Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Imagining A New Indian University: Part 2

An university is a learning community, and should be founded as such. Starting any other way will set the university onto a wrong trajectory, I contend. The new breed of Indian universities, which start with fancy buildings and even big budget advertising campaigns, are, therefore, doomed to fail. And, this failure is not going to be a sudden demise, a financial bankruptcy, which may indeed come later, but a slow decline over a period of time, ruining the careers of generations of students and destroying their lives. This is the inherent tragedy of bad Higher Education, and this will spell the doom, in time, for the Indian experiment.

One can't really build a modern democracy without a functioning Higher Education system. I say this because democracy is about hope and about participation; one can not achieve either of this without a system of higher education doing its bit. India's systematic neglect of its Higher Education system, partially to preserve the privileges bestowed on certain classes during the colonial era, and on account of its inability to come to terms with its deep-seated social divisions, have significantly affected its economic development, but also its progress as a democracy. And, now, it is at the precipice, with its young population peaking - the wasted generation that the bad education is going to create is possibly going to be India's most numerous generation, which will dominate its society and polity for years to come.

This is the responsibility new university makers have. Many of them are oblivious to it, and are contend to take the opportunity as it comes. However, one would hope that the initial surge of university building has now been stopped, as the numerous Business Schools and Engineering Colleges in the country have started failing and the banks have grown nervous about giving out large loans. And, this pause, confusion, the littered carcasses of failed colleges, force a welcome reflection and soul searching, at least among a select section of the business owners and academicians, though it is yet to penetrate the armour of the politicians.

A new university, therefore, must attempt to be different. I have written about the three essential dimensions, diversity, Indianness and modern business context, previously (see the post here): I sincerely believe that a fusion of these three aspects will create an unique view of the modern Indian university, which is mostly missing from the discussion. In fact, almost all discussions about values is missing, which reflect the general dysfunction of the sector, and a serious discussion about the values, and the construction of an academic community around the same, sets a different path for an university which does it.

But one needs to do more than just defining the values: One must also differentiate on the structure and the presentation of the university experience. The Indian colleges usually offer timetabled classes 6 days a week, 7 hours a day - a total of 42 hours of instruction every week, for at least 30 weeks a year. That is indeed a lot of managed instruction, and does not leave much for the students to develop their own initiative. Not surprisingly, most of these college owners treat the library as a waste of money, citing that the students don't use it at all: However, the truth is that they are programmed not to use it.

This industrial paradigm of education is out of date and out of context in modern India. Even the Indian software companies, those which run 24x7 sweatshops handling back office operations of European banks and companies, are now demanding self-awareness, initiative and critical thinking from their employees as they try to move up the value chain. Besides, as Vineet Nayaar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, put it, the greatest change in Indian workplaces is the induction of Generation Y (though it is a deeply American concept), people who have a different sense of community, collaboration and conformity. The current education system is woefully out of sync with the aspirations of this generation: The methods of education, such as the days packed inside the classroom, is also certainly so.

So, flipping the paradigm of education, with more field-based engagements, activities, project work, visits to different parts of India and elsewhere in the world, would make the university experience far more conducive to the Gen Y students. And, surely, the idea of collaboration, between the students, should be central to the educational design: We now know that this enables a different kind of knowledge creation, and we also know that this is what employers desperately wants. But, apart from a few slides on 'teamwork' in the employability lecture, the idea of collaboration with others is usually frowned upon. A new university must embrace collaboration and this will essentially make it different.

Also, the conversations I have had so far with the people trying to set up universities involve the announcements about a vast array of 'schools' in diverse disciplines. Justifiably, the idea of an university rests upon the proposition of a richly diverse offering, a point made in the context of diversity (of disciplines, of subjects of study) earlier. However, on the other end of the spectrum is the powerful idea of focus, elegantly argued in the context of Brigham Young University by Clayton Christensen, wherein a new university can do a much better job and build reputation by focusing on fewer awards. To reconcile these two views, I shall argue that the new universities should be built with interdisciplinary curricula, but fewer awards, and indeed, the interdisciplinary courses will be compulsory rather than elective in keeping with the 'diversity' principle.

I am also aware that Indian governments make the job of running the university difficult by interfering with its admissions: They nominate at least 50% of the students and often this is about party affiliations etc and not about merit. There is no running away from such issues, but this is where the new universities must show its ingenuity to balance such imperatives but maintain its meritocratic core.

As I said before, this is an ongoing conversation and I see this as a post in progress. But this is now my most cherished objective: To be able to be part of setting up a New University in India, which will surely be difficult and long journey, but one that is worth it. I see this as a natural extension of the U-Aspire project, which essentially includes the idea of flagship campuses in different countries at some stage in development, and my own personal aspirations of doing something worthwhile in India. Indeed, I am in search of partners and collaborators, fellow travellers who will make this possible, and am willing to work through the coming years to make this happen. The idea of the New University is therefore something that gives me a personal mission, something to work for, and indeed, something to keep writing about.

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