Universities without boundaries

Written by Uma Ganesh | Updated: Jul 22 2013, 10:01am hrs
The concern for increasing the enrolment rates in higher education in India has been gaining attention for a while now. Indias current GNER in higher education (gross enrolment ratio) stands at 18.1% with 82% of the students in the 18-23 years age group not having access to higher education. The country which boasts of demographic dividend has a long way to go before it catches up with the developed countries like the USA where the ratio stands at over 80%, in the UK at 54% and Japan at 49%. There is also a vast disparity in the GNER of urban population (20%) and rural population (6%) in India. The Planning Commission of India is targeting to take the GNER to 30% in the next seven years with 10 million students to have access to higher education including 1 million in open and distance learning.

In order to achieve this ratio, a multi-pronged approach to enrolment in higher education is being pursued. The recently announced National Vocational Qualifications Educational Framework (NVQEF) is yet another positive step in this direction which would facilitate the vocational and formal education system to get integrated and through this process support the need for industry centric capabilities to evolve over a period of time. Some of the other measures include permitting the current institutions to double their enrolments with the current infrastructure, permitting private universities to come up and providing autonomous and deemed university status to well established institutions.

The last decade has seen a significant rise in the number of private universities as well as the institutions being granted autonomous or deemed university status. Out of the 620 universities, around 150 are private universities and 130 institutions have received the status of deemed to be universities. However not only are these measures inadequate to meet the GNER target but the further scaling of GNER would also not gain momentum unless the associated issues around the expansion process are addressed. The key issues include, the huge investment required for setting up the universities, the quantity and quality of faculty and other resources required to deliver education, the overall cost of education and the affordability factor, making education content relevant to the industry and keeping it contemporary to societal needs and the focus on developing the young minds to become responsible citizens of the country.

Therefore, along with the need to set up more universities, it is also important to think about addressing some of the key issues highlighted above with some key policy changes that may be necessary in the Indian context. The typical norms specified for universities include the minimum physical space and infrastructure that is required for them to function. The functioning of Universities are normally restricted to the territorial jurisdiction mandated by the licence. Further, universities are permitted to offer distance learning programmes only after a minimum of five years of their existence. The policy for offering technology led programs under distance learning programmes is still fuzzy and most institutions are yet to incorporate these programmes in their portfolio of offerings.

In the context of the need to increase the enrolments in higher education and provide easy access to contemporary programmes with industry relevance and enable larger number of students from remote locations to benefit, it would be imperative to take a relook at the current policies around some of the issues highlighted. The universities of tomorrow would have to be conceived very differently from the universities created in the past because of the role technology would play. We need a fundamental rethink on the concept of education programmes and how they would be designed and delivered.

We now have the advantage of building a new paradigm in educationanytime, anyplace, anywhere and this opens up exciting opportunities to tap into the best of expertise from anywhere in the world to be customised and made accessible to the learners. The collaborative power of communities are creating new knowledge which cut across boundaries of geography and fraternities. The speed, the ease and the cost at which it is possible to acquire new learning is opening up new avenues for educators and the learners. Take the case of Courseera which is a great example of breaking the geographic barriers and the restrictions of faculty to a specific university and has opened up amazing avenues for people around the world to acquire knowledge based on their interests.

Probably for the first time in the history of mankind, the time lag for assimilation of knowledge created in the research laboratories and the think tanks of universities and their practical use and application in the industry and society is shrinking. Similarly the opportunities are ripe for academic institutions for real time new knowledge creation through blending of the academic knowledge with industry practices.

We have been attempting to transform the brick and mortar educational institutions through technology interventions for a long time but the universities of tomorrow would have to be conceptualised very differently and would have technology in its core. Hence there is an urgent need to review the current policies and approaches to higher education to facilitate institutions of higher education to be nurtured without the constraints of space, infrastructure, geography and the faculty to be bound to specific institutions. Hyper University model being experimented is a good initiative in this direction.

Freeing up institutions from some of these constraints does not mean dilution of quality or compromises in learning standards. We need effective governance and benchmarking processes to ensure the new models are superior to the current models not only in terms of making it possible to increase the enrolment ratio but they have significantly superior and more transparent assessment methods leading to better throughput be it employability, research or innovation. Thus by redefining the format and boundaries of universities, faculty, researchers and students would find themselves creating new identities for themselves as they discover new contours of knowledge.

The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company