to Reorient Higher Education*
Rajesh K. Sharma
I recently had the honour of receiving education from a telephone lineman. He had come to repair a fault in the line. After he had done his work, I invited him in for a cup of tea. He reluctantly agreed. He has two children, a daughter studying in the 12th standard and a son in the 10th. Both are good at studies and want further education. The father, however, can afford to educate only one child. “My daughter must drop out,” he told me unhappily.
His situation is shared by millions of Indian parents. They value education but do not have the resources for it. Many do not know that banks provide education loans. Others do not want to take a loan, doubting if their children will find work at the end of an expensive course. The want of money and information clouds up their half-lit minds and, in the event, most decide to sacrifice their daughter's future. Obviously, something is terribly wrong with the way we have organised our education. But can anything be done about it, or should we resign ourselves to the “inevitability” of this all? In a typical Indian appropriation, globalisation may have become the latest exemplar of the fruits of karma, yet there is much we can do.
The first thing we can do is to establish a national database of human resources, both available and required. This will greatly help in planning and organising our education. It will also help people pick a career decisively. In the contemporary world economy, human beings are the greatest source of resources. These should not be idly wasted.
We need also to reorient our expenditure on higher education. In place of raising “palatial buildings” (as an editorial in The Tribune recently pointed out), we should concentrate on developing intellectual assets, both human and non-human. Educational institutions should organise their own resources for constructing the buildings. The funds provided by the state should be used exclusively for the enhancement of intellectual assets and should be linked to performance.
There is need to effect vertical and horizontal integration of educational institutions. This will help evolve a long-term vision of the aims and direction of education, overcome the hierarchical fragmentation that presently characterises education, eliminate duplication of teaching and research, and improve the overall quality of work by permitting greater exposure to the ground reality as well as the high ideals.
We should devise channels for greater community participation. This will require, and ensure, transparency, accountability and relevance. The concept of private management may have to be redefined as that of community management. Universities and colleges need not be treated as ivory citadels; their portals — and account books — should be thrown open to the community. This will help attract endowments from the people who are ready to give but want to ensure that their gifts are not pilfered or squandered.
The imperatives of frequent reskilling in the workplace demand that the educational institutions design short-term and customised courses for the working people. Continued, flextime education has tremendous potential to generate funds for the fund-starved higher education.
The obsolete water-tight division of courses and subjects calls for a thorough scrutiny. Students should get greater freedom to choose combinations of subjects and courses. We ought to respect their discretion and aptitude and keep in mind also the fast-changing marketability of skills.
We must adopt technology in a big way with the clear aim of cutting costs. A painless transition to the technological classroom is possible by recasting the pedagogical practices. Teachers must prove they are indispensable and not mere stand-ins for the audio-visual aids. The prospects of redundancy and retrenchment need not scare any teacher worth her or his salt; education is not for providing employment to the unemployable. We should recognise this notwithstanding the fact that our education is gravely understaffed and requires, moreover, a rationalised deployment of teachers.
We should also reorganise the teachers' orientation and refresher courses to make them worth the enormous expenditure incurred on them. Short, one-week courses every alternate year can replace the present three- and four-week courses. Short-term horizontal and vertical mobility of the faculty would also enhance their skills and lend a deep and broad edge to their own education.
The most important thing to do, however, is to create a proper appreciation of the vocation and pursuit of education. This is also the most difficult thing to do at present, for the current tendency is to confound education with mere profit-oriented training. The thoroughly commercialised and technology-imbued mindset may not appreciate that certain kinds of “uselessness” are indispensable. Humanities and the basic sciences are worldwide the unhappy victims of such thoughtlessness only. We must not fail to see education as the activity that has for its aim “the improvement of the human being”. For this purpose we should not hesitate to include Current Studies also in the curricula. In these times of mind-boggling changes and mind-numbing disasters, the improvement of the human being cannot happen without a ruthless gaze into the moment that is now.
This involves, however, a risk: that of the parochialism of the present when viewed from ideologically tinted glasses. To secure education against this risk, we can devise programmes of study that would include critical studies of broad economic, cultural, political, technological and other trends that define the present moment and then entrust the judgement of specific events to the students' liberal instincts.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002
*Published in The Tribune, Sunday, April 28, 2002, Chandigarh, India