A call for a Diverse Ecosystem in Higher Education

10 Nov

Universities are not Sausage Factories

 

Higher educational institutes have to serve various diverse interests. These organisations cannot, therefore, adopt just one approach to learning

The focus has moved from lofty ivory towers to pragmatic jobs and skills. While universities are still tasked with research and glory for the future, their role to train their students for jobs has been made very clear all over the world. While universities try to retain their past freedoms, neither their Governments, nor their students will be able to bear that burden for the next few years, maybe decades. Universities will now have to be accountable for their results in more ways than one.

The quest for world class universities has at least led to a global vision for what a great university can deliver to its students and its professors. Some universities look outwards and seek to learn from the greatest in the world. Others try to be rated amongst the best in the world. University League tables are berated by many, yet perform a useful guiding function for many. For example, most global ratings give a high weightage to internationalisation via students, collaboration and citations. Those who have sought to climb the league ladder rapidly have invested in their international programs. Few Indian universities have aimed at being rated highly on the scales of the world, and it is a sad fact that no Indian university features in the top ranks of the world league tables.

One wonders if many Indian universities have a clear goal at all — some have a very clear ethos and they try to remain true to that. Even if it is more traditional than aspirational, even if it maps historical achievements rather than future growth, some universities achieve consistency. Others are led by local movements or are buffeted by political trends and often lose sight of their goals.
The emphasis in policy for the next five years is clearly going to be on the quality of education delivered, though it is impossible to have consensus on the key question: What is quality? Yes, it certainly includes elements of teaching, learning, research, consulting, advising and thought leadership. Another way of looking at quality is to see what the stake-holders seek — students, professors, administrators, proctors, vice chancellors etc all seek to give and receive different things from the university.

The people who really care for quality are the employers who seek to recruit from amongst graduates of an institution. They pay a salary based on the validity of that promise, and if the university does not deliver to it, then the students prospects suffer — if not as an investment into their future, students should care about quality too. There is a dichotomy here: Universities speak to potential, employers to tasks. Universities invest in the future, employers seek present results. Universities are supposed to seek to grow students for the future, employers seek proof of competence. Universities are tools of social engineering for equity, employers are creators of value.

As are the goals of students and academics. Students seek understanding, skills and confidence, while pure academics are in it for enhancing the body of knowledge via their personal contributions. Students seek marks, academics seek citations. Divergent goals.
While the alumni do not play a key role in Indian universities, they have a greater stake than any other because the value of their degree depends upon the reputation of their university and college. They probably have the greatest interest in the quality of education at their university but the least investment in the improvement of said quality.

In a marketplace each of these would have a price and we could try to see if a fair market mechanism would balance their interests out. But here the interests of all would have been balanced and prioritised by the vice chancellor — if the highly regulated system allowed for it. The lack of autonomy at many universities clearly hampers their growth and ability to serve its many constituents. At the same time, autonomy can only be given to self regulating mechanisms and very few universities have given evidence of that.

We work towards what is measured, and we measure to our goals. Our universities need to move beyond being average sausage factories to figure out where they are headed, and what standards they should be measured against. Divergent interests need to be served and it is only self-delusional to believe that each university can serve them all given current resources and regulations.

 

This was published in the Daily Pioneer on October 18, 2012 and is linked here, and http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/52661-universities-are-not-sausage-factories.html

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