: our book brings out the “extent of brain drain from India. If you take the areas of higher education, despite all the rhetorical flourishes about engaging the diaspora, it is actually severely underleveraged. There are 95,000 Indians with Ph.Ds in the US. India produces around 25,000 Ph.Ds every year. Assuming that 10% of that is of the quality that is produced here [in the US], we are talking about 2,500 annually. So, in some ways, India has gifted the US half a century worth of high-quality human capital. Yet, the whole mindset in India, all the rules and regulations, ensures that instead of attracting as many of them back, keep them away.”
How true they are! Our education system is plagued by stretched financial resources, poorly trained faculty, unimaginative curriculums, and outdated pedagogical methods of teaching. Yet, we fail to leverage on the known strengths of diaspora to impart quality education and research guidance. We are so apathetic that we don’t even learn from other’s experiences: China has succeeded in cleverly using its diaspora for its all-round development. Innovations bring hope to the economy and innovation is inextricably linked to education. But the government prefers to remain indifferent. Let us hope that at least educational institutions would by themselves take a lead in inviting these overseas Indians to visit as adjunct faculty, at least for short periods and mentor not only students but even their young faculty to enjoy high end learning. Such a move will certainly go a long way in making our institutes capable of turning out competent teachers/researchers and through them generate knowledge that could sustain the economic growth.


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