Friday, August 7, 2009

On Higher Education in India

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Even as the country moves towards evolving a comprehensive higher education programme, we need to steer a middle course between euphoria and cynicism. Comprehensive restructuring is urgently required, but it should not lead to a monolithic system. Diversity needs to be nurtured if only to realize the larger purpose of restructuring, which is to develop global competencies in an increasingly challenging world. Innovation and creativity flourish most in the soil of diversity. In place of a New Delhi-centric conception, a multi-centric conception of higher education would therefore better serve the purpose. It is possible to strive for uniformly high standards while keeping the focus on specific regional and local priorities. Moreover, the needs of rural India also should be adequately integrated into the project of restructuring. Care has to be taken that the project does not become a prisoner of the metropolitan agenda.
The guiding mantra of restructuring should be glocalism, understood not merely as a blend of the global and the local but as the application of global resources to local problems and of local resources to global problems. This would keep the focus firmly set on both relevance and competitiveness. Otherwise the cultivation of global competencies is narrowly interpreted as merely the preparation to tackle issues faced by the most advanced countries of the world. We need to have global competencies, but for what? This question must be a constant guide. We need to do best not in the abstract; the best has to emerge in the face of concrete, given situations. There are issues and problems in the immediate environment that too should command the application of the best skills.
Higher education should have the priority areas defined, within a broader long term vision with specific objectives and grounded in a culture of diversity. All teaching and research should find its justification in active dialogue with such a vision. There is no reason to fear any threat to academic freedom and innovation, provided the dialogue is alive and impassioned. The fact is we cannot afford to squander or under-utilize any of our pedagogic and research resources. For instance, a good deal of the available resources can be put to far better use if only the implications and potential of academic work for policy formulation could be kept in view.
There has been a tendency in recent years to overemphasize the economic and the technological to the detriment of the social, the cultural and the political. This imbalance would have to be removed if we want to walk into the future in sound overall health. Progress in tackling problems is to be measured in terms of the ability to see the problems in their totality and complexity, and not through the glasses of some fashionable and oversimplifying reductionism. There are so many issues that the academy has only addressed as if these are one-dimensional and isolated. The media has been trying to fill the gap by drawing attention to such academically ignored or undervalued issues, but it has its limitations. The academy must put its act together and offer a more integrated and concerted approach to the emerging complex issues that no one-dimensional vision can hope to tackle. Over the last few years the University Grants Commission has been trying to promote interdisciplinary studies in recognition of the complexity of emerging problems, but in practice interdisciplinarity has itself become a rationale for academic activity. Projects are sometimes pushed through for the simple reason that they are interdisciplinary. But time has come to move on to a problem-centric approach to knowledge; interdisciplinarity should not find its rationale in itself but in problem-solving. Indeed the depth model of knowledge should be complemented by the network model. Even as we keep boring for truth with the tools of specialization, we ought to trace the most impossible of connections. More than ever, innovation today requires putting the horizontal axis in contact with the vertical. And for this to bear good fruit, space should be widened for sheer experimentation. The freedom to experiment and innovate, little of which is available as of now to teachers and students, has to be extended and strengthened in practical terms.
Like any system, higher education too has a tendency to be self-enclosed and to slowly become insensitive to change. Teachers need some degree of freedom, even compulsory freedom, in order to innovate. For example, a certain proportion of the courses they teach should be left entirely to them to design, so that they can better integrate their research with teaching and carry the students along to the frontiers they are exploring. This can produce greater involvement, responsibility and even accountability. Of course, the freedom of the teacher should be balanced by total transparency of academic work. Information technology can be deployed to ensure transparency as also to reduce repetitive, unproductive labour.
One final thing: if higher education is to produce leaders, the system of rewards and responsibilities must be linked to ability. Unfortunately, years still matter more than competence in the academia. Ways have to be found to harness the resources of initiative, innovation and risk-taking wherever they exist. The barriers of age must go, and only they should occupy positions of leadership who have the ability to lead.