|Higher Education, in India, envelops most Education/Training courses that are offered post Schooling. It covers a wide gamut of streams, i.e. Engineering, Medical, Management, Catering, Pharmacy, Dental, Chartered Accountancy, Architecture, Education, Research, etc. In India, the Government has historically been a major player in Higher Education, and this explains the emergence of reputed brands like the IITs, IIMs, NIT, AIIMS, etc. Over the last decade or so, with liberalization and winds of change from across the world, the Government is seeking to reduce its direct role in Higher Education and enhance its attention on primary and early Education challenges. This has opened opportunities to the private sector - now to some foreign players too - to set up, upgrade and manage the Institutions in the Higher Education space.
The challenges facing Higher Education in India is to be seen in the above context.
I would like to engage with three important challenges.
First and foremost, it is to do with the student as a key stakeholder. The student community in Higher Education courses, now, are a generation far removed from the freedom struggle and the era of limited opportunities. The current student pool is very well aware of what is happening around them - in India and the world - and hence engaging their attention in a classroom situation is increasingly becoming challenging. This is accentuated when many Teachers/Professors are products of a previous generation. Students, in today's context, do not have to necessarily attend a class to gain information, as the latter is widely available on multiple platforms and sources - most of it for free. Hence, the classroom context has to deliver something more than sharing information. Students expect that the Teacher/Professor is able to engage with issues/challenges, dilemmas, updated practice, etc., around the content by facilitating conversations and learning through group interactions. In fact, the need of the day is for A BIG shift, i.e., from being ' taught' to one of being a ‘learner.’ The teaching community (and the administrators/regulators who set exams, etc.) have to rise up to this challenge and work from a student centric class learning lens rather than subject text book/Teacher centric 'teaching' filter. The Teacher needs to know how different students learn, as reflected by their preferred learning styles, and design delivery of content and pedagogy appropriately. This calls for a huge mind-set change on the part of Teachers and they should be prepared to 'let go', take 'some risks' and move out of their comfort zones in the class. Being vulnerable sometimes, by saying 'I do not know', will actually make students more respectful and connected.
The second challenge is the increasing need for 'close linkages' between the student studying a course (also from which Institution) and the needs of the employment ecosystem. The market - both private for profit, not for profit & Government - is actually determining what skills/knowledge/disciplines are needed and hence the Institutions of Higher Education are expected to align their teaching and training appropriately. It has become imperative - be it Geology, Anthropology or even Engineering/Management subjects - for a very strong academia - employment ecosystem collaboration. Curriculum planning & upgrade, pedagogical innovation, etc., have to be co-created by key stakeholders, rather than each one assuming that the other would act in the interests of the other. In fact the challenge for many Teachers/professors is that 'Pure Education' for knowledge enhancement/enlightenment (from students' and ecosystem perspective) is giving way to 'how/what are the skills and knowledge being taught' that will be of benefit to 'the users of the knowledge/skills.'
The absence of this imperative is now reflected in the contradiction of qualified students not being valued in the job market, as they seem to possess 'know what' but do not ‘know how to do the work'! Competence and qualification is a gulf that needs to quickly recognized and bridged.
A third challenge is the historical perceptual bias of parents/guardians, as to which course/subject, their children should pursue. The herd mentality towards Engineering, Medicine, Management (also fuelled by the aspiration to emigrate to the West), continues unabated. Many a student do not have the behavioural and other attributes that are essential for success in these professions, and yet they have been 'pushed' by their parents and peer pressure. Hence, we have a piquant situation in India, where there is oversupply of moderately capable Engineers and Managers and a significant shortfall in Lawyers, Judges, Nurses, Teachers, Professors, Researchers, Policemen, Defence Officers, Real Estate professionals, Writers, Musicians, etc.
A country's well-being is ensured only when there is value and respect for 'hard' and 'soft' professions/subjects/courses. Historically, children of Indian parents have been pushed into more left brain, analytical, rote-learning friendly professions. These skills are valuable but not sufficient. Some of these left brain dominated professionals are not able to engage with the 'art' of life, for e.g., how to resolve value dilemmas, align self and society, etc.
Hence, it is in India's interest that there is greater freedom for students to choose from as wide a range of subjects/courses, even on an audit basis. They should be allowed to study unique combination of subjects, i.e., Music and Engineering, Medicine and Ethics, or Management and Foreign Affairs, etc.
Higher Education is poised for change in India and there is no doubt on that count. The challenge before those who administer policy in this space and the behaviour of key stakeholders like Parents, Students, Academia, Society will have to decide what shape and how soon Indian Higher Education space has to unfold.
I would like to end with a quote from a legendary Professor at MIT, Dr Rob Freund, who commented on Teaching/Facilitation, saying, 'It’s not what you cover in the syllabus, but it’s what you uncover in the syllabus that is more important.'
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