Guest Article: University- What it should be

Posted on July 6, 2011

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Author:  Prof M N Faruqui   (1952 -56 IIT Kharagpur student; 1958 – 1990 Faculty at IIT Kharagpur, Former Deputy Director, IIT Kharagpur and Former VC, AMU).    Prof.   Faruqui  can be approached at  naseem.faruqui AT gmail.com.

In my opinion, we in India are at the cross roads and are bumbling along on a very uncertain and uncharted path of “education” for all, for the future in technology, and for the future builders of India.

Some how the policy makers of our country have come to the conclusion that in the field of education everything existing is bad, corrupt, and is not conducive to growth they desire. Naturally the first step is to change or “destroy” everything. Yes, in a sense revolution is one standard method of forcing things instead of them being allowed to evolve? But we are forgetting that revolutionary thinking requires a stomach to carry through the reforms ruthlessly and also have the power to do so. It is better to try an evolutionary growth rather a half-hearted revolution imposed with an apparent lack of cohesion in thinking and trying to attack the whole spectrum of education at once.

I would like the ‘educationists’ to identify the problems we are facing in the primary, the high school, the secondary school, and technology sectors and the university. In my own thinking I would like to mention some of the problems that are choking the system. The observations are not unique but I have attempted to highlight the bewildering feeling of a sordid chaos at all levels. Let us start with the university and let me add “Why can’t we leave the administration and academics of Universities to Academicians?”

A. University

The problems the Universities are facing are described below:

  • Lack or very meagre amount of Funds.
  • Interference by the state and by the private promoters, politicians and bureaucrats as well
  • Toothless administration by the University Grants Commission. The UGC are totally undesirable and should be done away with. The colonial powers may have decided to exercise control over what is taught in the universities but in the independent India should not the universities be free to teach what they like and how they do so. What positions, age, qualifications and salaries they have for their staff should not be the concern of the UGC. The immediate question raised is what happens to the ‘standard’ of education.
  • Shall the standard not be market driven; if the students find the degree valueless the University would be closed down? A check on the standard of education imparted is discussed in later paragraphs.
  • Universities should charge heavy fees so that they can sustain themselves financially. Loans from the Banks, partial fees waivers for the deserving students would make students in India pay for their education as against the present practice of parents bearing the whole cost.
  • Emphasis should shift to Post Graduate and Research. Business and Industry have to finance research in the Universities and I can see the role of the government would be to make research funding by industries compulsory.
  • Our total thinking is veering towards funding for Technical education only but we are forgetting that Social Science make a far larger impact on the society. Even today, engineering has only 10% students. 40 to 50 % students study so called Arts, 20% study Science and the balance around 20% study Commerce and Management.  It is the quality of social science and humanities education rather than the quantity that is the main concern.
  • Somehow with our colonial past we have been downgrading educational efforts in Social Sciences. If we look at it dispassionately we would find that our efforts in Technical education have made us totally subservient to USA and European powers. Even the great money earner of IT industry derives it sustenance from them. The technologies that we acquired form abroad could not be duplicated in numbers and we are importing improved versions again and again from the same sources.
  • The standards in UG and PG classes of most of the universities have fallen so much that not much value is placed on them – a pity. We have seen that in some universities classes hardly are held in Law courses and Masters programme in Commerce. Not many efforts are being made to modernise their syllabi and curricula and make the education more intensive so that a student in these courses spends as much time studying at home as in the engineering classes.
  • Shortage of faculty to teach is another aspect of poor quality of education imparted in our universities. No doubt one-to-many with eye contact of the teacher with the students in a small size class [say around 40] is the most effective and suitable mode of teaching. Since the availability of good faculty is becoming difficult the universities have to adopt well known ‘large class’ techniques where a competent and well qualified faculty member engages the lecture. This is backed by intensive tutorials and use of digital technology.
  • If we do not trust our universities to check and correct their own standards it is futile to expect a visiting committee to find all the faults and non-compliance of the rules and regulations. Normally the universities have Faculties of Science, Social Science, Arts, Commerce, Languages etc and the task of maintaining standards should be of the Faculty. They may form a three member Internal committee that will look into details of the working of that Faculty. Issues like number of days of instruction, attendance of the students, level of question papers set, desired coverage of the subject, level of gradation and award of grades, student feedback  etc may be under their scrutiny. A peer evaluation hopefully would lead a better check on the standards.
  • Universities could also offer degrees in Engineering and Medicine if they fulfil the conditions required. The case of Engineering education is discussed in a subsequent article.
  • Permission to open a university (including Colleges discussed below) either by the government, private trusts, or other organisations could be given by the State / Central government through an Act passed by the legislature. However I would suggest that a University could be opened by any individual or group subject to a broad guideline approved for all such ventures. The idea is that quality of education should be a measure of the success of a university. Placements would be automatic if the quality of education is good. Post-establishment of the university there will be no bureaucratic ‘look into’ its functioning.

Far reaching suggestions have been made by the high power Prof Yashpal Committee appointed by the government to suggest reforms in the education system at the university level. Particularly they cortically reviewed the functioning of UGC and AICTE among other things. Some of the suggestions made by the members of the committee are very welcome but some are only purely rhetorical and risky. Since UGC, for example, is not working as desired it should be disbanded and replaced by a ‘Supremely Powerful Central Committee who would regulate and look after everything. They would appoint Vice-Chancellors to all universities – as if that gentleman selected by this august body would solve all the difficulties of the university. This committee consisting of Noble Laureates and eminent scientists sitting in Delhi would provide instant solutions to the university problems. Was it Don Quixote that comes to mind?

The bureaucrats, industrial leaders, Ministers, and what-have-you in public “blame” the defenceless universities that they are not doing research. Unfortunately nobody turns around and asks ‘hey this is the amount of money the society has given you for research and you have wasted it and done nothing much”. And then we wake up and see that Harvard, Yale, Berkeley et al are doing so well but why not our local Harvards. Have they bothered to find out the total budget of these universities and their per student expenditure? Their research budget, their Alumni funding and Industrial projects funding would take care of the needs of some states in India. Put gas in the machine before you expect it to run and perform. Find funds and more importantly find how to get funds for the universities and then put them in the dock for non-performance..

B. Colleges

We are discussing non-engineering and non-technical colleges mostly affiliated to a university that actually award the degrees. Unfortunately these institutions are totally tied up with the other colleges of the affiliating university. They have no freedom to decide their curricula and syllabi, their exams are conducted by the university and the evaluation is also done by them. This is a great hindrance and stumbling bock in developing creativity, innovativeness and diversity in education and ideas. The suggestion of the Committee that 1500 colleges that are doing well be made into Universities is a very welcome move.  If a particular college has the facilities and is doing well I see no objection to this college being made independent and permitted to have its own syllabi and curricula and award degree. They have to make all efforts to maintain their standards and if they fail to live up to their reputation the student registration will drop and they will end up losing their independence. Suggestion of a SAT type universal test is good and desirable and along with a recommendation from the teachers from the school could be used as the yardstick for admission.

Other than the student reactions and feedback, the college performance has to be reviewed and evaluated every three years. These colleges should be allowed to offer Honours degrees that are research driven degrees with emphasis on liberal education and academic excellence. Subjects belonging to a wide range of subjects of Social Sciences, Sciences, Commerce, Law and Languages etc could be offered by them. In some subjects where facilities exist, these colleges could operate at the PG and PhD level like any university. Admission to the ‘regular’ university entrusted with major research efforts would be open to the students passing out of these ‘college-universities’. I have a different suggestion, different from the Committee, for Colleges that do not make into the above category. They may be allowed to offer only UG degrees designated as a Pass degree with an emphasis on a broad level of liberal education. Since vocational and technical studies have not been given the importance that is required these Pass courses may have vocational studies as one important component. The range of subjects on offer may be extensive with a technical flavour as suggested. Students passing out of these colleges would normally not be eligible for pursuing Postgraduate degrees. However, if the student so desires and his performance is excellent, he may be allowed to join the third year of the Honours programme and get into the PG stream. in effect these colleges may be encouraged to offer Vocational and ‘Technology’ oriented programmes with various combinations of any three subjects like; English, Economics, History, Geography, Philosophy, Psychology, Computer Science, Information Technology, Mechanical Sciences, Health care, Electrical Sciences, Environment, Arts, Hindi, Urdu, Regional Languages, Banking, Agricultural Finance, Agricultural Marketing and a large number of subjects from various disciplines.

We would be looking at the functioning of these colleges to produce educated middle level workers connected with various economic activities of the society but with some technology orientation mainly brought through Computer Science, Information Technology, Mechanical and Electrical Sciences and Banking etc.  

We shall discuss the issues related to Engineering and Technology in a separate article.

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