Dangerous experiments could ruin India’s higher education

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Sudakshana Kundu

It is a matter of grave concern that the Higher Education System in India, is being subjected to dangerous experimentations, that may ruin its foundations for several generations to come. In a vast, pluralistic country like ours, a well-planned and holistic education system should be the foundation for nation building. India is an ancient civilization with the youngest population in the world! In order to convert the burden of our population to an asset, we need to educate and train the youth with pragmatism, in a system that suits our needs. There are attempts at blindly following the American system. On the other extreme, there is a trend to go back to the so called ancient Gurukuls. None, taken without a change, will serve the purpose. We need to plan without bias or dogma and need to proceed carefully. A robust system can be built up with utmost care, over generations. But it can be disturbed in no time with sudden and drastic changes that are not well thought out. We need to be more pragmatic in our planning.
It is commendable that our country aims for “inclusive education”. This has led to many new Universities and d eemed universities, run by both government and private bodies. But how many of them have the infrastructure to ensure minimum standards of education and training? How many of them benefit the local population in mitigating their tribulations?
The courses offered must have some bearing to the local needs and circumstances. Are we planning our programmes to help the locals utilize their indigenous resources more efficiently, giving them a better scope of livelihood? For example, India is basically an agrarian economy. How much emphasis do we put on education programmes in agriculture, pisciculture, horticulture, sericulture or animal husbandry? We have allowed our jute production to dwindle and jute industry to die when they are most eco-friendly products and have great demand worldwide.
Our research and development programmes should include our indigenous resources. Marine wealth of India goes to other countries for packaging. We have very few programmes in food processing and preservation. India has a wealth of historical relics. We do not have the necessary training for preservation of our heritage and turning them to tourist attractions. Engineering colleges are mushrooming in regions where there is little or no industry to provide industrial exposure to the students.
The heterogeneous population of India has diverse needs which no single recipe can satisfactorily cater. Inclusion means offering opportunities to more aspirants and definitely as per their capability and aspirations.
The next point of concern is the grand plan of replacing the University Grants Commission, a body regulated by experienced educationists, by the Higher Education Council, dominated by officials who have less academic experience. Over the last few years, there have been many attempts at curtailing academic freedom of the universities and other academic institutions, under the garb of modernisation and uniformity in curricula. Curricula definitely need to be updated, but how the course is to be rolled out can effectively be designed only by those who are familiar with the ground realities. It should be remembered that better governance and compliance is assured by decentralisation, not by centralisation.
Recent effort at rolling out compulsory uniform curricula for both general (Science, Arts and Commerce) as well as technology disciplines, with little or no academic freedom to the universities, is a case in point. It will only lead to deterioration of academic standards of this country, which was known to produce great academics in the past. Institutes already have very little choice in choosing their faculty members, the number, criteria and qualifications being stringently fixed. This makes the selection of another Professor C.V. Raman, who was directly made a Professor from his posting as a central government employee or Mr. S.N. Bose, who had no official Ph.D. degree, impossible today. If now the choice of designing its own curriculum is also taken away, then the situation will become grave.
If premier universities have to adhere to only a prescribed syllabus, then how will they realise their mission and vision, the focus of national accreditation system? The premier universities have a different responsibility from the non-premier ones. They promote excellence among a set of students, admitted through stringent selection processes. They may act as role models but their curriculum will definitely differ from those of the Universities who cater to a much bigger and more diverse student population. If the focus of the curriculum is only on excellence then employability and development of skill sets of the masses will suffer. On the other hand, if the aim of the uniform syllabus is to make our education system geared only towards employability, then the pursuit for excellence will be thwarted. No single curriculum can therefore fit all.
Some institutes, specially the fledgling ones, need hand holding by affiliating bodies. But those who have earned reputation should be given the freedom to exercise their own discretion in finalising their syllabus. In fact, it is the submission of the previous Planning Commission, which now stands dismantled, that excellence in education is to be promoted through greater autonomy. The World Bank-funded “Technology Education Quality Improvement Programme” (TEQIP) of the HRD ministry earlier helped promising institutions to gain autonomy both in governance and academic programmes. Too much centralisation in this respect may prove counterproductive. Equality does not mean equality in curriculum. Equality in education means catering to the taste and ability of the students, thus giving equal opportunity of achieving the most in life.
Unfortunately, the current focus on only generating employability has brought an unhealthy competition. The goal is only to earn a degree for being eligible for employment. This has made our education system examination-oriented, as evident from the mushrooming of coaching classes and tutorial centers all over the country. The focus on competitive examinations encourages cultivation of the ability to successfully answer objective type questions and take calculated risks in hazarding a guess. This trend has become almost institutionalised as evaluation of the answer scripts of such mass examinations, involving lakhs of aspirants, within a short time can only be done through automation. This makes Multiple Choice Questions the only option, in spite of the fact that such examinations do not guarantee correct estimation of the academic capability of a student.
Education is not only about making the students employable. The larger aim of education is to prepare the mind by inculcating social values and ability to think independently. This alone will enable the younger generations meet their personal goals and take the country forward. In a country where demand for jobs far exceeds their supply, the entire eco-system is hungrily looking for well tested roads to success. This may suit some, but definitely not all. Neither the present curricula nor the examination system has the scientific means of testing the aptitude and inclination of a student. There is no room for catering to his/her personal ambitions. Most of the student life is spent within the walls of the class-rooms and coaching centres, with little scope for practical training and independent thought. Lessons in practical life, participation in social activities and group activities make a person complete. But the rat race of competitive examinations, which are not tests of knowledge but elimination tests, nurture only the selfish instinct.
The writer is a retired Professor of Computer Science, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology, West Bengal. (Courtesy: TS)