What went wrong with Indian higher education
The first generation of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) came up between the 1960s and 1990s, a different world. Today, we are not only in the middle of Industry 4.0, but also wide-spread disruption due to other factors. Of course, there is automation that is changing the nature of jobs and learning. There is climate change too, higher urbanisation, growing income equalities, and anti-globalisation resulting from hyper-nationalism.
When Pankaj Chandra took over as the Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University, a private, non-profit institution offering programmes in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies, he asked two fundamental questions: What does all these disruption do to the world of education? And how do you prepare the young socially and intellectually in this environment?
Ahmedabad University is a fairly new kid on the block – it was established in 2009. There is no historical baggage, which means that there is an opportunity to build an institution that is different, both culturally as well as in terms of learning. Chandra, the former Director of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, has been part of many committees on education. Two of them were the Government of India Committee on Rejuvenation of Higher Education (Yashpal Committee) that re-looked at the Indian Higher Education system and the committee on the Autonomy of Central Institutions. When he joined Ahmedabad University as Vice Chancellor (Sanjay Lalbhai, Chairman and Managing Director, Arvind Limited, is the Chancellor), Chandra said he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Business Today chatted with him to understand the issues plaguing higher education and what is it he was trying to do differently. First, what went wrong with Indian higher education institutions? Chandra points to six broad problems.
Quality education is expensive. India has severely under-invested in education over the last 40 years. “Therefore, we see top institutions with very poor facilities, not much investment in R&D, laboratories where equipment sits idle,” he says.
The second issue is about expansion and it dates back to the 1960s. “We expanded education very rapidly – India has larger number of institutions than China, both in terms of colleges and universities. The only way the government could manage is by standardisation. In that process, education got standardised and we forgot that education was about real people and real people are very different from each other. We created one big frame where examinations became the only way to judge merit. If examinations are the only way of getting merit, all the ills followed like coaching classes; anybody who could get 95 per cent is celebrated in society; those who got 50-60 per cent faced a loss of esteem in the society. People thought teaching in a standard way is the best thing to do because it leads to exams and outcomes. Along with standardisation, we said we don’t need to look at the world. We need to look at India,” Chandra says.
Third is about people. Indian institutions, the Vice Chancellor says, have always managed to get very good people, albeit in smaller numbers. Nevertheless, they had no reason to perform. “We never said if you don’t do research, you will not get promoted. It was never that your research should contribute to societal problems.”
Next, came the regulator. Different bodies who formulated rules and regulations for the universities. “Education has to be done one child at a time, one university at a time,” Chandra says. “We provided no flexibility and created water tight rules which are applicable to everybody. It destroyed the good ones who could have taken the destiny in their own hands and move on.”
In addition to the above, over the last few decades, the Indian society started to believe that they can do well without academic institutions, Chandra states. “Their engagement happens till the time their kids get into better colleges and from the better colleges to better companies. After that they don’t think they have anything else to contribute. It is the amalgamation of regulators and society that don’t see that higher education institutions must become the most important agent of change in the society. That’s why we lost out,” he says.
His last point has to do with what we imagine are the very top institutions in India today. Chandra mentions that many of these institutions live on the laurels of controlling the two ends – “the scarcity of the number of seats so admission becomes very difficult and hence your status increases; at the other end, the scarcity of very good talent in the industry. So they will pick you (the student) up.” There is a big box in the middle, which is institutional culture meant to advance knowledge, build new courses and remain at the frontier of practice from where the industry could draw on. This rarely happens in India. “Many of our institutions post the 1960s have got into a structural problem. No problem in society today can be solved by a single discipline. If I want to solve traffic at a crossing, it can be seen as a logistics-managerial problem or a civil engineering and transportation problem. Actually, neither of them can solve the problem because it is about understanding the anxiety of a person who reaches that crossing; it is a problem of psychology (among other things),” Chandra says. “No single problem today can be solved by a single discipline. You need multiple inputs from different disciplines. All of our tier-one institutions are stand-alone institutions. They are either management, or science, or technology or medical or law. They don’t bring all of them together which is needed to create the right mindset and the knowledge base to solve a problem,” he adds.
Ahmedabad University, Chandra says, is now trying a “phenomenal” inter-discipline approach. It is less about taking one course in philosophy and another in history; it is about building a course where multiple perspectives from different disciplines are addressed. The university is designing its programmes around four intersecting axis. The first axis has data, materials, biology and behaviour. The second axis comprises elements such as transport, energy and food among others. The third axis is air, water, land and forest, which are the natural resources under stress. The last axis is about individual and community.
Why are these four axis worth the attention? “Many disciplines of education and learning revolve around elements of these axis. Data has maths, computer science, statistics; material has engineering, science, manufacturing. Behaviour has sociology, anthropology, psychology etc. New challenges in the society and new opportunity lies at the intersection of these axis,” Chandra says, and explains with two examples. A public health person who wants to work for a consulting company is actually working on behaviour, heath, water, and on community. An IT guy working to develop a new software for Bengaluru airport is working on data, transport, air and on individuals.
Apart from the inter-discipline approach, the university is also working on an improved pedagogy that engages students more, while building the curiosity embedded in research training. “It is not about publishing research; it is about researching,” Chandra says.