What ails the higher education sector in India? Reams have been written by scholars on this vexed issue, and now a hard-hitting work on the contentious topic is creating ripples in academic circles. “Building Universities that Matter: Where are Indian Institutions Going Wrong?” published by Orient Blackswan is not only scathing indictment of the current state of affairs, but also a self-help guide that could help steer the higher education sector out of the morass of mediocrity or worse. The author, Pankaj Chandra, is the vice-chancellor of Ahmedabad University and a seasoned academic who has studied and taught at some of the best institutions both in India and abroad. In a candid, no-holds-barred interview with FE’s Jyotsna Bhatnagar, Chandra talks about the urgent need for reforms. Excerpts:

What was the motivation behind writing a book on the ills plaguing the education sector at this juncture?

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen our universities crumble. Many of our best institutions have become a pale shadow of their pasts. As a member of the Yashpal Committee, I saw academically crippled institutions, decayed campuses, unenlightened management, heard stories of corruption, and saw how we created graduates with deficits. I saw up-close how the regulatory system was grounding institutional innovation.
Many questions were fomenting in my mind. Why are our institutions not as inspiring as those elsewhere? Why are conversations at our institutions not enriching? Why did our universities get distracted from student learning and the dharma of rigorous enquiry through research? It bothered me that we, at universities, were short-changing our students when it came to learning.

What differentiates this book from other studies on this critical subject is that it makes a departure from mere data-centric analysis and interpretations. Why did you choose this unconventional narrative?

We have seen from close quarters how poor governance was holding back institutions and destroying them. I wanted to explore the processes impacting governance of our university organisations and how internal and external structures and practices were impacting the way universities were behaving. I come from the world of management and that became my vantage point.
If you look at university as an organization, it has not transformed, while the environment around it has changed. An enquiry into management of organisations required both strategic and problem-solving orientation. First-hand experiences of several people were needed to shape the book. I’ve had the good fortune of understanding educational philosophy and history of higher education from those who lived it for 30-40 years at our academic institutions. This gave me a deeper look into why university organisations behaved the way they did. Now, I think I can generate better hypotheses and test with data.

What worries you the most about higher education in India?

India, on one hand, is blessed with people with unusual potential. A large number of academics, on the other hand, underachieve their potential. This prospect, in a competitive market, discourages the best from becoming academics. We should be worried we are becoming a society where the best are being trained by the not-so-good. What happens in a classroom will decide if our society will be able to address the challenges we might face. Institutions are largely about the quality of their conversations and this seems to have been seriously impaired. Academic institutions are supposed to be safe places to dream of a new world, to experiment and fail without penalty, and to argue one’s ideas. This space has shrunk dramatically.

What is the take away that you bring on the subject of reforms in higher education?

There are no halfway houses. You either want to influence the world through the thinking of your students and the faculty, or you don’t. There are four issues we need to be clear about – what role is a university going to play in the society – there is no such thing as incremental or part autonomy – you either have it or you don’t; the well-being of a society is defined by the quality of its people; and last, that it costs resources to educate a nation and to use its intellectual energy to transform the society.

Your book deals extensively with governance and regulatory issues in higher education. Why did you foray into these?

Governance of institutions impacts its learning environment. That is under siege. The dark world of regulators believes that academics cannot be trusted with governance of their institution. So, they must decide who leads and how institutions are to be managed. That standardization was the only way to govern all the institutions. This heavy-handed control has destroyed managerial capabilities of institutions and its motivation.
This militated strongly with my own sense of universities as self-governning and self-correcting entities where differentiation and not standardization was the strategic model for academic institutions. Regulators are not enabling universities to achieve their best. There are many things that institutional heads can do to manage their learning ambience, but either their actions are prescribed by regulation or they do not have the courage to bring change.

With huge growth of private universities, this is an exciting time to be in education sector. But many view these developments with anxiety, fearing the invasion of vested interests in the education space, converting it into profit-making business…

Education is a non-profit activity and the society invests in it as it enhances its future. After a long time, you see several new private institutions being established that are working to become serious academic centres. My own institution, Ahmedabad University, is an example of how to bring together exemplary governance, philanthropy and quality aspiration to build an institution that matters. The government would be wise to use these institutions to experiment with new forms of governance and change in education, and then use them as exemplars to transform public institutions. India needs at least 100 high quality research universities and they will come from both the private and public.

Given that most of our so-called educated youth have been found to be woefully under-prepared for the workforce, what do you feel happens in a typical classroom of a higher education institute and what do you feel happens in a typical classroom of a higher education institute and what do you envisage as the ideal classroom?

Unfortunately, most of our institutions and their practices, people and campuses are not inspiring. We teach for exams and not for learning. The government’s approach of standardization of everything in our universities has been singularly responsible for the destruction of the classroom. It drives the best away from becoming teachers, brings in the most inappropriate as acadmic leaders, and makes the classroom a mechanical gearbox. Classroom is about openness, questioning, about reflection and learning together – it’s also about divergent thinking and experimentation. The sarkarikaran of higher education prevents our kids from jumping higher than what they believe they can do.

Regulators are not enabling universities to achieve their best. Institutional heads can do several things to manage their learning ambience better, but either their actions are prescribed by regulation or they do not have the courage

A version of this article was published in The Financial Express on 11 December 2017.
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