Rebuilding Institutions of Higher Education


Rebuilding institutions of higher education: expansion and excellence

Recently, it has been brought out that facilities for higher education have expanded significantly in the last few years. Some estimates suggest India would need about 800 universities in the coming decade or so. Managing expansion will require collaboration among the institutions within the country but also at international level. Nobody can argue that without strengthening the existing institutions, one can generate excellence by merely bringing outside institutions. But their presence can help us to pursue a collaborative approach with an open innovation spirit. The idea of creating central universities in some of the economically backward regions is a good one. The suggestion that students should be able to take course across universities is also very good. Recently, a faculty from Stanford had tens of thousands of students in his on-line class. He could not have answered their questions. But, among themselves, the students could answer each other’s questions.

Raising expectations from the students and making them responsible for learning is the first step towards excellence. Creating outstanding examples of teachers learning from students would be another step to make learning reciprocal. Making the courseware open source and letting institutions use the lectures by the outstanding teachers freely will help in maximising the impact of inspired teachers. The reforms in education at all levels should really be steered by the inspired teachers. Unfortunately, with the increasing political interference in the running of institutions, the issues of genuine reforms have taken a back seat. Once mediocres are put up on the top, one does have to work very hard to demolish the institutional integrity. When people lobby for positions of power, they acknowledge that their ideas lack strength to command respect and have power of persuasion. The positional power is obviously sought by those who lack confidence in commanding the respect through their foresight and vision. The reluctant leadership thus requires a different approach in building institutions. The acknowledgement of excellence of different thought leaders is the sine-qua-non of building a knowledge society. Insularity of higher education from the world of practice and performance is another problem facing the institutions. If every institution aims to bring outstanding achievers in formal and informal sector to interact with the students, the students will discover multiple ways of seeking power. They will start enjoying the power of excellence. The culture of the society will start undergoing a change. The outstanding thinkers and achievers and performers would no more feel isolated and ignored. The minority will become the majority.

Recently, I invited some of the welders from Bopal to IIMA for discussing the quality of welding and the need for precision in fabrication. A student, Abhinav had documented in detail their practices. He also took photographs of various grills and doors made of iron in the Institute having highly imprecise cutting and welding. It was obvious that there were some fundamental problems in the way users expected the welders to perform. Despite adoption of metric system in all fields of life, the welders followed foot and inch based measurement system. They felt that most customers were not discerning enough to value the better quality and precision in the welding, though they valued the strength. Unless institutions of higher learning begin to engage with field work force at all levels and connect the world of theory and practice, we would not bring about a whole scale transformation at different levels.

The three legged iron stand is used by cobblers to repair leather shoes requiring nails to be hammered. The modern shoes needed adhesive and clamps but the iron stand remains the same. The institutes of technology do not feel accountable for designing the appropriate tools for the shoe repair person. A sociologist will not study why inertia persist for so long in certain services that we all try to use. The management scholars may believe that the responsibility is to make students competent to fit into the existing forms of large corporations rather than look at the challenges and managing the whole nation including the minds on margin.

An inclusive education system requires a paradigmatic shift. It requires new tools and new measures for evaluating growth and consequent wellbeing of society. Excellence is achievable at all levels in the education system. There are outstanding teachers and they are equally curious and outstanding students. What we need is a redefinition of points of reference in the society. We also need new matrices to evaluate the excellence and relevance while expanding the education system. There are no easy answers but it is possible to get results if formal and informal systems of learning can be bridged. I hope that educationists will start rethinking the assumptions of what makes an education system globally respected and nationally relevant without being out of the reach of those who deserve education.

Anil K Gupta