Prof. Sandeep Sancheti, President, Association of Indian Universities (AIU), in conversation with Pritha Roy Choudhury looks at the major challenges in India’s higher education…
Q. What are the major focus areas for AIU?
A. AIU does special type of activities which the statutory bodies in the country fail to do, like that of equivalences regarding the degrees given by other countries, what is equivalent to those degrees and that of Indian ones. AIU takes care of the sports-related and cultural activities. There is no other body that is taking care of these activities in the higher education space. We also work on internationalization which is very important for the universities. Other than that we work for teachers’ training, faculty training, leadership training. And the best work we do is in the research space in higher education.
Q. Can you elaborate on what you said about research work in the higher education space?
A. Research is an important aspect, in every time, in every age. Maybe in India, we are not paying enough attention to it for some time, but we have woken up in the last 15 to 20 years and we have understood the importance of research innovation, development and various other related things. So, there is no dearth of research activities. The missing element is focused research, maybe industry-oriented research. Research, which has more to do with societal requirement and the other challenge, of course, is that in certain cases, the mindset of people as to how to carry out research and the last element could be how to fund it because Indian government is not so rich that it can adequately fund all the research requirements. It is the same with Indian industries which are new to research because they can take the technologies from outside and so on and so forth and educational institutions are also relatively new. Research is always a long-term perspective. The research, I would say, is needed, is happening and would be scaled up in times to come.
Q. Another important issue being discussed in academic circles is regarding autonomy. How would you define ‘autonomy’ in an ideal situation?
A. There are various ways of defining autonomy. It can be administrative, financial. Autonomy has gained a lot of importance in the changing scenario. We utilize autonomy to bring about change and innovation. Autonomy means that you are taking a lot of responsibility and it is freedom with responsibility, accountability, dependability and purpose.
Q. How does the tag ‘Institutes of Eminence’ help universities?
A. ‘Institutes of Eminence’ is a framework which allows you to control your destiny, have more autonomy, work in the sectors in which you want to work, work in a way in which you want to work, tailor all your inputs and outputs in such a manner that you become more productive. So, it is a label given to you to do a better performance. These institutes are told that if you do good work, you get more freedom. So, it’s all about making Indian institutions more competitive and setting their own goals.
Q. Why are Indian universities signing MoUs on exchange programmes with a number of foreign universities?
A. The world is a small village now and all the graduates have to serve that small village, that is the globe. You need to know the demands of people outside India, their expectations, their cultures, their practices. And so, one way of doing this is to keep sending your people outside and they do well. But there are chances that we lose them and may be to some extent a small brain drain happens but another way is that those people come back and if 5 or 10 in a class of 50 or 100 come back, at least 1500 of our background will benefit by working with them and therefore these exchanges are always positive, whether it is in educational, industrial or administrative domain. It should happen, it makes you appreciate each other, more tolerant to each other and it brings more challenges and more acceptability of life in general. Today it is our duty to see to it that all our students get that exposure.
Q. How do you plan to reach out to remote areas where higher education has not penetrated till now?
A. Leadership should be given to people who understand rural needs and rural demands. An international player cannot come to India and set up an institution in rural interest. So, people from within will have to take the lead and form frameworks to facilitate them and give them liberty and also a little more financial support because otherwise the affordability will be less. Every rural situation has more challenges compared to us. One thing is for sure, if we do many activities in those institutions with rural connect, people will take it more seriously, become more acceptable and they will be spreading more happiness. So, it is not purely education that we should look at, we should see the socio-economic background and relevance of education and then do something.
Q. Any thoughts on the employability factor?
A. Having the right skills enhances employability. For example, you require communication skills that are best given at the entry level, in the schools itself rather than in higher education institutions. When it comes to analytical, scientific and logical, IT skills, yes, we can offer that. So each one of us has a role and the students will also have to play their role and become more serious. The teachers will have to be more serious about delivering what they want to deliver. The society has to accept that everything cannot be done by schools and colleges alone.
Q. What goals have you set for AIU in the coming days?
A. Higher education is looking positively towards upgrading its performance and activities, contributing a lot to the success of the nation. All of us are charged and ready to deliver now. The goal is an overall improvement in the quality, diversity, excellence, speed, efficiency, access and equity and, of course, global ranking and rating. These are the key features on which higher education is focusing.
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