Are our institutions of higher education just diploma mills?

Dr. Lavina M. Noronha critically examines the Indian Higher Education sector, the third largest in the world and suggests out of the box alternatives to improve its outputs. The HRD ministry, Government of India is well advised to sit up and take notice.

India’s higher education sector is the third largest in the world next to China and the United States in terms of student enrollment. Over the past few decades, India has witnessed a phenomenal increase in the number of institutions with a noble aim of improving access to quality education. According to the University Grants Commission there were 789 Universities, 37,204 Colleges and 11,443 stand alone institutions listed in the year 2017. With every passing year, as the number of students knocking on the doors of institutions of higher education sky rocket, the institutions also gear up to prepare them for the rat race.

Research facilities, state-of-the-art infrastructure, sufficient and efficient faculty and pragmatic curricula are the prerequisites of an institution of higher education. It is also important that the institution meets the accreditation standards. The reality however, is quite different. With most state universities operating under deplorable conditions and the private universities busy trying to please the accreditation teams, the student is somehow lost in the equation.

India’s IITs have received global recognition but it is a shame that no Indian University has made it within the first 200 ranks. Most of our institutions of higher education are content with complacency and mediocrity and some do not even meet minimum standards. Faculty without calibre is an issue which impedes the quality of education. How can you expect high quality education from a mediocre teacher? Teachers should be enterprising and passionate about the subject matter they teach. Skilled teachers who are efficient and effective make great role models for young, impressionable minds.

Learner-Centred, Need-based Education

It is disheartening to know that many institutions of higher education have become mere ‘diploma mills'. Private universities are offering courses which do not have recognition or market value and are busy generating yards of diplomas. Students, especially from rural and semi urban areas are lured into believing that the field of study chosen by them has immense scope and will get them ready for the job market. Besides, the present system of education is purely academic which runs the risk of preparing book worms and most knowledge is theoretical and lack in practical application.

At the undergraduate level, the subjects are packaged much like the ‘buy one get one free’ gimmick, you choose one subject and the rest come with it whether you like it or not. As a result of this forced-choice methodology, students end up taking one subject that they really like, one they don’t like and another one they outright hate. They score according to their interest in each of the subjects. It is not easy to love a subject you are not going to use for the rest of your life.

The education system should be tailored to meet the needs and interests of the learners. ‘One size fits all’ approach is not going to work here. Meeting the needs of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learners by using multi-modal teaching tools is a prerequisite of good education and a move away from the chalk and blackboard mentality is warranted.

The students of today are technologically-savvy and it makes sense in offering a few theoretical courses in an online format. Web-based delivery of course content requires the faculty teaching them to be tech-savvy and equipped to handle the challenges of e-learning.

Multimodal assessments

The way our education system is progressing, it seems there are just two objectives: to score 90+% in the examinations and to crack the entrance exams. Cramming and temporary retention are encouraged and the students comply by successfully emptying their grey matter at these examinations. What good would knowledge do if it does not last beyond the semester exams or the entrance tests?

Innovative assessments are needed instead of examinations which assess a person’s memory and not subject competence. In a system where examination not assimilation is the goal of learning, students have no option but becoming memory banks. Albert Einstein rightly said: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

If it is difficult to do away with examinations, at least we can rethink the purpose of examination and structure it in such a way that it truly evaluates a student’s critical thinking skills, insight into the subject matter, creativity and applicability and not memory power. Presentations, workshops, case studies, development of modules, projects, portfolios and write-ups can be used as means of continual internal assessment depending on the discipline or field of study.

The role of service learning

Author Barbara Jacoby defines service-learning as "a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.”

Service learning initiatives help orient students to the reality of their respective professions and also provide an opportunity to test the knowledge acquired in the classroom. Service learning should be therefore relevant to the academic field chosen by the student and not just a token venture. It makes sense to place students of botany in a botanical setting and not at the post office. B.Com students can be involved in the accounting section of an NGO or a bank or in helping the community in money management, budgeting, savings etc. Similarly social work students fit better into a social setting where they can create and operate a project for an NGO.

It is commendable that a few colleges have bravely ventured into incorporating service learning segments into the curriculum but there seems to be gross lack of clarity among the faculty as to what constitutes service learning. Students are to be told that taking a ‘selfie’ with the inmates of an orphanage does not qualify as a service learning exercise.

The marriage between research, practice and teaching

Practice and research experience in the field of one’s expertise is essential for effective and efficient teaching. Practice wisdom is beyond what one can gleam from journals and publications and faculty teaching practice courses need practice wisdom to enrich their course delivery. For example, faculty in the school of law need to have practice experience and medical school faculty are handicapped without exposure to actual patients. Engaging in research also helps faculty to keep abreast of recent advancements in their respective fields and to upgrade their subject acumen. Unfortunately, in many institutions of higher education, the age old adage “those who can’t do it, teach it; those who can’t teach it research it” holds true.

Continuing education and professional development opportunities should be provided to the teaching faculty in order to hone their skills to address the students of 21st century. Infusion of innovative teaching and use of technology in the classroom have to be duly encouraged and rewarded with incentives.

Are we really teaching them how to live?

Antony De Souza, S.J. has pointed out rightly: “There are two educations: the one that teaches how to make a living and the one that teaches how to live.” A handsome pay cheque, lucrative profession, and financial security are the code words we hear from parents, educators and society in general when referring to higher education. One learns to earn a good living but the fact of the matter is, knowledge does not fit anywhere into this equation. It seems as though success in life is determined by the size of one’s pay cheque.

The distinction holders and the class-toppers often fail in their respective professions and occupations because their training and knowledge has been limited to the books they have read and the lectures they have heard in the classroom. This is exactly what happens if we teach students how to make a living and not how to live.

Contextualization of knowledge is the need of the hour. We have now learned that it is EQ not IQ which makes people successful in life. We have established IITs, IIMs, Law Schools, Medical Colleges and other institutions of higher education but have failed miserably in preparing responsible, humane citizens of tomorrow. Therefore, life skills education cannot stop at the high school level but needs to be incorporated into the higher education curricula as well.

Malpractices and lack of accountability

It is common knowledge that corruption has corroded our education system as well. State Universities and govt. colleges are notorious for selling their top positions to the highest bidders resulting in non-meritorious individuals heading the Departments, Colleges and Universities. Political pressure, communalism and caste considerations permeate the selection of candidates to top positions in State Universities. National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Board of Accreditation (NBA) have been successful in blacklisting several deemed universities that did not comply with the standards especially in South India. What is more disturbing is that the regulatory bodies like UGC and the Medical Council of India have also been accused of favouritism and corrupt practices.

Educational institutions have become safest avenues for laundering black money. Most demand capitation fees, building funds and donations in liquid cash especially from students who do not qualify for admission by merit. As a result, meritorious students and those who do not really have an aptitude are levelled in our institutions of higher learning. Globalization and outright consumerism has infiltrated the nooks and crannies of higher education system as well making it next to impossible to bridge the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots.’ To make matters worse, there has been a sudden surge in the fee structure of most institutions which has made it unaffordable to the middle and lower economic strata.

Common sense, social responsiveness, professional ethics and accountability need to be incorporated into the curriculum in order to equip students with skills required to make it in the real world. The reality tragically is quite opposite. What ethical behaviour can you expect from a junior faculty who obtains a Ph.D. by having a promiscuous relationship with her thesis chair or from someone who has manufactured and fabricated the data for his Ph.D. thesis?

Manufacture of ‘geeks’ and the ‘nerds’

“Keep quiet, shut up, sit down” are the messages the students hear from kindergarten. Is it any wonder that they just keep quiet when they see injustice; sit down instead of standing up for what they believe in and just shut up when they see any wrong –doing? The messages imbibed from pre-school years remain in the core of their being even as they step into higher education and they grow into unresponsive, self-centred adults lacking empathy and compassion. They are left with no choice but to practice ‘hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.’

Somehow we get threatened by students who venture ‘thinking outside the box’ and label them as non-compliant or arrogant. Instead of encouraging creativity, originality and creative thinking, the system penalizes them. The process which stifles imagination and clogs creativity cannot be called education, can it?

Is there a way out?

It is too obvious that our system of higher education needs to be transformed and overhauled for better delivery of the curricula.

Vocational and job-oriented streams have to be made affordable to students in order to prepare them for a competitive job market.
Flexibility in the delivery of the program on a part-time basis will enable those who are already employed to fulfill their dreams of higher learning. Course offerings in the evenings and on weekends provide opportunities for many to continue their education without quitting their jobs.

Part-time programs are more viable options for students who cannot afford the high-interest education loans to fund their own education and to learn while they earn.

Research, publications, presentations, consultation/practice must be made mandatory for faculty teaching in institutions of higher education. It makes a lot of sense to amalgamate research, practice and teaching for an enriching experience for students. Appropriate incentives programmes could help motivate and encourage faculty to engage in scholarly activities.

There is a need to reform the examinations in order to evaluate the students’ fundamental and in-depth mastery of the subject matter, creativity, application and critical thinking skills. Universities need to ensure that there is a continuous feedback mechanism and a transparent grading system set up. Students should be made aware of disciplinary actions for non-compliance well in advance.

Courses have to be designed with utmost care having the future of the students in mind. There has to be a non-biased regulatory body which oversees the quality of education and ensures that the students get what they pay for. Strict accreditation criteria should be imposed on the institutions of higher learning and those that do not comply with the minimum standards, should be mercilessly shut down.

The Governing Councils of institutions of higher learning have to be transparent in their operation and functioning. It makes sense to have a student, an alumnus, non-teaching and a teaching faculty on the boards in order to represent the different sectors in addition to management representation. Those who are part of these institutions are better able to make decisions in the best interest of the students than people who are not connected to them.

Pragmatic student-faculty ratio is needed in order to reach everyone in the classroom. Big class sizes pave the way for students falling through the cracks.

Higher education sector should seriously consider distance education in order to reach the unreached, especially students from rural India.

From the Newsroom:

Higher education set for overhaul on lines proposed by high-powered panel

New Delhi: Higher education sector is set for a makeover as the Modi government plans to implement a slew of measures such as qualifying exam for PhDs to be of the standard of NET exam, mandatory use of credible anti-plagiarism software for evaluating PhDs, assessment and accreditation of higher education institutions by third party agencies and granting full autonomy-- academic, financial and administrative -- to top-ranked institutions.

The measures are part of higher education reforms package, which was finalised by a high-powered panel, including then Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya, CEO Amitabh Kant and K K Sharma, secretary higher education, HRD ministry.

The panel, which submitted its report on August 31 was asked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare a blueprint for higher education reform.

Learning from past experiences, the committee has decided to set in motion short-term measures which can be implemented through regulations by UGC and AICTE within a time-frame while leaving it to HRD ministry to come out with a road-map for big bang reforms, including setting up of higher education regulator which requires legislative amendments.

Academic collaborations will be permitted only with foreign institutions that are ranked among the top 500 of world institutions.

The panel felt that existing legislative framework was not conducive for setting up foreign educational campuses in India while emphasising the need to examine the critical roadblocks and feasibility of required legislative modifications in future.

The plan is also to introduce a three-tier autonomy in which top ranking institutions will get full academic, administrative and financial autonomy.

These institutions will be free, if no government funding is required, to open constituent colleges, offer online programs without geographical restrictions, open research park or incubation centres, academic collaborations with foreign higher educational institutions as per UGC regulations, admit foreign students up to 20% of domestic students while having freedom to fix fees.

While following UGC pay scales, these institutions may build in merit-based incentive structure from its own resources to attract talented faculty.

The institutions ranked poor would remain under government control.

The panel also suggested reform of existing accreditation framework by allowing third party agencies for assessment and accreditation of institutions. It also suggests to make it mandatory for institutions and programmes to prominently display accreditation grade or unaccredited status on every information material.

It has also made mandatory accreditation for online and distance learning programs.

Credits: Mahendra Singh | TNN | Sep 19, 2017, 22:34 IST

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