Indian academic institutions are hurtling towards the deep end of irrelevance. On the one hand, India faces new challenges that range from corruption in its political economy and pressure on public resources to a future of work that requires new competencies and newer models of employment. On the other, universities in India continue with business as usual – credentialing through rote learning and standardized examinations, uninspiring classrooms with extremely low engagement, and a student experience that is violent and intolerant both on the body and the mind. The tragedy of our country is that there are exceptions and they, rather than being used as exemplars for larger change, are progressively swatted to the norm by regulatory agencies.

The university leadership is a reward rather than a clarion call for building a bold new world and most rest in its celebration

Take a student who comes to a university – desirous of new learning and wanting to change the world. Most are trying to figure out how to navigate the changing environment around them. Of course, there are those too who have been sent to mark time until others decide what is to become of them. The faculty too begin with phenomenal earnest but lose steam to build institutions that matter sooner than their students. Many, there as well, have come to the institutions without the necessary preparation in the methods of their discipline or pedagogy or a perspective to grow questioning minds. The university leadership is a reward rather than a clarion call for building a bold new world and most rest in its celebration. The bureaucracy seldom understands the nuances of managing institutions and how to get the most out of it. The society rarely cares about institutions once its own children have graduated. So, how do we heal this hurt of generations?

Universities are meant to be open, questioning, trusting, experimenting, inspirational, direction setting, and enabling people to believe that nothing is impossible. They are also universes of learning. They are safe places to try out new ideas, for diverse thinking, and for unpopular conversations that are based out of deep thinking, research, new theoretical constructs, and data. They make our understanding of the society more contemporary and solve its more knotty problems. They help us synthesize perspectives while they conduct deep enquiry. Universities are always places of the future – future is shaped in its crucibles, classrooms and conversations. Education is the basis of the social and economic change in any country. India has yet to fully absorb the value of this proposition. Academic organizations are difficult to manage as security of the job and low accountability when combined with low expectation and poor resources creates a destructive admixture of powerful mediocrity that burns to ashes the possibilities at the university. Changes in three areas would be needed to restore to our institutions the above privileges and characteristics.

The most crucial change is required in the governance of our institutions. The fundamental question is around who makes choices concerning the institutions. Regulations and regulators that control create rigidity and uncertainty in institutions and makes them incapable of renewing from within – the only sustainable way for change. Governments and their bureaucracies will have to free up institutions to allow them to make their own choices on who they admit, how they admit, what comprises education, details of a degree, and how institutions are run from within. Once institutions commit to outcomes, all decisions regarding their management have to be made by the university with no constraints from any external body. Today, government agencies constrain the inputs and pre-define the processes at the university and thereby also define the outcomes by default. This processes has to be reversed.They should only demand transparency and define outcomes. The second change that is required is to build the ability of institutions to attract a very different kind of faculty – one that has the preparation of deep scholarship, is entrepreneurial, that cares for its students, and one that has traits to build the profession. Indian higher education will not survive if it does not become a congregation of the meritorious. The day we have a hundred mechanical engineering professors who have the desire and capabilities to find a new substitute for the internal combustion engine, Indian higher education would be ready to lead the country’s development. The best of students will have to be attracted back to become academics before our institutions can transit to a higher performance levels. And last, the regulator will have to understand that excellence is about culture. Hence, all policies will have to be designed to allow each individual institution to conduct its own transformational processes uniquely. Only such a change making strategy, long drawn as it may be, is sustainable and likely to create thousands of quality institutions out of India.

It would serve the country well as we redesign our educational systems if we think of the face and aspirations of the seventeen year old entering the university for the first time and a forty five year old who is going to increasingly seek to retool themselves with new skills as their world of work gets disrupted dramatically. This will require universities to become immensely flexible. It has another benefit. It will produce graduates for whom the world of possibilities will be unconstrained and innovation will flow for benefit of all.

A version of this article was published in Hindustan Times on 18 September 2017.
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