Higher Education at Crossroads - Challenges from Within and Without

A.N. Maheshwari


National Council for Teacher Education

Higher education in India, since its inception in 1857 when universities were started in the three Presidency towns, has been following the same road and is now at crossroads. The road has reached dead-end from several perspectives. Students no longer have confidence in its ability to prepare them for entering the world of work as the nature of occupations has been constantly changing with rapid developments in science and technology, but curricula have practically remained unchanged. The State is no longer the principal employer of the educated youth in the country. The hard reality is that majority of employment opportunities now are in the private sector and this sector is very choosy, to say the least. The private sector employs only those who possess skills and competencies required by it. Its requirements are continually changing because this sector has to keep pace with its global competitors. Education now has to be tailor-made to the requirements of the private sector. Also, under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement foreign institutions will make inroads in the higher education sector by providing alternative learning opportunities leading to award of degrees of their universities. They claim that their certification will be preferred by multinationals to the degrees awarded by our universities. In such a scenario there is an urgent need to re-engineer the road of higher education from its dead-end. The need of the hour is to give a fresh look to the higher education and introduce such changes as will restore confidence in the ability of the state universities and colleges for providing education relevant to the present context and that too cost effectively.

What is the required paradigm shift? Perhaps, the answer may be found from the experience of the manufacturing sector. It is also struggling to remain competitive when the foreign countries have flooded the domestic market with goods and services. The key to meeting this challenge is to ensure quality assurance that too cost effectively and remain globally competitive. Therefore, we have to learn from management experts how to ensure quality in the education sector, its sustenance and enhancement.

Customer satisfaction is the key for upgrading quality, as without full customer satisfaction it is not possible to increase market share. The customers of education are students. Decline in interest in general education courses has hit the universities and colleges. It is perhaps due to dissatisfaction with the present education system. Students seeking tertiary education clamour for joining professional courses of study than courses in general education. The widespread impression is that unlike professional education courses, the general education courses have failed to keep pace with changes that are taking place in the world of work. The courses offered by the general education colleges are determined by traditional mindset and have continued to remain inflexible. Students complain that they are not able to exercise choice in selecting what they would like to study. They want to study what would suit their aptitude and also meet their future needs. Also, the general perception is that contents of courses that are being offered at present may not be helpful to them in acquiring skills and abilities required by their future employers.

Student satisfaction may have to be used as an effective instrument for raising the quality of programmes of study. This will require acceptance of the sovereignty of learners by the higher education system. New courses and course combinations may have to be offered for meeting varying learning needs of students. The other driving force for raising quality will be the commitment of teachers to their students and to the pursuit of excellence. The main task of teachers will be bringing out the inner potential of their students and chiseling of their mental faculties.

There are innumerable examples of institutions in our country and abroad that stand out in the midst of mediocrity as centres of excellence. The challenge from within and without that should now drive each institution is to strive to obtain an ISO type of certification of quality. For that it may be helpful to learn from institutions both from within the country and abroad that have achieved unequivocal standards of high quality. There are many outstanding examples of role models.

As higher education is universal I feel more confident in sharing my experience of the institution where I had studied, although it is in the U.S.A. I would like to share in brief my analysis of what has made the University of Chicago as one of the most outstanding institutions of the world. I had studied there from 1964 to 1969. The University of Chicago even today continues to be a small graduate school when compared with other American universities. It was started in 1892 as a private university with a modest grant of half a million US dollars given to it by John Rockefeller and a matching grant by the city of Chicago. In 1992 when the University celebrated its centenary it had more than 100 Nobel Laureates associated with it. Some of them were its alumni, some were its teachers and others were its teachers who had shifted to other institutions by the time they received the award. How did this University manage to have a galaxy of outstanding scholars on its faculty? The answer is that by admitting the best available students in the world it attracted the best minds to join its faculty. The teachers of the University of Chicago demanded outstanding performance from its students and played as ideal role models to them by their own pursuit of excellence. Its teachers worked at the frontiers of knowledge of their disciplines and helped their students in keeping pace with them. A strong current of academic excellence flowed in the University. Also, teachers brought to the University substantial grants for carrying out their research work and for supporting their research students. There were no short cuts in demand of performance from students and the University of Chicago degree came with a quality assurance.

Therefore, the kingpins of an institution are its teachers. If in an institution good teachers have joined teaching profession, it is because they value academic freedom, enjoy teaching-learning and have made pursuit of excellence their mission. The quality automatically follows. It is generally believed that a just and fair system in rewarding good performance is crucial for teacher motivation. But, if one were to ask teachers of institutions that are highly rated, it would be found that they set their own goals and drive themselves with self-discipline for performing at the peak of their capability. The source of their motivation may be self-determined goals, peer appreciation, publishing articles in journals of repute, invitations for sharing their research work in conferences and seminars etc. and not the desire for obtaining worldly gains such as rapid promotion in service or positions of authority. Rewards and recognition follow them because of their hard work.

Recruitment of high caliber teachers is necessary but may not be sufficient for ensuring quality in their performance. They would require support of infrastructure such as a good library, laboratories equipped with modern facilities essential for carrying out teaching and research at international standards and more than these a sympathetic understanding of their academic needs by the administration. Only then they may be able to work at the frontiers of knowledge by keeping themselves updated with the latest developments in their field.

In our country there are outstanding examples of persons who made world-class contributions to knowledge without the support of advanced laboratories or research facilities that were available to their peers. Contributions of Ramanujam, Tagore, C.V. Raman, J.C. Bose, S.N. Bose, Meghnad Saha, S. Chandrasekhar, Homi Bhabha and many others, that too in the pre-independence period, are outstanding examples of the best creative work that could be done by dint of power of thinking and belief in their abilities. Lord Rutherford, the great pioneer of nuclear physics, when he was told that America was going ahead in nuclear physics because they had a lot of money, once said," Americans have money. We do not have it, and so we have got to think." There is no substitute for hard and serious thinking; and with sustained and serious effort we should be able to go long way even with our meagre resource and capital. It will, therefore, be an anachronism to continue to use the human brain for memorising information when it should be used for solving problems, creative thinking - the skill attributes of knowledge workers. Therefore, any system of education unless it is learner- centred, is flexible, is around developing thinking skills and is able to help learners in acquiring the ability of learning how to learn will gradually lose its relevance. Therefore, there is now an urgent need to reorient teaching-learning in the universities to meet the requirements of the youth for living and contributing effectively in the 21st century.

The dimensions of the Information Revolution and its limitless possibilities are widely accepted and generally understood, even by lay people. For the first time in our history, it is now possible, in principle, for students in India to have access to the same world of knowledge at the same instant as the students in the most affluent country of the world have. Nevertheless, to make the most of it, we must also acknowledge that there are challenges before the education system particularly the higher education system, and we must make important choices. We can extend opportunity to all or leave many behind. We can accelerate the most powerful engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known, or allow the engine to stall. History has taught us that choices cannot be deferred; action or inaction makes them. There is no such thing as virtual opportunity. Imagine the revolutionary democratising potential this can bring.

Time has perhaps come for the universities to redesign curricular concerns in higher education and bring in innovations in developing interdisciplinary programmes of study appropriate to the concerns of the 21st century. This may necessitate exploring generation of resources both physical and financial. Almost all universities are struggling to find funds as the State funding is shrinking to alarmingly low levels because of financial stringency and increasing cost of quality higher education. There are universities that have remained financially self-reliant from their inception and have the potential for playing a trailblazing role on how a university can continue to offer world-class education through its innovative new programmes and efforts of its teachers. For raising their resources what universities should do is to make their courses attractive to students both from within the country and abroad by making them of world class standards and by taking up consultancy assignments.

To illustrate my point I share my experience when I was the Vice-Chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology. As a Vice-Chancellor, I faced crisis of finding funds for running my university and upgrading facilities for a competitive and quality-wise relevant research. To upgrade our laboratories by equipping them with modern equipment I needed funds, which were limited, and the challenge was what I should do for my university to compete in the field of higher education. In August 1993, India's High Commissioner to UK, who was a well-wisher of my University, arranged my visit to a university in UK that also offered programmes of ship technology and naval architecture and environmental sciences, which I wanted to strengthen in my university. I found to my surprise that the Department of Ship Technology in that university had only eight teachers, yet the Department had employed 30 professionals for supporting its teachers in execution of their consultancy tasks. The 30 engineers who worked with the eight faculty members were on the payroll of the Department and not of the University. This was an eye-opener for me. I could appreciate that the teachers of that University contributed to the standards of knowledge in their discipline and at the same time by making their activities relevant to the end users had helped their University in becoming financially self-reliant. The same was true of the Department of Environmental Sciences of that University. The Vice-Chancellor introduced me to the two teachers who were co-ordinating programmes of study of about 40 students. I was informed that in addition to the two teachers in the Department, it had adjunct faculty drawn from the other Departments such as Biotechnology, Biology, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Economics, etc. Different courses of study to match the requirements of students were arranged under the broad discipline of environmental science. This was an inspiring experience, and has relevance in evolving directions of new thinking for the future of our higher education as well as technical and professional education.

But learning and knowledge--and even wisdom--are not enough. National well-being, including material prosperity, rests to a substantial extent on the personal qualities of the people who constitute a nation. The success of our country is going to depend on the integrity and other qualities of character that students will continue to develop and demonstrate over the years ahead. It may be that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and manipulating associates both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world and far more satisfying when it comes without exploiting others. The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavours without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake. Human relations--be they personal or professional--should not be zero sum games, and higher education must only thrive on ethical principles and right value orientation so vital for ensuring quality in all our educational endeavours.

All those of us who are taking part in this important convention of NAAC accredited institutions may like to introspect and identify factors that have brought them the distinction of being included in the category of high performers. Their experience can become lessons to others that want to raise the level of performance of their institutions by their own bootstraps and in making their programmes relevant to the 21st century learners.

What I have suggested might be found of some relevance by the higher education system in making its choice of direction; presently it is at crossroads.

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