Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Higher Education in India: Time for a Paradigm Shift

Ever since the process of economic reforms began in the 1990s, we have been hearing pious noises about the urgent need to reform education also. Obviously, the linkage is pragmatically motivated: economic growth cannot be sustained over a long period without a suitably reformed education system. This is good as far as it goes. If a concern for sustaining the economic growth can trigger reforms in education, we should embrace the opportunity.

But it would be disastrous to hang education from the peg of economics, as it seems to be happening, without considering the other larger reasons for restructuring it. The need to see the larger picture is urgent also because the dominant vision of economics in the country today is itself very narrow. This is a vision shaped predominantly by corporate interests and not inspired by a socially responsible economic philosophy.

A worthwhile exercise in educational reforms, on the contrary, must take into account the larger role that education plays in contemporary societies. Particularly, it must grapple with the changes that have swept the world during recent decades and anticipate the issues that are likely to seize the world in the coming times. Otherwise education will no more than subserviently reflect temporary business trends.

During a recent interaction with several educationists, I found very few responding to a simple question: Given complete freedom and every resource, how will you reorganize the classroom space? The silence of those who were otherwise even impressively aware and sharp was clearly not a sign of incompetence. It was the symptom of a deeper, systemic problem that we may understand if we consider the organizing rationality of our education system.

It is usually said that the education system is collapsing. It would make sense to speak of a collapse if the system were only burdened with more than it could bear. The real problem, instead, is even more serious: the system is faced with what it cannot handle. The reason is that its organizing rationality is that of the industrial society, whereas we have been already pushed into the post-industrial society.

The real challenge, then, is how to free education from the constraints of the obsolescent industrial paradigm and reconfigure it in accord with the emerging post-industrial paradigm. And this will have to be done in such a way that the interests of all people are served and not just those of any privileged social group. So instead of lamenting the so-called collapse of education, we need to address ourselves to the crisis that the historic shift of the paradigm has induced on a global scale. Some societies have grasped the implications of the shift and are transforming their education systems. Others have either not grasped it, or do not possess the will to confront its challenges and use its opportunities. What these societies lack is a global sense of history, a lack reflected in the inability to take measure of the changing times and imagine something radically different from the given and the inherited.

A global sense of history is needed if we want to be able to see the larger picture in terms of both space and time. We need to see not only continuities but also discontinuities. We need to know what sets the present, with all its legacy of traces, radically apart from the past. Successful societies of the future will be those which have a global sense of history and which moreover have the knack for translating that sense into useful practices in the present.

The spatial organization of the typical Indian classroom might have worked for the unilateral and instructive mode of knowledge transmission that the industrial society required. That, however, does not mean it will work in the post-industrial situation. The good old method of lecturing might be personally gratifying and even inspiring, yet it cannot be allowed to retain its monopoly in an age that demands participatory knowledge production. The old method still has its uses no doubt, but it must rediscover its place in a reconfigured academy. The new mode of knowledge production has to focus on open-ended innovation through shared use of the resources of creativity. The old mode was focussed more on reproduction and on derivative applications of innovation. Fortunately, technologies are today available to facilitate the shift to the new mode, yet in our country these are put to little use other than as mere “aids” to lectures. This has to change.

Change is frightening, and more so when it is a “switch-over” change. But we can at least begin by opening up small spaces for experimentation and innovation within our great Education Machine. The good lessons can be gradually assimilated and the reconfigured spaces expanded. We have opportunities today to reaffirm the forgotten tradition of participatory production of knowledge. And for the first time in history the scale of the participation can be actually boundless and the proportion of production significantly greater than that of reproduction. The chances to reinvent the world have never looked so good.

But are we mentally prepared to suffer the agonies of change? Are we willing to move our Education Machine into the cyberspace?

The world is doing it. The issues of quality control in scholarly electronic publication, of academic exchange and collaboration in cyberspace, of plagiarism and authenticity, etc are being discussed and resolved with utmost urgency. In most of our universities however, we continue to regard the “printed” word with a special reverence that we hesitate to accord to the electronic text. Unless we go full steam ahead for digital archiving and for unhindered electronic access and dissemination, we shall not be able to make for ourselves a place in the emerging networks of knowledge production.

Indeed the time has also come to upgrade democracy in the academy to the next level. For a long time we have lived with a higher education that is built around the myth of the non-existent “average” learner. The myth feeds off real, living students. Those who cannot keep pace with the system fall behind and suffer, while those who are capable of greater challenges find themselves under-tested. We need to make the system more democratic by making it both more inclusive and more adequate. For this purpose we would have to make the undergraduate and postgraduate courses multi-level. The students could then walk out of the university system with a basic degree or with an advanced degree of varied levels, depending on their inclinations, strengths and limitations.

Those students who are good and want to pursue research in the humanities and social sciences often find themselves helpless to follow their dream. With hardly any funding available, they have no choice but to abandon their dream and join the workforce. If they could be retained in the academy, they would be able to give much more to society. With their premature exit from education, the society is faced with a looming scarcity of good researchers and teachers in these crucial areas. The interdisciplinary courses in the universities, proposed by the UGC, can be an opportunity to give teaching assignments to research scholars in these areas. The assignments will financially sustain them and there will be no strain on the fund-starved universities also. In fact, even in the prevailing dispensation it is possible to provide teaching assignments to young research scholars. They can be given two or three hours of teaching every day in the departments of engineering, law, etc. The regular teachers in the departments of humanities and social sciences will be spared the trouble of additional, though paid, work; the needy research scholars will get their bread and butter.

At the same time, even as incentives are devised, we need to make research in the humanities and social sciences more rigorous. Universities should establish interdisciplinary centres for contemporary studies that would work at the forefront of research in all conceivable areas of contemporary society and culture. The students enrolled for Ph.D. programmes could be required to undergo a one-year course in these centres to enable them to plan their research projects in terms of emerging global trends and competencies. We often complain about the quality of research. Let us at least put together some infrastructure and give our young scholars a fair chance.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

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