Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Imagining A New Indian University

I recently wrote about my impressions about Indian Higher Education, gathered during a field trip to Indian colleges and universities over the last three weeks. I was quite pessimistic when I wrote this: The sector seemed chaotic, and despite tall claims, lacking substance and order. While this is a completely different reality from that of Western Higher Education and one surely needs to avoid the pitfall of trying to judge the sector against any foreign benchmark, the human waste, because of an education that does not work, was all too obvious for anyone to be complacent.

However, despite the pessimism, it would be wrong to be deterministic about the fate of Indian Higher Education. Despite the poverty of ideas, there are some silver linings: Entrepreneurs and Educators trying to create a difference. While these efforts are still marginal, and seen in the context of a general retreat of public investment from the Higher Education sector, quite feeble, it remains possible to create a world class university in India. It would need imagination and different kind of thinking, and defiance of all sorts of models including the Western ones: This is the conversation one needs to start now.

The poverty of ideas in the Indian Higher Education sector is not just about failing to put the right processes in place and build capacity just as the Western universities build, but more fundamental - it is about debating and defining what sort of an university India may need. The new breed of private universities are rather desperate to differentiate themselves, but there is very little original thinking and conversation about the missions of an university and whether it would be appropriate in their context. Most of the conversations at this time are about facilities and fees, and some about affiliations, particularly Western ones, but never about graduate attributes or the deep values that would have usually underpinned the making of an university.

At this point, one may object and say that there is nothing about deep values in today's For Profit universities, because they are all about making money; but that would be bad business. Without defined values, an university will be a business without a goal - a sweatshop which may capitalise on opportunities immediately available, but unsustainable over a period of time, which education businesses inevitably require to provide returns on capital investment. So, the question of defining values isn't just an idealist chatter, but a question of business strategy too.

Therefore, the starting point of an Indian university, even a profit-making one, should be about asking the question what it should stand for. This is deeply and inextricably linked with a broader view of Indian economy and society, and an imagination informed by India's history and culture. And, surely, this could be subjective and varied: A group of university makers may define the future in terms of India's technological prowess and focus on basic scientific research, while others may want to restore the glories of Nalanda and put studies of history and philosophy at the heart of their curriculum. Once the discussion is about such values, whatever values they may be, the differentiation and 'individuality' of the universities will become evident, which will be a welcome departure from today's university drive, which is based on real estate and money. The only discussion that one gets to hear about 'academic mission' is that the new universities must deliver 'employability', but the question why one needs to set up an university, with significant overheads in research etc, to deliver 'employability' remains unanswered.

However, this post is meant to be about whether India needs more universities, and what, if they are needed, the new universities should stand for.  So, here are the three, inter-related, things that a new Indian university must do to be worthy of the name:

First, The New Indian University must reflect adequately the diversity and possibilities of India. Ramchandra Guha clearly identifies five dimensions of 'pluralism' that a new Indian university should represent: Pluralism in the student body, pluralism in academic appointments, pluralism in disciplines, pluralism in approaches within disciplines and pluralism in funding sources. This pluralist agenda adequately reflects what the key value proposition of an university is, and where it is different from a college or a training institution. The university making must start with this pluralist agenda, rather than a narrowly mandated one by the respective state governments.

Second, The New Indian University must interrogate what it means to be Indian, and how to assimilate Indian values and cultures with the disciplines and learning of modern natural and social sciences. It must be deeply grounded in the Indian ethos (which it must attempt to define) and represent an open approach to the knowledge of the world. It must use its autonomy to devolve curriculum which is suitable for a modern student and use multiple learning approaches to accommodate students' learning priorities and preferences. It must make adequate allowances for students of different age and persuasions, and embed the defining values of modern India, tolerance, openness and flexibility, at the core of its learning approach.

Third, The New Indian University must build itself to meet the demands of modern India, of its workers, citizens, leaders and entrepreneurs. It must be closely linked to the developments in the industry and on the ground, and this involvement should be deep and continuous. It must not see itself as an isolated business churning out workers, but an influencer in the affairs of its immediate region and the wider nation, because, only by doing so, an university can fulfill its responsibilities of delivering a meaningful education. It must look beyond 'employability' and mere training, and engage in the national conversation and define the agenda.

This is indeed a post in progress, as, after coming back from India, which allowed me to be a part of so many conversations about how a New Indian University should look like, defining the agenda for a new university is one of my prime obsessions. I do intend to write a long essay about the same, once I have found time to indulge in the enterprise. Therefore, this subject will keep coming back to my conversations, and I welcome any comments or ideas that one may have regarding the same.

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