Role of young private sector in India’s higher education
Abhay Anand, 04 May 2017
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Participation of private sector with considerable investment and freedom to design programmes and hire quality faculty is resulting in quality output in India’s higher education. Read on to know how the young universities are making it big in higher education.

The modern-day Indian higher education, that owes its origin to British higher education system appears unable to come out of its shadow and adopt changes in line with the changing global socio-economic scenario. It is still plagued by inadequate infrastructure, faculty shortage, age-old teaching-learning methods, decline in research standards, unmotivated students—the list goes on. Amidst this gloomy picture there is a ray of hope from some of the young universities. Along with an innovative curriculum they have adopted choice based credit system to offer flexibility in learning and preparing students for future-ready jobs.


Young Vs old universities

A number of public universities appear to be resisting change. Prominent institutions like Delhi University, Allahabad University, MS University of Baroda, still continue with their old curriculum, teaching methodology and examination system. While the continuous changes happening across the globe demand universities to embrace the same, there is a need for outcome-driven learning systems with competency-based input systems, transparent assessment and standardizations. In all this, technology would be the enabler. “There is a need to look beyond the imaginary walls of a course curriculum and allow interdisciplinary approach of teaching,” says Prof. Devi Singh, Vice Chancellor, FLAME University. “Education at FLAME University is firmly anchored in liberal values. We believe in educating people for life by giving them the fundamental tools and techniques, borrowed from multiple disciplines that can be used in any stream of human endeavour. We provide an interdisciplinary platform of education that propagates different models and paradigms from various learning disciplines,” he said.


Students pursuing a Master’s course in Business have to compulsorily take courses in Fine and Performing Arts such as Painting, Sculpture, Theatre, and courses in the Social Sciences and Humanities, in addition to subjects that form the core of their specialization. “This platform develops students with abilities to connect and integrate knowledge by helping them to apply it in current and future real world scenarios,” Dr. Singh added.


Flexibility in approach

Shiv Nadar University (SNU) is another university that has emerged as an epicentre of quality higher education due to its innovative and flexible approach. The University offers a wide range of elective courses in Humanities, Natural Sciences and also in subjects as diverse as Filmmaking, Communications, Theatre, Fine Arts, Performing Arts, Management, and more. Its curriculum also allows the flexibility to change the programme that a student is pursuing as they discover a wider range of disciplines and areas of study. “We already have several students who have switched from Engineering to English or English to Sociology. One student, for instance, began with engineering, shifted to and majored in English and then made a successful application for the MPhil programme in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge,” says Prof. Sambudha Sen, Head, Department of English at SNU.


Modern curriculum

The advent of ICT tools (tablets, smart phones, easy access to high speed Internet) demands a new approach in teaching-learning methodology. As information and knowledge becomes accessible without barriers, the potential threat of changing learner behaviour would make existing teaching methodologies redundant. The young Universities have devised an entirely new approach for teaching as well as learning. A small faculty-student ratio, the ability to design one’s own course of study and the mentorship and responsiveness of faculty to students are the hallmarks at Flame University.  


Azim Premji University (APU) is among those universities which brought sweeping changes in the way education delivery was done in the country. Its curriculum has been designed to support diverse student cohorts drawn from varied socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Venu Narayan – Director, Strategic Development, APU opines, “The curriculum for every programme is developed after intensive discussions within faculty groups and then reviewed by the University’s Curriculum and Pedagogy Committee and the Academic Council. The University considers the curriculum to be a key element that supports effective teaching and learning by translating the goals of the programmes into a viable educational plan.”


At APU, once the curriculum is designed faculty members have the autonomy to tailor their pedagogy to the context of the classroom while at the same time being guided by the overall vision of the curriculum. This is important for effective teaching and learning. The University has also moved away from high-stakes examinations, a bane of India’s higher education system. The assessment process encourages students to be active learners throughout the course. At SNU, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes have been designed on the basis of its underlying philosophy of interdisciplinary and research-led learning. “A teacher-student ratio of 1-10 allows the University to sustain not just the traditional lecture based pedagogy, but also teaching through seminars and in workshop like conditions,” said Prof. Sen.


Niche courses

The young universities not just offer interdisciplinary approach in choosing courses but their courses are also designed to give students the freedom to choose their own curriculum from a wide variety of courses in each semester, rather than forcing them to specialise in one. Every undergraduate student at FLAME University undergoes multiple foundation courses, which present students a unique opportunity to explore different realms of knowledge before choosing their specializations. The aim of this process is to equip them with basic tools of logical reasoning, strengthen their written and oral communication skills, expose the students to develop an understanding of human society and culture that influences their evolution and development positively. “APU’s postgraduate degree programmes aim to develop competent and committed professionals for the education, development and related sectors in India,” says Venu Narayan. SNU offers multiple programmes through diverse departments and some of them are Design thinking and Innovation, Applied Theatre, Crime and Chemistry and Reading the Past.


Emphasis on research

Most of these young universities have dedicated research centres. Prof. Arjun Jayadev, Department of Economics, APU says, “The University has setup a dedicated Research Centre with a mandate to encourage research by faculty, students and the field based institutions of the Azim Premji Foundation. The research centre and the school has supported dozens of research projects in key areas such as public education, early childhood education, assessment, sustainability, public health (nutrition, maternal health, mental health) as well as in the critical area of livelihoods. We also expect to provide support for a more varied set of themes in the near future.”

A majority of the universities in India are not able to produce quality research because of two main reasons – lack of funding and faculty shortage. The new Universities that do not face these problems have been able to give due importance to research from Day-1. “In addition to top-class teaching, many of our faculty consult leading national and multinational companies as well as conduct front-line research in their respective areas of specialization,” said Prof. Singh. FLAME University has been able to collaborate with Nuffield College, University of Oxford to create a Centre for Experimental Social Sciences because of its focus on quality research. 


SNU was conceived as a research institution. “The ‘Opportunities for Undergraduate Research’ (OUR) programme, allows undergraduate students to conduct original research with faculty, outside the regular curriculum. In its second year, more than 70 projects have been funded under the OUR programme,” Prof. Sen said. The University has six research centres and has already invested close to Rs. 200 crores as internal research investment. Rs. 17 crores have been committed by various government and private funding bodies for ongoing research projects.


Promising future


The higher education sector needs to transform itself to remain relevant to the changing higher education landscape. The focus of higher education needs to change from providing employability enhancements, to preparing the learners into thinking, complex problem-solving and decision-making individuals. Young universities coming up in different parts of the country are certainly doing their bit but more efforts are needed on the part of regulatory bodies and older universities if India’s higher education has to reap its demographic dividend.   


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