University Culture in India needs to raise its Game

20 Aug

There is an energy to university towns that gets dissipated in other urban centres. This was the challenge that exercised institution builders in India in the early 60s when they set up the IIMs and others outside city centres. The city grew around them, as cities do, crawling through its fringes. This is when the commerce of the city has a chance to dominate or the learning of the University can take over the town.

University towns like Oxford, and more so Cambridge in the UK, and Boston (where I am sitting as I type this, in the grand entrance hall of MIT) have been able to generate enough momentum to build entire businesses around them. No, I am not speaking of the grocers and the washing industries that large groups of students and professors will sustain, important though that is in the smaller scheme of things. Grand university towns become grand because of the innovation and industry that they foster.

This is the task ahead for Indian universities and currently this seems to be a distant goal. The habit of accountability exists in most institutions but often regresses to accountability to regulations not goals. Professors and students do things because it is required by regulation – they respond to assessments and to inspections. The processes for evaluation of institutions by research and teaching output are already in place, and map to the best in the world. If you speak to senior professors in say Delhi University or the IITs you realise that they place themselves out there at par with the best in the world. Indeed, many of them interact with the best in the world and hold their own via research papers and teaching assignments in universities across the world. Then, do they teach differently in India? Do they have different quality of teaching and learning – or is it the same? Do they have similar resources, students and expectations? Are they enabled and even encouraged to do their best? What are their incentives.

(As I sit here in the hall, sipping my coffee and being cool typing this blog to share my experience here with you, the next table has a conversation between a businessman and a professor, both from different cultures. Even as I try not to listen, we can see ideas becoming product that will solve grand problems. I wonder if I could have this moment in India, and when it will become ordinary and everyday.)

The university culture in India needs to raise its game – and be tasked with more. Finding innovative solutions to the problems of the people is great, but not enough. They need to step up to  gain the respect of business, of the research community and the communities that they serve. The professors in India who seek to grow solutions for their communities have gained enormous respect globally – and they seem to be the ones motivated to do more and better for their students. They bring energy, rigour and process to solutioning and in the process foster a student ecosystem that learns better.

What can universities in India do to enable their professors and researchers to gain this energy and respect? The first step has to be attitude. Hierarchies are limiting and subservience to a ‘senior’ has stymied many economies. It might be the ‘Indian’ way to be respectful of seniors but let us not conflate disrespect with disagreement. It is possible to disagree respectfully  – and this must be taught in schools too – Curiosity and exploration come via many ‘yes-but-is-this-also-possible’ discussions with ones seniors.

The second has to be ambition. Professors and researchers must be allowed to fly free to deliver on their outcomes. In fact, even pressured to deliver more and better than they have ever done before. To have a tenured job is good, but a paucity of ambition is a disease that needs to be cured. Ambition and expectations need to be raised – and this will have to be done at a systemic level. Create opportunities, platforms, showcases for researchers to grandstand. This grandstanding brings transparency to the system – and if they are not at par with the best in their world the need to upgrade will be exposed.

Thirdly, universities need to enable incentive systems for innovators and inventors allowing them to collaborate with businesses. It is pragmatic and honest to acknowledge that when ideas make money, more professors will be encouraged to grow ideas. If designed well, student engagement in building ideas is also fostered – and this in turn enables an ecosystem where students learn to grow. It has been proved many times over that more and relevant research by professors results in a better classroom learning experience for students. University lecturers and professors need to go beyond the security of their textbooks and notes and engage with the real world – and the test of that could very well be the solutions they foster.

The cocoon of the university enables risk taking – that is it’s purpose. The cocoon is a place of immense growth and transformation. If a worm does not emerge a butterfly, it is dead. The security of the university – permanent jobs, stable terms of employment etc. are there to enable risk taking with ideas that grow the nation – else why would the nation invest in its researchers. Much has been done so far, and Indian research is growing steadily. For a nation of India’s size and and aspiration it needs much more. India’s strength so far has been its hunger, its greed to succeed. It’s research needs to demonstrate the same.

University culture in India needs to raise its game

May 27, 2015, 12:22 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: