Here is my Op-Ed in the Indian Express, July 21, 2010 on the identity crisis in higher education


And here is the full text:

Town and gown

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Meeta Sengupta Tags : meetasengupta, column Posted: Sat Jul 31 2010, 02:50 hrs  


Our higher education institutions are in trouble. A few thousand of them churn out half a million graduates every year, operating on a larger scale than in most other places. But many of these graduates are rated as unemployable without further training, the blame for which is squarely set on the shoulders of the universities. Recent work from the Confederation of Indian Industries estimated that only between 40 and 50 per cent of graduates and diploma holders are employable, on average.

This is not merely a crisis of scale, nor is this just a story of ineffectual behemoths. The truth is that India’s universities are suffering through a deep and fundamental identity crisis. This is a case of irrelevance, of lost purpose and one of misdirected effort.

Academic higher education is designed for intellectual life, not for employability. Professional and vocational education are both clearly designed to create direct economic value in an economy — hence employability. When higher education institutions seek to deliver employability while retaining academic structures, they find themselves at a loss. Such institutions need to today make a choice between academic and professional structures. They each need to know clearly where they are headed. The trauma of rocking between academia and vocational education is damaging our ability to deliver any sensible education to our students.

Consider management education. Managing resources is a skill, not a science, and as such does not require an academic degree. It falls in the same category as other professional qualifications such as accountancy, law and, dare I say, medicine. In terms of pedagogy required, management education is closer to vocational training which is learnt by doing — rather than merely reading up on precedent or literature in the area. A sad (though perhaps necessary, at the time) effort to glamorise management education saw it classified as higher education. This might not have damaged management education, but its success has led to a near-identity crisis in higher education institutions.

The questions I hear from educators in universities range from the issue of teaching qualifications, to purpose, to employability, to values and ethics. What I do not hear is the question of value addition. I hear discussions on quality and have yet to see a single native measure of this quality. In this lies the rub: employability of candidates is a key target of professional education, which implies metrics and measurement of the target, and all systems must be geared to that. Higher education that is academic is geared to creating people who will think and create a better world — which implies that they must have depth of knowledge and the freedom to explore. This is the antithesis of a metric-oriented pedagogy.

Is it not possible for an academic university to deliver on both professional and academic value? Of course it is, but it must be designed for that purpose. In spite of the conflict in pedagogy, there is much synergy between the resources required for both types of education. The problem is that, in seeking credibility from academic models, institutions tend to replicate them in areas of professional education. This will naturally confuse the purpose and process of teaching and learning. More importantly, the expectations from teachers and learners are diametrically opposed to each other.

The structures and practices in our universities are frequently called antiquated. While that is often undeniable, these institutions carry a host of burdens. From political interference to a lack of transparency in operations to a sluggish and restrictive legal system, they are trapped in a quagmire that is not all of their own making.

Sadly, even students have contributed to the downfall of universities. We often choose courses not because we are passionate about the subject but because we think of them as “prestigious”. Many who would prosper in vocations and professions tend to go through three years of academic conditioning. This skews the demand for courses and the clearing system delivers faulty results. Once within an institution, one’s lack of aptitude and interest skews the learning process.

With their supply structure confused as to its purpose, demand skewed due to societal mores and pressures and their governance processes sadly manipulated, is it a wonder that our universities are floundering?

The ones that are doing well, or are seeking to introduce new ways of doing things, are also unable to manage their stakeholders. The University of Delhi recently tried to introduce the semester system, which admittedly does have some advantages — but met with strong opposition from within. An attempt has been made to make undergraduate degrees more flexible by allowing students to pick and choose units of equivalent value from across various traditional disciplines. This liberal approach is yet to find a significant response.

To prosper, our higher education institutions need greater clarity of purpose and process. They are all trying too hard to be everything for everybody.

The writer is an education strategist


2 thoughts on “Town and Gown: the identity crisis in Higher Education

  1. Nice to read your article on purpose of higher education. In my small capacity I want to add a few things to it. I believe that educational institutions should totally stay in the field of education only as it is their core competence and do not mix with industry demands of “vocationalization” or specific jobs skills for employment. The reason for this demand specially in India is Indian population itself and its growing economy. Corporates who want to hire in numbers but does not have time and money to invest to hone their skills and bring them up to the job. So the want is like getting ready made shirts. I believe the purpose of education is to manufacture good quality cloth not clothes. And that is why in India we find employers lament for dearth of talent among vast pool of graduates, whereas in western countries with low growth rate have already vast pool of experience people working adding a few fresh pass-out here and there does not become an expensive process. Government may try to set up more professional institutes to bridge the gap between industry and education but again the fundamental problem of “quality of cloth” manufactured will remain and I see no immediate solution to that in near future.

  2. Market needs change very fast and our universities have not kept pace with the latest changes. As parents and teachers, we do not encourage children to pursue their interests, but we persuade them to like that subject which will give employment opportunities. We do not have much freedom to explore among choices of 1.commerce 2. Medical or 3.engineering streams. Perhaps we can choose one stream for getting employment and then later on in life switch to the one that interests us. Academic interests are set aside and only educational goals pursued for getting jobs or professions. Best policy for a developing country like ours is to guide universities in making available those subjects which will get future professions for the young students. Computer education in addition to academics is a good idea. Modernizing college education like the way Delhi University is doing is a good start. Many students pursue degree in commerce by correspondence and full time learn computer courses.

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