What is to be done about Indian Universities?: Reflections from Concerned Teachers
October 27, 2016
The manner in which the state is intervening in higher education is causing concern and even alarm in the academic community. Both the unlamented UPA —II regime and the current NDA government have been remarkably similar in their authoritarian impatience to introduce wholesale changes without adequate or careful preparation. This position paper is the collective product of roughly six months of discussion among teachers of several central universities in Delhi. It is an attempt to participate in the process of critical self-evaluation of the university system as it is today. It is also our considered response to the many policy statements and directives issued by the MHRD and the UGC recently.
Catering as it does to nearly 30 million students, the Indian higher education sector is larger than the population of Australia, and nearly twice the population of the Netherlands. However, what makes this sector truly remarkable today is not its size but the scale of the social revolution it is effecting. In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, China and India are enacting one of the most dramatic instances of the democratization of access to higher education in human history, as millions of families send a child to college for the first time.
As teachers, we take great pride in being part of this momentous process. The initiatives of the state, which had treated the higher education system as a public good, has provided access to institutions of higher learning to many hitherto excluded groups including dalits, tribals, women, and people from backward regions. Classrooms in colleges and universities have begun to reflect this extraordinary diversity, which is both a challenge and an opportunity for recasting our higher education system.
As teachers, we are also painfully aware that these laudable achievements are severely undermined by the failures of governance, the rapidly escalating unmet demand for higher education, and the disquieting reluctance of the teaching community to come to terms with its own lack of accountability. Now more than ever before, our universities are in a state of perpetual crisis and are straining to fulfil their historic mandate –to offer a space of equality of opportunity as well as excellence, a space for critical thinking as well as professional skills, a space that must nurture minds and talents at the same time that it widens access. Faced with the growing aspirations of young people for higher degrees, university administrators are hard pressed to find the logistical means and the intellectual resources to fulfil these demands. The same strains have been felt worldwide. Hopes are being pinned on technology to meet these massive challenges, as is evident in the proposal to launch Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS).
The breakneck expansion of our higher education during the past decade and a half remains largely undocumented as the statistical system has yet to catch up with this explosive growth. Nevertheless, certain broad features are already clear beyond reasonable doubt. Most of the expansion, probably as much as three-fourths of it, has been in the private sector, and the bulk of it has been restricted to professional courses ranging from engineering and medicine to relatively new vocational fields seeking to train physiotherapists, beauticians, travel agents and flight attendants. For some time now, particularly in the states of southern India, private institutions have filled the gap in providing education in technical and managerial skills. They have seen opportunity where the state has failed to quench the growing thirst for credentials.
Such expansion is only to be expected, indeed even more expansion is certainly needed given that the Gross Enrolment Ratio is still only about 21%, whereas it is in the thirties for middle income countries and the high forties for developed countries. But it is worrisome that the bulk of the increases in enrolment are in vocational and professional fields, and that they seem to be at the expense of traditional disciplines, including the basic sciences. In fact, recent data suggest that absolute levels of enrolment in subjects like physics and chemistry may be falling for the first time since independence. The view that the basic sciences and specially the humanities are dispensable –that they can in fact be downsized along with the expansion of professional-vocational education – exposes two new sets of problems.
The first is the empirical fact that the vast majority of institutions offering job-oriented training are dysfunctional by the very standards of vocational education; surely third-rate training is pointless regardless of whether or not it is vocational. The second problem is that the social sciences and humanities are essential even for high quality professional training, as is recognized by the leading institutions of the world. The best-educated doctors or engineers or accountants are those who have also had exposure to fields like art, philosophy, literature, and music in addition to history, politics, sociology, economics and so on. While it is difficult to pinpoint the immediate returns from such broad-based training, the long term benefits are on view in the technological success stories from around the world –well-designed highways, user-friendly medical systems and so on. By acquiescing in the drastic downsizing of the humanities and the social sciences, the present generation is doing a grave injustice to its successors.
All is not well with Indian universities, and there is no doubt that they have to change. Some of the more pressing problems include: the pressure of numbers, the multiplicity of languages in which higher education is demanded and which is only partially met by English teaching and materials; the comparative lack of teacher accountability, and the increasing tendency of students and parents to see the university as a source of credentials rather than education. There is, therefore, an urgent need for hard, collective thinking on how and why universities should change in response to these threats and challenges, as well as opportunities.
As the Kothari Commission pointed out, universities in postcolonial countries need to balance the need to respond to popular pressures with the need to provide quality education. This is especially important in India where higher education is a crucial means of social mobility and a major resource in breaking down long standing social hierarchies. Yet this must be achieved without creating new hierarchies or orthodoxies. Although higher education today rests on a fragile secondary education system this does not make it any less relevant in the struggle for wider and deeper democracy. The university must produce an intellectual leadership dedicated to the principles of the constitution –to build a sovereign democratic republic on the basis of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Such leadership is needed in all professions, in industry, commerce, agriculture, and in all other spheres of life. How can we rejuvenate our universities to meet this challenge?
In the following sections, we discuss some important aspects of the recent policy statements and present an alternative view.
- Diversity or Uniformity?
In the first decades after independence, there was an emphasis on fashioning a common culture for the newly emergent nation, as the Kothari Commission report indicates. Sixty years later we are a self-confident nation that need not burden its universities with producing uniformity. Instead, we require our universities to take the diversity of our classrooms seriously, and to respond to the needs of a very heterogeneous student community. If they are to do this, then we must also respect the differences between universities. Yet these are being seen as a problem, as a sign of major asymmetries in the quality of education and research. An overwhelming urge to standardize and centralize is the most visible aspect of recent policy pronouncements. Standardization and homogenization are being seen as the one-step solution for all the problems of uneven quality. However, standardization is not the route to improving quality because there is no contradiction between diversity and excellence. Clearly the current reforms are administrator driven, for it is only from this vantage point that diversity is a problem.
Matters are not helped by the indiscriminate borrowing of blueprints and vocabularies from the west. There is nothing inherently wrong with such borrowing, provided it carefully considers the comparability of the respective contexts. For example, much of the currently fashionable terminology in MHRD documents may have been thoughtlessly borrowed from the Bologna Process experiment of the European Union. There have been widespread student protests and public outcry (specially in Germany and Austria) against this programme which was intended to introduce standardization, increase employability and seamless mobility via credit transfers, and move the European higher education system from its current liberal format to a skill-based system. Even if we ignore the European criticisms of this policy, we cannot overlook the fact that the context in which it was introduced is radically different from ours. The main motivation behind the Bologna Process was to increase enrolments in the average European university that was proving to be unsustainable in the wake of cutbacks in state funding. On the contrary, the central problem of Indian higher education is scarcity of higher education rather than over supply –we have too many aspirants and too few places, especially in the better institutions. So mobility, which is designed to increase the enrolment pool for the European university, is not needed in India, at least not for that reason. Here, the reasons that prevent a student from moving have nothing to do with the incompatibility of courses or administrative formats and everything to do with extreme selectivity imposed by the gross mismatch between supply and demand. In such a situation, the critical issue is not ‘mobility’ but the shortage of quality institutions.
Other proposed changes to the Central University system also require greater thought. Each of our Central universities has a unique culture and specific history as a result of its links to its locality and region as well as to the country and the world, and each has developed its own pattern of knowledge production and reproduction. The real challenge is: how do we nurture and strengthen the efforts made by universities to formulate and achieve their specific academic goals without destroying their diversity by forcing them into a disabling standardized normative frame? What is the continued relevance of state initiatives in creatively responding to these demands? Is the University to be turned into a ‘teaching shop” rather than a space that encourages research and pedagogic innovation?
True there is some value in integrating institutions so that they may serve their publics better. However, when it comes to universities, we must integrate them while respecting their individually specific cultures and contributions.
2. Syllabus, Curriculum and Standardization
Among the proposed reforms is the introduction of a common syllabus for all central universities; a common entrance test; faculty and student mobility; and credit transfers. A series of nationwide schemes, with acronyms such as GIAN, KUSHAL and SWAYAM are being planned, along with e-libraries, online courses and other technology driven proposals. The justifications offered for these sweeping changes are enhanced employability, skill development and seamless nation-wide mobility for students.
If the proposal to introduce a common curriculum in all central universities is intended to address the problem of uneven quality across institutions, or the lack of standards in some, then introducing a common curriculum by fiat will not address the root of the problem. Moreover it fails to recognize the specific histories of many Indian universities. The desire for sameness is misplaced, if the goal is to raise the standard of education. If the aim is something else, such as student mobility across institutions, then this too needs to be thought through. What is it that is preventing students from moving? Why do they wish to move? How would a common curriculum and transferable credits help them to move? There is no evidence that these questions have been addressed. If the aim is to address the shortage of quality institutions, then enabling mobility will hardly solve this problem.
It is worth noting that the terms ’syllabus’ and ‘curriculum’ cannot be used interchangeably. While 'curriculum' is prescriptive, referring as it does to the planned interaction of student with the teaching content and resources in terms of a set of learning objectives and standards that a student is expected to meet, a 'syllabus' is more descriptive, and constitutes an outline and summary of topics to be covered in a particular course and the readings that will be referred to. This difference is crucial in enabling one curriculum to be expressed in many different syllabi. For example, in a curriculum on “Women and Work” while there will be certain basic themes that would be covered, the approaches and detailed content of the course syllabi would be varied in different departmental contexts.
Even a cursory examination of the course programmes across the 45 Central Universities suggests that there is a broad agreement on what is desirable at the bachelors and masters levels – of higher education. While it is important to maintain certain standards of academic rigor in teaching in all central universities, this cannot be achieved by enforcing uniformity. Further, innovations in the creation and dissemination of knowledge can only come about in a culture of diversity. The history of higher education in India shows that while at the school and under-graduate level, common syllabi is in practice, the strength of the higher education system has come through nurturing universities that are known for their specialisations and diversity in academic approaches.
A common syllabus, on the other hand, would by definition, require the same descriptive content of courses to be taught across the 45 Central Universities, but this is neither desirable nor feasible. This homogenisation would stand in the way of innovative pedagogic practices and incorporating new courses based on emerging issues. It would not however serve the needs of the students entering the education system from different parts of the country. While higher education must have a strong global component, it must also address the local—for example, the geology/ history/art/ecosystem/literature of the locale in which the university is situated. To study linguistics in the Central University of Gujarat, but to learn only about the grammar of standard Hindi, will not equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to participate in the development of their own regions.
A network of Regional Expertise can be envisioned for the Central Universities. Each Central University has its own specific research and teaching specialisations, developed through its location, intellectual and social backgrounds of students and faculty, and institutional history. It is important to focus on the ways in which such expertise can be made available to other universities.
Moreover, since all Central Universities are research Universities as well, restriction of the courses taught to a common syllabus will choke the development of strong research profiles of individual departments. Given the uneven development of higher education in the country till date, many aspects of Indian languages, history, art, culture, geography, botany, etc. remain either unknown or under explored. Even those that have been studied have not entered standard instructional materials like textbooks; yet through the research and investigation by the faculty and students of the departments into the local, each department may be able to develop a specialised research area that could grow to be significant. For example, the Comparative Literature in Central University of Kerala has focused on Arabi-Malayalam literature, which remained a marginal area of study until very recently. By severing the connection between teaching and research through a mandatory universal syllabus, the proposals will thwart the very objectives of setting up 45 autonomous Central Universities in different parts of India
A centrally determined syllabus will also tend to be resistant to change and amendment, particularly in basic courses. In the interconnected knowledge society we inhabit, fields of study are under constant revision as new approaches constantly emerge. Adherence to a set textbook or fixed topics will make basic learning tend towards obsolescence.
If international practice is anything to go by, then we can look at the University of California system since it is the closest analogy to a network of Central Universities. The ten campuses of the University of California system have not adopted common syllabi, presumably for all the reasons listed above. More generally, U.S. institutions allow only credit transfer based on availability of facilities within the host institution, as well as principles of course equivalence arrived at with partner institutions. Credit transfers do not presuppose the existence of common syllabi or even common curricula.
There is no reason why the same is cannot be adopted across the Central Universities in India. However, the principle of autonomy granted to each institution has to be respected—so that the host and partner institution have equal rights to enable and regulate credit transfers (just as it is respected in MoUs about credit transfers with foreign universities).
3. Collaboration and Cooperation Across Central Universities
There is enough space within the existing framework to encourage close cooperation between Central Universities on the matter of teaching and research. Already co-supervision, involvement in assessment and evaluation of particularly research students work, participation in administrative and academic committees is fast becoming the norm; these processes can be strengthened and funded, but without impinging on the autonomy of any higher education institution.
Establishing nodal centres of knowledge production and meaningful modes of disseminating that knowledge through regular faculty and student interaction can be one way of forming a framework for collating different curriculum perspectives. Envisioning innovative modes of regularizing such intellectual activities can have a serious impact on improving communication among teachers and students in all Central Universities. Specifically, closer cooperation between Central Universities can be forged through the following measures:
- Individual departments\Schools of Central Universities should be encouraged to enter into Agreements of Cooperation with each other, on a purely elective basis.
- Increase the number of Inter University Centres in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Workshops at the regional and national level with faculty and students from different Central Universities, which identify thrust areas, are fruitful ways of rethinking and revising current syllabi and strengthening research profiles.
- The short-term exchange programme for research students across Central Universities may be encouraged, where there exists an Agreement of Cooperation between departments/School. The provision of Agreements of Cooperation is helpful for students to gather knowledge in one major and other related disciplines. Interdisciplinary knowledge for students needs to be built on the basis of intellectual commonalities shared by disciplines and students can benefit from accessing specialized knowledge of partner departments.
Projects for curricular innovations in each university should involve select members invited by the concerned department from other universities in related disciplines.4. The Challenge of Language
In contrast to the plethora of hurriedly introduced proposals there are clearly important areas left unaddressed in the flurry of announcements about changes to the Higher Education system. Easily the most vital of these is the issue of language. Historians of a later era will no doubt be astonished at the extent to which English continued to function as the gatekeeper of higher education in India decades after independence. Progress on this issue will have the largest impact in widening access to higher education, and yet it has not been addressed by the state with the urgency it deserves.
All Indian Universities, and particularly Central Universities, draw students and teachers from diverse multilingual and ethnic/regional backgrounds, with differing levels of access to English, which usually is the medium of instruction adopted in institutions of higher learning. There is no gainsaying the fact that the choice of English is widely acceptable to both teachers and students for its international character; nevertheless both government policies and universities must also provide support for the development of the various languages that enter the higher education classroom, as well as improving students’ access to English.
Formulating such institutional policies is purely pragmatic rather than altruistic: in a multilingual society like India, no one language can ever replace all others as the vehicle of knowledge. The present situation in which knowledge of English (rather than ability and curiosity) is given disproportionate weightage in higher education is undemocratic. Teaching often needs to be done in more than one language and for this purpose the cultivation of other languages is necessary. This is especially true for universities where students can write their examinations in more than one language.
Further, primary research, especially in the social sciences and humanities, involves interaction with peoples and texts written in different languages. This necessitates the ability to speak in regional languages and mastering other skills in that language which may or may not be familiar to the student. This needs greater focus on translation. In fact, a large part of teaching and research in universities globally relies on translation, beginning with the texts taught (many are often translated into English) to research (where the data is gathered using other languages and translated into English by the researcher.) English as a language has benefitted tremendously from knowledge creation through translation. We believe that the way forward for the Indian system of higher education is one that fosters a similar knowledge creation in Indian languages while improving student and faculty access to English. Translations must be conducted by universities from regional languages to English, between regional languages and from regional languages to English.
We propose that policies may be framed at three distinct levels: the University Grants Commission, the University, and individual departments. At the level of the UGC, knowledge creation through translation must also be accorded due weight as an academic activity of students, faculty, and the university as a whole. Moreover, the UGC must facilitate and foster the linkages between universities and the National Translation Mission (NTM), which aims at translating knowledge texts from the source language into Indian Languages, as it is universities in which both domain knowledge as well as knowledge expertise in translation theory and practices lies. Universities are thus in the best position to provide both training and technical support to train specialized translators for knowledge texts.
At the level of the individual University, fostering and supporting translation activities of the sort outlined above is imperative. A sustained attempt must be made to bring multilingual training into the classroom. Departments must identify good regional language periodicals and journals and encourage the use of regional/minority language material including newspaper cuttings, folk stories, films, songs and video material. Research techniques courses and methodology workshops should focus not just on methods, but also on translation.
In addition, an institutional effort must be made to improve access to English through an on-going English writing and reading programme. Such courses should be specifically tailored to each discipline and therefore developed in consultation with the departments.
5. National and International Ranking of Institutions
It would be unfair to blame the state for all that is wrong with higher education today. For example, the difficult question of devising mechanisms for enhancing the accountability of teachers and administrators is yet to be tackled. The anxiety over rankings and the search for more transparent system of evaluation of academic performance have both led to a preoccupation with quantitative indicators which may be self defeating. While the importance of the systematic periodic data gathering on the teaching/learning activities of universities and colleges cannot be denied, this should not become yet another site for gaming and manipulation. Any system of evaluation must recognize the presence and equal validity of multiple systems of knowledge production which have their own specificities, and which cannot be tackled solely with the methods used in the natural sciences.
Ranking of universities at the global level has gained prominence in the last decade partly due to the emergence of the knowledge economy, massification of the higher education system and growing importance of universities in the field of research. It has been lamented time and again that Indian universities do not feature in the top 200 universities in the world. But is international ranking the best way to evaluate Indian universities? An obsession with featuring in international rankings obscures the commendable specific achievements and social commitments of Indian universities, which may not always be quantifiable.
The Indian university system is the second largest in the world and is also extremely diverse. Most of our universities —like AMU, BHU or JNU for example — were set up to address different objectives and have over the years developed their own unique and innovative ways. Focusing only on a common set of indicators will not do justice to the exercise of evaluating the performance of Indian universities.
Courses cannot be evaluated merely on the basis of the number of students enrolled since it defies the mission of education. Research ranking systems, which focus on citation indexes, or lab-industry interfaces, cannot be applied to social sciences and hard sciences alike. Teaching and learning processes in the social sciences, humanities and languages are gradual and incremental.
Goading the universities to compete with each other would be counterproductive. Since ranking focuses on inputs, which entail provisioning of expensive resources, there exists a genuine possibility of favouring some universities over others, accentuating the wide differences that already exist among the universities in terms of infrastructure and other facilities. Diversities exist among the different disciplines in terms of opportunities of funding and publication, differences in perspectives. Ranking would lead to institutional homogenization and distortion in disciplinary balance as institutions strategise to achieve what is being measured. Finally, since ranking places greater emphasis on research, teaching— which is so crucial in the context of massification of Indian higher education —is likely to get side-lined.
There are two aspects to ranking: information gathering, and evaluation. Teachers are in favour of information gathering in the interest of improving existing practices, particularly related to teaching and learning activities. If the intention behind this exercise is to empower students to make an informed choice, then a more practical suggestion is to require every university to annually upload its own data (student survey results, publications, degrees conferred, etc.) which would respect the diversity and specificity of different kinds of universities rather than subsuming all under one generic formula that generates a number. This can then be linked to a common national university navigator, which allows students to compare between universities on the basis of their interests, abilities, etc (e.g. teacher-student ratios, courses taught, availability of accommodation etc.).The current accreditation system (NAAC) can thereby be made more effective.
However, we must be aware that in the current Indian central university system, students make decisions, which are not based exclusively on academic indicators (e.g. they may consider medium of instruction, metropolitan settings, hostel availability, safety, social and cultural appropriateness or opportunity). At the same time, numbers alone do not adequately reflect the quality of processes of teaching and learning, or even research. In fact, the pressure to generate numerical evidence is often counter-productive. Indeed, this pressure to provide numerical evidence has already spawned a series of spurious journals which satisfy the formal criteria such as possessing an ISBN number, but which publish articles of dubious quality. Obsession with numerical criteria compromises and lowers academic standards.
6. Autonomy of Higher Educational Institutions
The first University Education Commission in independent India set up in 1948 under the leadership of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (also known as the Radhakrishnan Commission) had this to say on the autonomy of institutions of higher learning:
Freedom of individual development is the basis of democracy. Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies. In such States institutions of higher learning controlled and managed by governmental agencies act like mercenaries, promote the political purposes of the State, make them acceptable to an increasing number of their populations and supply them with the weapons they need. We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices.(emphasis added)
Despite such a clear and forceful formulation of the rationale for autonomy so early in the history of our republic, Indian universities and other institutions of higher learning have had a rather mixed experience on the question of autonomy. Not only have governments been very eager to control and direct universities, particularly at the state level, but academics themselves have actively participated in their own subordination to politicians and bureaucrats. It is important, therefore, to reiterate the rationale for autonomy and the reasons why it must be considered an essential feature of higher education rather than a privilege.
Autonomy from the state –precisely because of financial dependence on the state is inevitable in poor country –is the main concern here. This autonomy is required because the university is supposed to be the space where critical thinking is fostered, and this kind of thinking in turn is meant to act as a watchdog on the centres of power as well as to prepare society to face the unknown challenges of the future. Because of the natural tendency of power to perpetuate itself and to undermine its critics, a healthy democracy requires that countervailing forces be nurtured as a social necessity. Countervailing forces (such as the media, universities, art and culture, and so on) can do their job only if they are afforded some insulation as well as protection from power. It is precisely because the state is both the funder as well as the main institution targeted for critical monitoring that we need insulating mechanisms like the University Grants Commission. However, these mediating institutions have been completely bureaucratized to the point where, today, there is hardly any perceptible difference between the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the UGC.
Autonomy is directed not only at the state but also at the market. This is also part of the rationale for state funding –because the market is unlikely to finance education unless it is of direct benefit to itself. The pursuit of knowledge that may be irrelevant or opposed to market interests is an important reason for maintaining the autonomy of institutions of higher learning. This is particularly true because India does not really have a tradition of disinterested philanthropy in higher education, where wealthy individuals and institutions donate resources without wishing to exert direct control.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the autonomy of the university must not be subverted to mean the autonomy of its administrators alone. Institutional autonomy presupposes institutional democracy and all the checks and balances that have been created to protect it. Autonomy without healthy internal democracy is simply a particularly harmful form of authoritarianism accountable to no one. This is not to say that maintaining internal democracy is an easy task, or that it does not demand constant vigilance and effort on the part of the community. We know only too well that authoritarianism or anti-democratic tendencies are not the monopoly of administrators –they have also been fostered by teachers’ organisations themselves. Democratic functioning is very arduous and requires more time, effort and goodwill than other forms of governance.
7. Faculty Performance Evaluation
The important issue of evaluation of faculty performance illustrates very well the difficult challenges that democratic systems of public education must face. On the one hand, administrators seek standard, easy to interpret measures of performance that can be used to incentivize faculty behaviour, maintain standards and provide a justification for disciplinary action where needed. On the other hand, teachers resist standardized measures that do not take account of the specificities of their working conditions, are excessively dependent on quantitative measures, and fail to consider the more intangible aspects of their ‘output’. Against the background of these generic positions is the real history of the difficult relationship between administration and teachers, where both sides are engaged in ‘gaming’ the system and bending it to their own advantage —or they are engaged in an openly adversarial conflict. In these institutional wars of attrition, students often get used as pawns or are marginalised.
To break this debilitating deadlock it is necessary to build trust, and this can only be done by a mutual recognition of the legitimate concerns of all three sides —administration, teachers and students.While this subject requires a careful and detailed treatment that is beyond the scope of this Position Paper, some constructive avenues that may richly repay exploration include: a) renewed efforts from teachers to acknowledge the need for evaluation and to suggest fair methods of doing so; b) the recognition that administrators also need to be evaluated, and that the primary purpose of all evaluation is not to exercise punitive power but to constantly improve the performance of the institution; and c) remembering that while they must certainly be involved in this process, student evaluations must explicitly address the level of their own commitment as well as ways in which the teaching-learning environment can be enhanced.
8. In Conclusion: The Road Ahead
The Indian University system is both very large and very diverse, with 45 Central Universities, 321 State Universities, 129 Deemed and 187 private universities. Proposed changes to this large system must be done in consultation with those who are at the centre of this process of knowledge production and reproduction, namely teachers and students. Perhaps the ultimate source of the mismatch between official initiatives and ground realities lies in a narrow view that the state is taking of what higher education is and should be. As has been repeatedly demonstrated elsewhere in the world, an exclusive emphasis on technical skills and employability to the detriment of other dimensions of learning impoverishes the very idea of education. The official approach to higher education reform today seems destined to re-discover the age-old distinction between training and education. Training is necessary but far from sufficient because it only enables the efficient reproduction of what is already known. Education, on the other hand, is about acquiring the imaginative ability to tackle the unknown.
The demand for “knowledge workers” in a proliferating “knowledge economy” has placed a great burden on teachers to distinguish what they do from the market metaphor that drives the idea of education as commodity. We must continue to emphasise the idea of the University and indeed higher education as a public good: the Yashpal Committee of 2009, for instance, as many such committees before it, had emphasised that if a quantum leap in the generation of knowledge was to be achieved, it was the university –above all, the public university –that must be the site of change. We must work to renew the university as a site for the making and unmaking of knowledges, learning and unlearning and as a democratic and free space of enquiry.
There is really no alternative to autonomy when it comes to higher learning. This includes not only autonomy from the state, but also from the market, and even from possible sources of authoritarianism within the community. It is only the guarantee of autonomy that allows teaching and research to become vocations rather than mere professions, and allows society to demand higher and more exacting standards of accountability from institutions of higher learning.
This position paper has been prepared by Academics for Creative Reform, based in Delhi.
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