Sunday, February 5, 2023

Transforming Higher Education

The UGC guidelines are meant to transform colleges into multidisciplinary universities or degree-awarding autonomous institutions by 2035. This is vital if India is to become a knowledge society

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By Shivanand Pandit

Six months after it released the draft strategies for transforming higher educational institutions (HEIs) and making them multidisciplinary, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is ready to finalise those strategies.

The guidelines assert that as per the suggestions of the National Education Policy (NEP), all HEIs will be classified into three classes. These are Teaching-intensive Universities, Research-intensive Universities and Degree-awarding Autonomous Universities. As per the guidelines, all HEIs will have to become multidisciplinary universities or degree-awarding independent institutions by 2035 and the multidisciplinary teaching and research universities will have over 3,000 students.

Previously, the chairman of UGC, M Jagadesh Kumar, had mentioned that all affiliated self-governing colleges in India must turn into independent degree-awarding institutes. To make this viable, the Draft Guidelines for Transformation of HEIs declare that the affiliated colleges should accomplish the degree-awarding position by passing through diverse stages of independence or by finishing the procedures required for this. It also mentions that when a HEI becomes an element college of a large university, it may collaborate with other similar colleges of the university or open up new departments to achieve the position of a multidisciplinary HEI.

The guidelines also cite that mobility of credits between institutions is one of the characteristics of a multidisciplinary institute. It suggests the Academic Bank of Credit (ABC) for students to open academic accounts and to get on board of qualified HEIs. All HEIs will have to register in the ABC to facilitate this. Starting online education is also a key attribute of a HEI and it recommends that the Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM) portal of the Ministry of Education can assist universities to provide a group of online courses via the UGC’s credit outline for SWAYAM.

It said that in the light of NEP 2020, it is vital to take advantage of the nearness of HEIs in offering multidisciplinary programmes. The guidelines suggest that institutions collaborate to curate programmes that boost the type of degree and education being offered. For example, the Bachelor of Education programme can be combined with the Bachelor of Arts programme from two different universities to provide the Integrated Teacher Education Programme (ITEP) with a combination of BA and BTech. The guidelines make it mandatory for institutions to consent to the NEP-proposed dual degree programme.

To offset weak admission rates and the absence of means, the guidelines suggest that colleges form a cluster unit to share resources and provide courses and programmes across the spectrum. This cluster unit can then become a single independent unit of degree-awarding colleges. The guidelines indicate that a cluster of government colleges will work under a board of governors whose chairman will be selected by the state government. The tuition fee charged for courses will be as per the respective institution providing it.

Although the objectives of the policy are impressive, the key challenge is to streamline the institutional outline in current universities and shape a new outline for future ones. Today, the question the education sector faces is: Are India’s universities and colleges up to the mission of creating employees for a knowledge society? Whichever prism one gazes from—employability, excellence of research or instruction, the outcomes are underwhelming.

It is disheartening that worldwide, less than 10 Indian institutions are among the top 500 in terms of employability. In addition, many national surveys regularly report an excessively huge number of unemployable graduates. Therefore, it is natural that our HEIs should transform themselves. It will be in line with the demands of the new policy so that their institutional flaws do not stymie the policy. The hitches of inferior instruction and the failure of most of our institutions to offer significant skills are great weaknesses. 

In India, universities are mainly independent when it comes to the selection of teaching bodies. If they are responsible for delivering specific goals, they must have the power to take actions that accomplish that mandate. Then again, HEIs in India are mostly state-funded, unlike in several advanced countries. Therefore, they suffer in terms of resources when they hire bad quality teachers or when the teachers do not improve their skills and proficiencies. 

Governing organisations such as the UGC have announced grading techniques, academic performance indicators, made monetary funding dependent on grades gained and initiated faculty supervising and career development plans. However, there is no method of stopping non-performers in universities from free-riding on the labours of performing teammates.

Hence, the style of selection of faculties in universities has to be re-inspected and procedures formulated so that the best are selected. They must absorb and engage that unit of specialists who possess the latest know-how. Only HEIs that adapt to creative changes and change into nimble and latest educational services providers will survive. Otherwise, they will find it more and more difficult to demand government funds. Financing associations will gradually introduce performance-centered financing and this may swing to the students rather than the institutions.

The UGC’s recent proposal of permitting educational institutions to appoint professionals as Professors of Practice is a welcome move. The UGC also recommended capacity-building for teachers so that they can teach, train, and research in multi-disciplinary academic programmes such as through initiatives like the Annual Refresher Programme in Teaching and investment in learning assessment tools. It has also insisted on setting up Education Departments in universities and colleges. These will teach curriculum design, pedagogy, communication and writing to prospective teachers.

Incentives and disincentives for faculty functioning may be left to the universities. The present system where universities have the independence to select, but no obligatory duty to deliver is not helping India’s pursuit to a knowledge economy. If students are to be accommodated in a global system, there has to be an emphasis on teaching them to think and question and to relate it to the aspirations that they demand from a system of education.

A crucial question that we need to ask is whether education will assist in creating secular democracy, along with its components of human rights and social justice? Will education help bring about the society we are waiting for? Given India’s demographic, with the population tilted proportionately towards the young, higher education is deeply linked with people’s aspirations and desires. The level of higher education is often a marker of social status and its role in a highly stratified society cannot be underestimated. 

—The writer is a financial and tax specialist, author and public speaker based in Margao, Goa

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