Dr. Vinod Bhat, Vice Chancellor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, elaborates on what needs to be done to take India’s higher education to greater heights…
The higher education system is ripe for change, and we are living in a moment, which will determine the course of not just higher education, but, largely, the nation as a whole. For, a few factors determine both the prosperity as well as the dignity of a nation more than the fate of its higher education. It is from here that the challenges to our country can be fully addressed. What India needs is not just a movement away from poverty, but a movement into the fullest dimensions of global citizenship -- material, cultural and spiritual.
Historically, most Indian universities, due to a colonial legacy, served as training grounds for the civil services and specific professions (medicine, law, engineering etc.). It is only in the last decade or so that we have come to realize that universities in India, like the best universities abroad, must aspire for something larger. Ultimately, universities are less about immediate teaching and training needs, and more about the space to nurture big questions—questions that impact millions of citizens -- questions such as environmental and public health, or the many complexities of rapid and widespread urbanization.
The challenge for university leadership is how to get faculty and young students inspired to ask such large questions that concern society as a whole rather than just the immediate reality of their classrooms, textbooks, exams, activity and so on. This is a difficult task that may well take a generation or more to truly trickle down. Yet, it is precisely the fact that the reputed universities — such as Harvard or Oxford — constantly ask these big societal questions that give them a reputation in the first place. These universities understand that change can come only through leaps of imagination and research, not in small incremental steps.
Towards this, the mind-set of the classroom needs to change. What is needed is less the mastery of an old, familiar textbook, and more the understanding of the nuts and bolts of a deep conceptual and societal problem.
Dire need for change in curricula
A traditional medical college with a traditional curriculum in India is ill-quipped to ask all the above questions in a holistic manner. These curricula need to be urgently revised, made flexible and open to the newest research methodologies. A multidisciplinary field like public health should bring together doctors, economists, sociologists, media specialists, educationists and so on. Our teaching needs to be such that students can grasp all the multiple dimensions of any discipline. Only then can they study the field in the manner in which it is routinely taught abroad.
Making of a comprehensive university
A truly comprehensive university is comprehensive not only in terms of the courses and degrees offered, but also in terms of the fullness of student life — sports, dance, art galleries, student government. Often, it is only by having the opportunity to meet a student from a very different discipline (say, during a music recital) that students (and even faculty) get the chance to make friends of strangers.
We must move as far as possible from the image of the bookish, exam-crunching, lone student — instead, faculty should reward innovation, social conscience, leadership, long-term impact, risk, thoughtful collaboration. Only this will bring home the India of our dreams — the task for our universities is thus quite clearly laid out. Can we — as administrators, faculty, students, parents — rise to this challenge?
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