Published as Introduction in Chowdhury A. and Alok John (Ed.). Excellence in Higher Education: Emerging Concerns and the Road Ahead. N Delhi: Rajesh Publications. 2020.

  1. Introduction

Policy makers in India have constantly strived to provide greater access to high quality education to youth. This has been the endeavour since independence70 years ago.This is also crucial for the demographic dividend that we talk of. But, the worry is that if this does not come about, it may turn into a demographic nightmare. Education Commission in 1968 voiced concerns about quality and now so has the draft Education Report of the Kasturirangan Committee. Each time a Pay Commission for teachers has presented its report, it has flagged the issue and suggested steps for improving the quality of education.

While access to education has improved, the quality of education in general has remained a cause of concern. Education surveys at the school level show dismal learning outcomes for a vast majority of children. At the level of higher education also, except for select few institutions, the standards leave a lot to be desired. With the world rapidly advancing technologically and greater opening up of the economy, the issue of quality has become even more crucial. India is lagging behind in technological development and is forced to grant concessions to others to get technology. Various segments of industry find it difficult to compete in the export markets for high technology goods. For instance, India has a large trade deficit with China since we import from it all kinds of manufactured products including, electronics and capital goods.

2. Steps to Improve Quality

The concern about quality has led the government to take various steps to improve quality in higher education. But these have been mechanically formulated and poorly implemented with the result that even though thousands of crores have been spent over the decades, average quality has hardly improved. For instance, to be appointed as a teacher requiring M.Phil. or clearing the NET exam or making Ph.D. a preferred degree. To upgrade the skills of teachers, Academic Staff Colleges were set up and teachers were required to attend courses to upgrade their skills. Later still, the API scheme was started and teachers were required to accumulate points to get selected and promoted.

However, these are all mechanical steps so that they have had little impact on quality in higher education. A large majority of M.Phil. and Ph.D. dissertation are cut and paste jobs with little research or original content. Consequently, the academic writing such a dissertation hardly acquires the skill to do research to generate new ideas. The mechanical writing of the dissertation also implies that the teacher does not develop a view of the subject she/he is teaching and therefore, can hardly improve the teaching standards.

Academic Staff Colleges have not resulted in more research since what is taught in these institutions lacks coherence and even if some new ideas are imparted, the participants cannot teach them since they may be considered out of the syllabus. Thus, the knowledge imparted is soon forgotten.Further, teaching conditions of most teachers are such that they have little time to innovate. Finally, the introduction of API scheme has led to academics scrambling to collect points by any means. Sub-standard journals and poorly conceived conferences abound. Academics queue up to get certificates of attendance from conference organizers. Authors pay money to have books and articles published. All this forces academics to commit fraud and compromises their dignity. The new entrants to academia come to believe that this is how academia is to function and they will perpetuate these practices in the future, causing long term harm to the institutions of higher learning as well as to society.

3. Standards in Education not by Standardization

The thinking behind these steps has been that `standards can be achieved by standardization’. This is entirely inappropriate for the field of education where quality is crucial. A teacher teaching many classes poorly is no substitute for one who teaches well. One well researched paper giving an original insight into a problem is better than hundreds of papers with little originality.

Realizing that none of these steps have delivered and the problem was persisting, the powers that be in the Ministry, UGC and other such bodies have resorted to copying wholesale from the system of education in the USA. Following this, there is pressure to introduce a 4 year BA programme.Earlier, Semester system was imposed on many universities. CBCS, MOOCS and GYAN have been introduced without analyzing whether these will be workable in the India.

4. Use of Technology and Marginalization of Academics

Policy makers do not trust the academic community to improve the standards on their own. They feel that they know best and need to impose what they think is best for academia and institutions of higher learning. So, they have effectively marginalized the academic community. To control, they have bureaucratized the institutions of higher education and curbed the autonomy of academics which undermines good teaching and research.The result is further demoralization in the academic community.

As the various measures to improve quality of education have failed, the blame has been put on the academic communityrather than the policy makers. They do not admit to their own fault in implementing unworkable schemes that have undermined academia. Given that academia is blamed for the problems, the corollary is that academics have to be further marginalized.

So, two concurrent pathshave been adoptedto deal with the problem of `unreformable’ and recalcitrant academia. One, weaken academia further by increasing bureaucratic control and two, use technology to replace them. This is akin to displacement of troublesome and militant labour in factories by robots. Businesses find it easier to cope with machines even if they are more expensive than labour. This also leads to use of contract labour and more unemployment so that labour weakens and cannot make greater demands on businesses.

Similarly, teachers are being appointed on contract for limited periods of time or kept ad hoc or temporary so they become subservient to the bureaucracy running the institutions. Over the last thirty years, permanent recruitment has slowed down or been stopped and posts filled with part time and guest teachers who have little voice in the running of the institutions and in academic decisions. This marginalization of academics is alienating them and weakening the institutions of higher education.

The crucial feature of an educational institution is not just the buildings and the bureaucracy which runs it but the academics which give it an academic content. If the academics are demoralized and alienated, standards of academia will decline. Just as for a worker if her hand is chopped off, the work will suffer, for an academic, if the mind is frustrated, the quality of the work she does will decline.

The second strand, substitution of academics by technology has another long term impact. Increasingly, online courses are available to students. These are from prestigious institutions and from highly acclaimed academics in those institutions. Technology has entered the class rooms with electronic black boards and projectors to enable power point presentations. All this is changing the role of teachers. Exams can be given online without going to a classroom. Vast amount of material is available to the students to supplement class room teaching or to prepare term papers and do projects. These can also be submitted online.

This increasing use of technology has two implications. Nature of teacher and taught relationship is transforming and the role of teachers is changing. Technology is enabling multi-tasking and reducing the attention span of students which is reducing the excitement of learning difficult concepts. They are oftensleep deprived due the considerable time spent on social media and that makes it difficult to pay attention. So, teaching has to be simplified and given asshort package based on the internet and cut and paste notes. Solutions to problems and notes are available on the net. This downgrades learning and its excitement for a vast number of students who are only interested in a degree as a passport to a job.

The role of a teacher as someone who creates excitement of learning for the student hasdeclined. Short cuts via cheating and plagiarism are proliferating. The teacher also is a role model for students and this helps them understand citizenship.As the interaction between the student and the teacher has declined with greater use of technology, this role is undermined resulting in students becoming more self-centered and often more aggressive.

Teachers have also not been uniformly committed to the profession. Students are also not all the same – some are bright and can learn on their own but large numbers require a helping hand. Having material available on the net is akin to having books in a library except that it is now on the net. A majority of the students could go to the library and learn on their own and that holds true for the net also. Even the good students need a helping hand to build a framework to absorb the available information and convert it to knowledge and that builds the understanding of the subject.Often, a face to face discussion with a teacher helps the students to enlarge their base.

If technology can enable students to learn on their own with the help of internet, then is it time to close down the institutions of higher education and convert them into examination centres and degree granting organizations. Yes, it is possible that the best students may be able to learn on their own. But would most of the students be able to do so? That is a crucial issue since the institutionsare not just for the best but for the average and the weak to upgrade their skills. Further, good institutions enable the bright ones to also improve their potential and enhance their capabilities by providing a highly academic environment. Otherwise the good institutions with the best students would not exist. Weak institutions can kill the originality and curiosity of the students. Thus, the need is to strengthen institutions, whether the weak or the strong ones, rather than close them and convert them into degree granting ones.

Institutions and teachers serve the role of socializing and democratizing the students. Students in Indian institutions of higher learning interact with others from a different background and learn about their lives and this broadens their horizons. Since public institutions in India have very low fees, even the children of the poor enter their portals, unlike the private sector where the fees are high and they tend to exclude the poor. This has a huge democratizing influence. Delhi University and more so JNU are prime examples of this inter mingling and democratizing tendency. The JNU admission policy was designed to get students from backward districts and from deprived sections.

Students sitting in their own rooms and working on their own on the internet are found to increasingly develop psychological problems. Their capacity to socialize and work in groups has been found to decline. Again, teachers have a role to play since they can be the first to flag an emerging problem and help cope with difficulties in personal lives or suggest medical attention before it is too late. Students also learn a lot from each other and this happens in person in the institutional setting and that enables the development of long term relationships which fosters a sense of belonging and which helps cope with alienation.

In brief, the role of institutions and teachers in building citizenship is important. Teachers can act as role models and all this helps reduce alienation of the individual. Technology can be an aid but not a substitute for the teacher and the institution of higher learning.

5. Higher Education and Challenge of Technology

The key role of higher education is to passon knowledge to the next generation. It ought to take the best to the cutting edge frontier so that new socially relevant knowledge can be generated. Without this, society loses its dynamism and becomes dependent on others for knowledge to solve its own problems. But, often the solutions emerging from one society may not be valid for another, like, what works for the advanced countries may not be valid for the developing world.

It is natural to copy from the advanced societies since they have already traversed the path and developed. But, their current problems are not the same as those of the developing societies which are at a completely different stage of development. One can learn from their mistakes and correct for them in one’s own path but copying them will not work. For example, technology is far more developed in the advanced countries and indiscriminately adopting in a developing country like, India, can lead to mass scale unemployment and social strife. The advanced countries are urbanized but since that is hugely expensive in terms of capital and energy can the developing countries copy that model of development without creating inequality between rural and urban areas thereby resulting in social strife.

Solutions for Indian problems have to be based on its own social and political conditions. It cannot even copy China with a different political system. Thus, the idea of Mumbai becoming like Shanghai never took off.

To evolve socially relevant knowledge, as Gandhi suggested, there is need for praxis and that requires critical thinkers. They can emerge in large numbers only from institutions of higher learning provided they are themselves dynamic. Dynamism is also the need of the hour since technology is changing dramatically and posing ever new challenges. AI and automation are resulting in joblessness which is frustrating youth who are not able to get work appropriate to the skills they have acquired with their degree. Ph.D.’s, M.Tech., M.Com. applying for a peon’s job can be highly demoralizing. Or M.BA.’s applying to work as Safaikaramchari. No doubt work has dignity but when students are forced to do work which is much below the degree they have acquired in the hope of building a career, there is failure of expectation and growing frustration.

Since there are no known limits to knowledge, more and more students can and should enter institutions of higher education and contribute productively to social development. More the number of people at the cutting edge, better for society. In Scandinavian countries, education is free up to Ph.D.so not only are they technologically highly dynamic but also some of the most peaceful societies in the world.

Fast changing technology is changing the nature of work and new professions and jobs are rapidly emerging. The gig economy is an example of the change taking place. To cope with this challenge, institutions of higher learning must train students so that they quickly adapt to the ever changing job market and also cope with the social change.As automation and use of AI grows, workers have to also move up the value chain. Their training must be such as to enable them to do that on their own or they should have the capability to upgrade their skills through help from institutions. Thus, the role of institutions of higher learning will remain critical.

6. Critical Thinking at the Root of Dynamism in Society

There is need to reflect on how dynamism and critical thinking can be imparted to students. It requires gaining knowledge,absorbing it and upgrading one’s capabilities. Simply having access to vast amount of information is not good enough. It has to be processed into useful knowledge which can be used. This requires building a framework for oneself within which the information can be processed. This framework also has to be dynamic and change as the situation changes. In turn this requires that the students develop critical thinking.

Information without a framework does not become knowledge. It remains disjointed facts which are soon forgotten. Internet gives the false sense of knowing a lot but to make meaning of it one needs to put it in some framework. It is like white noise from which the signal needs to be obtained and that is only feasible within a framework and that is where the role of a teacher becomes important.

Knowledge within a framework helps evolve concepts to function with to extract meaning. The integration of knowledge from different fields builds an understanding of life and society? It makes for more holistic individuals and aware citizens.In the absence of a wider perspective,people become alienated individuals – self-centered and atomized.That can be very destructive of the cooperation that is needed to build society. When understanding is weak, insecurity and rigidity follow. One is not able to grapple with contending ideas and is not open to them. This may lead to majoritarianism which does not tolerate dissent. This runs counter to the requirement of higher education where dissent is the essence and not conformity. Insecure teachers do not welcome questioning which curbs the students’ inquisitiveness and reduces theirability to absorb what they are taught and build on it. In turn, this reduces their ability to change with the times.

To develop a framework, one has to grapple with contending ideas. This is not easy and requires one to be open to existing and new ideas. Rigidityand majoritarianism are the enemies of the openness required for dynamism. In a majoritarian context even democracy and the constitution turn majoritarian because there is only one idea. Individuals are encouraged to think narrowly so that concepts also acquire individualistic meanings – losing their social content.

For critical thinking, there has to be flexibility in approach to learning so that there is openness tobuilding new understandingsas situations change. Teaching has to inculcate critical thinking. Openness implies accepting that concepts are not final but evolve. For instance, the idea of `nation’ is not fixed but has evolved over time. The Indian nation is unlike the nations in Europe. What `nation’ may mean to an Indian may be very different from what it may mean to an Italian.

So, to bring about dynamism in society there is need to train citizens who understand societal processes. That will enable them to take on the challenge being posed by technology and related changes. Lack of understanding and confusion can lead to society turning authoritarian and that would add to the existing instability. World over, majoritarianism is on the rise which neither tolerate dissentnor ideas contrary to its narrowly conceived beliefs. They would like people to be dumbed down and suggestendism – nothing else is possible.

This then is the problem– while change in approach and ideas are needed to tackle the rapidly changing situation the existing power structure would approach it with rigid ideas and, therefore, commit grave mistakes which can only aggravate social strife and social instability.

Rapid change also prevents individuals and society from anticipating what is likely to happen in the future; even in the not too distant future. This results in short termism and that is another danger facing society. This challenge can only be met by a dynamic academia which is free from short term interests and can suggest long term solutions. This requires critical thinking and freedom from immediate constraints.

Policy makers have to retain power so they tend to have a short term perspective which is not conducive to the long term well-being of society. They see academic autonomy which is critical of the existing dispensation as a threat to their continuation and would like to curb it.

In India anyway learning has largely been by rote and this comes in the way of grappling with ideas and acquiring knowledge. Children forget after the exam what they had learnt. So, as they move up the classes, their weakness only grows till they drop out of school and college. Even the best minds in IITs and IIMs are good at mastering the exam technique to do well. They know how to ace the system but often they lack the skill to generate critiques and new knowledge?Rote learning is the bane of good research and which then reflects in the quality of teaching and learning in institutions of higher learning.

Conclusion

WE have been in search of policies to improvequality of higher education but this will not happen by mechanical steps taken in the past. It will not happen by displacing teachers by technology as is currently being attempted at present. This will also undermine the teachersrole in building citizenship among the young. Technology can be an aide but not a substitute. It tends to isolate and atomize students which is leading to psychological problems and also alienation from society. In turn that create its own social problems.

Technology by producing rapid change is also leading to wider social problems by changing the nature of work. So, students have to be prepared to be adaptive; capable of changing their skills by being dynamic. This requires critical thinking and there the teachers can play an important role. Teaching itself has to be highly dynamic and learning by rote has to end.

Quality cannotimprove unless academics are committed to teaching and research and that requires that they have autonomy. Mechanical policy steps cannot lead to greater sense of involvement of academics. The idea that standards in higher education can be achieved by standardization has to be given up. It is commitment that is needed and policy makers should do everything possible to encourage it. For this,the resourceshortage faced by education needs to be ended and autonomy granted at all levels in institutions of higher learning. Any new education policy must not just pay lip service to these ideas but actually implement them.

All this is likely only when teachers regain control over policies from the politicians and bureaucrats who currently make policies but do not understand the nature of higher education and the reforms needed. They select pliable academics who are willing to do their bidding and have bureaucratized mindsets to positions of governance and policy making. They then claim that the reforms are proposed by the academics themselves. The academic community has to get out of this trap and society at large needs to understand this and support change. Genuine autonomy will only come then and that is the need of the hour to improve quality.

Based on my book, `Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption’. Vision Books.

Arun Kumar, Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences and Retd. Professor of Economics, JNU.


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