Article by Dr. C. Raj Kumar on "Strong institutions for a strong nation" Published in DECCAN HERALD on the state of higher education in India - Deccan Herald

February 02, 2017 | Dr. C. Raj Kumar

In recent times, President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have lamented about the fact that Indian universities don’t figure among the top 200 in the world in some of the most reputed international rankings. 

Indian universities can aspire to be among the leading institutions of the world, if we are able to create an enabling eco-system that will empower our universities. Unfortunately, we have reached a critical stage in our higher education sector that marginal reforms will lead to no impact whatsoever. We need to seek radical reforms in the higher education sector, which will at best lead to marginal impact. However, such reforms can progressively provide a pathway for achieving excellence. 

It is only by hiring and retaining inspiring teachers and rigorous researchers that we can hope to establish institutions of global excellence in India. At its best, most Indian universities are largely teaching institutions. The focus of the academic agenda is to be engaged in teaching and the faculty members tend to teach a significant number of hours in a week. This has undermined any possibility for the faculty members to be engaged in research and publications. The fact remains that over 35% of faculty positions are lying vacant in our premier institutions such as the central universities and the IITs and this number will be more in state universities. 

Generally, the Indian universities don’t provide sufficient opportunities, both in terms of time and space for pursuing research; there is also a serious lack of funds and other forms of resources to pursue research and writing. This has to change. Outstanding faculty members who can make substantive contributions to teaching and research create world-class universities. Universities are expected to be knowledge creating institutions. 

Students are at the heart of a university community. Indian universities have produced great alumni who have made outstanding contributions in India and around the world. It has been questioned in recent times as to what has been the role of Indian universities themselves for shaping the education and learning process of the students. Access to premier universities in India continues to be the luxury of a privileged few who have most probably received sound quality education in their high school. They are better prepared to face the examinations and standardised tests, which qualify them to be admitted into the leading universities. However, a fundamental aspect that needs to be carefully examined about Indian universities and students is the learning outcomes.

The existing framework of accountability of the university to the students needs to be revisited. Most Indian universities do not have a rudimentary form for students to be able to provide a feedback on the teaching of the faculty. Students need to be given a holistic learning experience that will not only help them with acquiring substantive knowledge, but also develop their critical thinking skills, writing skills and their abilities to articulate effectively. As a part of our effort to reform the higher education sector, we need to examine the relationship between political parties and the nature and context of student politics on campuses. It is fair to say that we have not thought through this carefully and are indeed facing a governance crisis at our universities.

It is important to recognise that some of the foundational aspects of democratic engagement through student politics is not only a healthy institutional practice, but indeed necessary at the university campuses. However, we need to collectively introspect whether the existing paradigm of confrontational engagement, divisive politics and campus violence have affected the ability of student politics to constructively contribute to social change and institutional transformation. 

The way forward
India needs substantial reforms in regulation, policy and governance of higher education institutions. There is a need to assess universities on the basis of objective and determinable standards relating to the quality of teaching, faculty, research and capacity building rather than on the basis of it being public or private. We need to remind ourselves that some of the leading universities of the world are private universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford and MIT, while some of the oldest and most reputed universities continue to be public universities: Oxford, Cambridge and London. It is important for us to recognise and appreciate the remarkable transformation in higher education that has taken place in countries across Asia, including but not limited to Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. 
 
The heart of this transformation in Asia is about creativity and innovation in curriculum, courses, programmes, teaching pedagogy, faculty recruitment, student admission and mobility, international collaborations, research and publications. Indian universities need to seek inspiration from these countries and work towards building institutions of global excellence.

(The writer is vice chancellor, O P Jindal Global University)