A few weeks ago, some students met me and expressed how happy they were that they could now pursue higher education because of the support that our organization gave them. They told me that they now felt more confident that they could face life and hope for a better living standard because of the degree that they would now get. Most of them were in professional courses and some of them were studying engineering and medicine. While their enthusiasm and positive outlook did make me feel very satisfied, I reflected on whether the higher education that they were pursuing was really making them better human beings and in a very pragmatic sense – more employable. I was reminded of a comment of one of the founders of Infosys that their Training Institute in Mysore was actually making the fresh engineers that they hired more employable. I was left wondering how wasteful their 4-year course was if they could not be fully trained engineers when they graduated. Having post-graduate degrees from both India and the US and teaching the last few years in some of America’s leading universities has helped me understand a little of what makes higher education work in these countries, while we are still struggling with how to make it relevant and appropriate for a growing nation like ours.
Let us take a quick look at the scene in India today and some of the problems plaguing us. A superficial look reflects that India possesses a highly developed higher education system which offers facility of education and training in almost all aspects of human creative and intellectual endeavors: arts and humanities, mathematical and social sciences, engineering, medicine, dentistry, agriculture, education, law, commerce, management, music and performing arts, national and foreign languages, culture, communications, etc. And we do have a large number of Institutions conferring degrees on millions of young Indians. In its size and diversity, India has the third largest higher education system in the world, next only to China and the United States. Before independence, access to higher education was very limited and elitist, with enrollment of less than a million students in 500 colleges and 20 universities. Since independence, the growth has been very impressive. The number of universities as of June 2012 is 567 and that is indeed creditable. There are universities of some kind in each of India’s 28 states as well as three of its union territories. The state with the most universities is Tamil Nadu with 55 universities. Andhra Pradesh has the most state universities (32), Rajasthan the most private universities (25), while Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have four central universities each. While one can argue that these numbers are still not enough for a country with a population of 1.2 billion and with more than 58% of our people less than 20 years old, what should cause greater concern is the quality of these institutions and the decaying state of our higher education.
In our own backyard in Karnataka, the Knowledge Commission was bold and inventive in trying to push for establishing Innovative Universities. Unfortunately petty politics has not allowed this to see the light of the day. What clearly rules higher education in the country and not just in the state of Karnataka is the politics both inside and outside the universities, the petty mindedness of the administrations, the lack of initiative in making students creative, the lack of student-centric syllabus, and more importantly the lack of any capacity building of the teaching faculty.
The students today come from an education system that increasingly promotes rote learning, while creative learning takes a back seat. Poor quality of teaching at the lower levels further impedes learning. Many of these students come from rural backgrounds where severe handicaps exist for learning English, Maths and Science. Today’s higher education system demands a high-level understanding and usage of these very subjects and this becomes a major constraint. Moreover, the students who clear the Board exams at the 10th standard level lack most of the soft skills. They also receive very little career counseling and finally opt for courses not based on their aptitude, ability or interest but choose whatever they get by default in a highly competitive environment.
The teaching faculty at our universities come from similar background and system and hence cannot be expected to be any different. There is hardly any incentive for good performance while poor performance is never penalized. Research is virtually non-existent and the quality of our PhDs leaves much to be desired. Most of them are never trained for teaching at the level of universities and lack the basic skills of transacting in such environments. They never really take their skill upgradation seriously and most training programs are considered either as a paid holiday or a nuisance that one has to live with. Very few teachers are known to take their profession with the seriousness that it deserves and those that do are generally in great demand. Many of them suffer from different forms of discrimination and are victims of petty politics that has now become a cornerstone of most universities. Added to this is the security that a tenured job brings along and there is very little effort at promoting quality and merit. Most of these universities have vice-chancellors appointed to them based on caste equations and political connections rather than academic attainment or administrative capability.
The curriculum is still not skill-based and students are forced to deal with outdated and irrelevant material that is of no application value in the real world situation. Most of the focus is on mere specialization and narrow learning and students really have no idea of the larger ecosystem in which they have to operate later in real life. Only now are many universities moving towards a credit-based system that offers a choice of electives to students. I still fondly remember my student days at Harvard where I had the luxury to choose from thousands of courses for my electives – from Leadership to Negotiation to Communication. I could choose from many such soft courses in addition to the core courses in Development Economics, Quantitative Methods and Statistics and Policy Making – all for a degree in Public Administration. We need to have universities interact more with the industry and real world to make the course content realistic, pragmatic and having user value. More and more of them have to get the experience of internships and industry through project work that is also graded and should be made mandatory to get their degrees. Without all this, most of our graduating students will end up having very little employable value.
The libraries that exist in most universities have also not kept pace with the developments in the world of Information Science. Most of them have limited or no accesses to the latest journals in the world and only now are a few of them moving towards the world of digital communication.
Most public and private universities around the world depend on their alumni, both financially and for inputs regarding the changing requirements of curriculum. Indian universities need to ensure the active and sustained participation of their graduates. Alumni are a treasure-house of knowledge and experience and one should have a structured process for using them. Separate cells to undertake this throughout the year need to be created. Alumni engagement needs to go beyond organizing reunions and one should get them to participate in administration too.
Let us not forget that higher education is not new to India. When other countries had no concept of higher education, India was considered as one the great centers of higher learning. Let us not forget our own world-famous Nalanda University that existed between the 5th and 12th centuries. It was one of the world’s first residential universities and in its heyday accommodated over 10,000 students and 2000 teachers. The library was located in a nine-storied building and the subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning. It attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. One cannot live on our own past glory and we now need more proactive and responsive policies for promoting higher education in India. We need to learn from experience from our own history and around the world in order to become competitive and produce the best that the world needs. We need to regain our lost glory and once again become the center for higher learning for the world. This can happen only when our Government, academicians, administrators and captains of the Industry join hands and focus on doing this with the seriousness that it deserves. Till then, our students will have to live with mediocrity or look for better opportunities outside the country.