Equal and excellent | The Financial Express

Equal and excellent

Human capital fuels 21st-century prosperity. Five powerful reforms by UGC accelerate the reboot of higher education

Equal and excellent
But five recent reforms by UGC—an institution not traditionally associated with change—are accelerating the reboot of higher education and delightfully operationalising the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP).

By Manish Sabharwal & Shantanu Rooj

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In 1903, Gopal Krishna Gokhale opposed The Indian Universities Bill because “It makes Universities virtually a Department of the State. This increase of control directly by means of acceptance of endowments and professor appointments and indirectly by the in-senate reconstruction. The Government has virtually absorbed all real power”. Unfortunately, Gokhale’s angst against colonial micromanagement of higher education was not addressed in the prescriptions of the 1948 Radhakrishnan report, 1968 Kothari Committee, or 1986 National Policy on Education. But five recent reforms by UGC—an institution not traditionally associated with change—are accelerating the reboot of higher education and delightfully operationalising the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP).

Enabling the global reconciliation of cost, quality, and quantity in higher education requires shifting from viewing it as a technical problem (rules, players, and goals stay the same) to looking at it as a wicked problem (rules, players, and goals keep changing). Wicked problems aren’t solved by more cooks in the kitchen but by a different recipe. Universities must raise national gross enrollment ratios, pay faculty well, keep fees reasonable, become wells of research, fulfil individual aspirations for social and employability signalling value, and provide democracies with capable citizens. In the 1960s, then US education secretary John Gardner framed this difficult task of reconciling contradictory objectives as, “Can we be equal and excellent?”

NEP frames an inspiring vision of integrated development of intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional, and ethical facets of our youth by establishing large multi-disciplinary higher education institutions (HEIs) in every Indian district. It aims to extend classroom education through flexible and blended learning new pathways, including online delivery. NEP recognises that the regulations for “affiliating” colleges have remained unchanged for decades and have stunted size, innovation, and research. It recognises that multi-disciplinary research enables the synthesis of new knowledge and increases the production of original work and patents. It aims to build a higher education ecosystem that is holistic, multi-disciplinary, globally competitive, large, innovative, and inclusive. UGC has begun implementation with five recent reforms. Let us look at each in more detail.

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Multi-disciplinary institutions
UGC’s recent guidelines on pathways recognise that too many HEIs are either single-stream institutions or multi-disciplinary institutions with rigid disciplinary boundaries. The new guidelines propose to end this fragmentation by detailing the roadmap for the 2035 NEP deadline of morphing all affiliated colleges into large, independent, multi-disciplinary, and autonomous institutions or becoming clusters through collaboration with nearby institutions—and thereon, becoming a large multi-disciplinary HEI. The fast-tracking of the Academic Bank of Credit will help learners store credentials earned from multiple institutions.

Online education
The proposed amendments to the existing online regulations allow universities to offer new-age online programmes, collaborate with industry to keep their programmes relevant, permit partnerships with technology service providers and make degree equivalence agnostic to delivery mode (conventional, distance, and online). These amendments remove barriers that choked innovation, raised costs, and prevented the massification of online education that will raise GER. These guidelines also align with the new world of work which needs a learning path that is always on, on the go, online, on-site, modular, multi-modal, multilateral, and gamified.

Professors of practice
UGC’s recent guidelines allow seasoned industry professionals, with more than 15 years of experience, to be appointed as professors of practice. These professionals—civil servants, engineers, lawyers, artists, etc—will use their experience to ensure that university teaching is aligned to employer needs. Earlier provisions that only used academic or research filters blocked diversity of experience, narrowed the labour market pool, and bred a disconnect with the world of work. These guidelines will also help pursue NEP’s objective of inculcating 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork.

Degree apprenticeship
The higher education regulator’s recent guidelines on Apprenticeship Embedded Degree Programs align higher education with the industry by embedding internships and apprenticeship into structured degree programs. These new modular programmes will create skills (learning by doing), bring financing (earning stipends while learning), and improve job readiness (real-world experience) for the learners. The programmes will have an innovative assessment pattern where due credit is given to academics and on-job learning (minimum 20%).

Examination reforms
The reforms on evaluation envisage making learning outcome-based, continuous and formative assessments, the use of new-age evaluation methods to test cognitive abilities such as logical and critical thinking, application of knowledge, problem-solving and analysis, and measurement of competency improvement against predefined metrics. Open book exams uphold learning over rote knowledge, and, finally, the use of technology will provide flexibility with on-demand exams and a higher-order data analysis.

Universities globally produced more graduates in the last 40 years than the 800 years preceding this period, when the first university was set up in Italy. This glut means that college graduates make up 60% of taxi drivers in Korea, 60% of Walmart checkout clerks in the US, and 15% of higher-end security guards in India. But the wage premium and social signalling value of good college degrees continue. UGC is ahead of the curve by calling out the difference between research- and teaching-intensive universities. We also suggest carving out a separate regime for skill universities; this will not only be a global first but will also operationalise the NEP philosophy of removing barriers between education and employability.

In 1915, when Gokhale convinced Gandhiji to return to India, he asked him to “Make India proud of herself again”. We are proud of creating the world’s largest democracy on the infertile soil of the world’s most hierarchical society. But we didn’t create the world’s largest economy, because of an economic policy regime that handicapped labour without capital and capital without labour, and a human capital policy regime that neglected school education, ignored vocational education, and suffocated higher education. These five changes create momentum for our universities to make India equal and excellent.

Authors are with TeamLease Services and TeamLease EdTech, respectively

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