Thursday, March 21, 2013

Higher Education 2.0 A Blueprint for Kerala.

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Two laments that we hear about higher education in Kerala are that it has remained static and that our Universities and Colleges do not figure in the lists of excellent institutions nationally or internationally. The first is contrary to facts and the second arises out of inadequate appreciation of the relevance, rationale and methodology of drawing up the lists by national and international entities.

In the forty-five years that I have been away from the education scene in Kerala, higher education has made rapid strides, in terms of establishment of new institutions in areas of special interest, new courses to teach emerging technologies and new methods of teaching. To cite just one instance, the Masters Degree course in English Literature offered in the Universities in Kerala today are very different from the course I did in the sixties. Gone are the days when considerable space was given for Old English and Chaucer. Today, Communicative English, Diaspora Literature and Dalit Literature are part of the curriculum.

As for the lists of world-class universities and others, it is true that such lists recognize the exceptional quality of education available around the world. In our quest for excellence, the institutions recognized become models to emulate. But the criteria used in identifying these institutions are such that they are beyond the reach of the majority of institutions, particularly in Kerala. The number of Nobel Prizes won, patents registered, industry support, teacher-student ratio, autonomy, the presence of international students and infrastructure are factors that go into the selection of institutions. While it is desirable to strive for recognition on the basis of these standards, our institutions must be assessed in the light of our own needs and capabilities.

A prerequisite for excellence in higher education is the high quality of the school graduates, who enter the universities. Near hundred percent pass at the school level, the variety of syllabuses in use in the school and the system of all school graduates seeking to enter the universities have a bearing on the quality of higher education. More rigorous testing at the school level and diversion of school graduates to vocational courses on the basis of their capabilities and talents will ensure that our universities get a better corpus of students at the entrance level. If I were to cherry pick from Gandhiji’s views on education, as suggested by Amartya Sen, it should not be his rejection of western education, but his emphasis on vocational education. Dignity of labour and the principle of higher pay for the tougher job should be the norm if we have to divert young people to productive professions without entering universities.

The blueprint that the Kerala State Higher Education Council (KSHEC) presented to the Government last year has identified five areas for special attention—infrastructure, use of technology, teachers’ training, research and autonomy. The expectation is that the package of proposals that will emanate from the Council will constitute the emergence of a new generation of higher education in Kerala, which may be characterized as Higher Education 2.0.

An urgent issue that received the attention of the Council was a set of anomalies and difficulties in the Choice Based Credit and Semester System (CBCSS), introduced at the graduate level recently. Lack of the required working days in each semester, the teacher-student ratio, the five point gradation system and unimaginative selection of books and syllabus were identified as the issues and recommendations were made to rectify them. The Government has approved the recommendations and it is for the Universities to implement them without delay.

The Council also undertook a comprehensive review of the state policy on education. The Government has already picked and chosen several recommendations from our report for implementation. Improvement of the working conditions of the administrative staff in the universities and colleges is one of the recommendations we have stressed. Use of technology is an absolute necessity today. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has transformed the education scene in developed countries and the same is available free of cost to our teachers and students, provided we have the connectivity. Course content could be simply modified to suit our requirements.

Training of teachers is the highest priority in Higher Education 2.0. A Faculty Training Centre with the proportions of a university has already been designed. No teacher in any faculty should go to the classes without training in teaching methodology. Teachers of exceptional ability should be given incentives and dead wood should be eased out of our higher education institutions.

Multiple assessment institutions are being created all over India and Kerala will give the lead by establishing the first institution at the state level for accreditation and assessment. With the advent of the new Kerala State Accreditation and Assessment Council (KSAAC), the state of assessment of our institutions will see a sea change. KSAAC assessments will be compulsory and it will include gradation of teachers to provide incentives and disincentives. The standards of assessment, already set by an expert group, will be second to none.

Kerala has a fairly large number of research projects in the universities, but not the kind of research that will produce new products and processes. Research institutions of the kind that exist outside the universities must be created in the departments that have the expertise and facilities. Even graduate and postgraduate students must engage in research, leading to entrepreneurships. Many schemes have been announced to incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship, but unless a research culture is developed, our universities cannot create knowledge.

Industries, the main beneficiaries of our higher education, must also become its benefactors. It is not enough that they recruit the graduates and declare them unemployable. They should work with the universities to design courses, invest in them and then insist on quality. The Narayana Murthy Committee had envisaged fifty percent of the investment in higher education emanating from the industries. Kerala established its own committee to study the issue and framed its own constructive proposals for the linkages between industries and institutions.

Kerala does not have a single autonomous college in the state, though there are several, which deserve autonomy, both academic and administrative. But autonomy entails higher responsibilities and accountability. Strict criteria should be observed in creating autonomous colleges. No less a person than Prof. Madhava Menon is heading a group, which is laying down the rules for the implementation of a decision already taken by the Government.

Internationalization of education is a corollary to globalization and the present smattering of foreign collaborations should be expanded. We should also be able to attract foreign students to our universities by designing courses for which India has a particular capability. Indian semesters for foreign students should attract many universities abroad. The Council has been asked to coordinate efforts of the universities in Kerala for internationalization.

Higher Education 2.0 in Kerala should have many more features. It should be developed into a new vision and a blueprint for the future. The resistance to change must change to realize that vision. True, as management gurus say, it is hard, expensive and risky to innovate in established enterprises, such as higher education. But with care, expertise and commitment, it should be possible to reform higher education in Kerala to meet our needs and to benefit from the demographic dividend. We may not find a place in the list of world-class institutions for another generation, but we will be able to equip our leaders of tomorrow for the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century in which India will be one of the power centres of a multipolar world.

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