Making Higher Education Relevant: Opportunities in the Draft New Education Policy of India

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The draft National Education Policy (NEP) of India (featured below) has many important suggestions to make higher education more purposive towards enabling India to achieve its constitutional vision and future aspirations. On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, for Dr Rajesh Tandon, UNESCO Co-Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, the draft NEP must be informed by Gandhi’s vision for higher education in India.


Making Higher Education Relevant: Opportunities in the Draft New Education Policy

July 30, 2019 by Rajesh Tandon. Source: PRIA, Democracy for All
 

The draft National Education Policy (NEP) of India (featured below) has many important suggestions to make higher education more purposive towards enabling India to achieve its constitutional vision and future aspirations. On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, for Dr Rajesh Tandon, UNESCO Co-Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, the draft NEP must be informed by Gandhi’s vision for higher education in India.
 

“A university never needs a pile of majestic buildings and treasures of gold and silver. What it does need most of all is the intelligent backing of public opinion” – Mahatma Gandhi


The draft National Education Policy (NEP) has been made available by the Ministry of Human Resource Development for comments. Media reports the Ministry has already received over 77,000 feedback letters. On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, my reading of the draft National Education Policy (NEP) is informed by his vision.

Gandhi emphasised education of the body, mind, and heart together; for him, end of all education was service to society. The draft NEP recognises this contribution of higher education when it accords a societal public purpose to higher education, beyond mere jobs and careers. “The purpose of quality higher education is, therefore, more than simply the creation of greater opportunities for individual employment; it represents the key to more vibrant, socially engaged, and cooperative communities and a more happy, cohesive, cultured, productive, innovative, and prosperous nation” (p. 202). The draft goes on to analyse various deficits in the current system of higher education in India and then makes several important recommendations.

In light of the broad societal purposes of contributions of higher education to nation-building, it is important to remember Gandhi’s advice. Rooted in our colonial history, development of higher education in India since independence has maintained its distance from the society around it. Curriculum and pedagogy has been largely inward-looking, and research is rarely framed in response to core societal challenges.

The students in higher education institutions then find themselves somewhat cut-off from the society they live in, and lack skills and orientations that make their knowledge relevant. The products of elite institutions (like IITs and IIMs) primarily serve foreign economies and institutions. The ‘ivory tower’ continues in many ways, including the language of teaching. As first-generation students from hitherto excluded communities enter higher education institutions, they feel further alienated from the system of education in these institutions.

The draft NEP has many important recommendations about improving the quality of learning and relevance of research. Yet, it tends to follow the global directions of North American and European models in many of its recommendations.

Just a few months ago, University Grants Commission (UGC) approved a policy on “Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement in Higher Education Institutions”. Its central recommendation is that teaching and research should be linked to societal challenges surrounding higher education institutions.

Over the past decades, several public universities and private higher education institutions have been set up in distant and hitherto excluded regions of the country, with the purpose of bringing the potential of higher education to those developing regions. But, neither teaching nor research focuses on unique challenges of such regions like Dhanbad University in Jharkhand and Bastar University in Chhattisgarh. Do these higher education institutions relate to local society? Do they engage with Indigenous knowledge systems of local tribal and rural communities? Does the teaching of theory in such higher education institutions relate to local concepts and local languages?

In order to provide this dynamic new thrust to higher education institutions, the NEP needs to pay specific attention to critical emerging trends in higher education worldwide, including North America and Europe. First of these trends is increasing demand for making teaching and research locally relevant and appropriate. In this context, students and faculty in several non-European countries are beginning to push for ‘decolonising’ higher education, its theories and methods. Knowledge from the world of practice in our society rarely finds a place in teaching and research in higher education institutions.

Secondly, public engagement in research—from framing research questions to seeking solutions—is now being recognised in most European Union and Canadian research funding agencies. Partnership with local governments, local business, and local community actors can energise teaching and research, in addition to generating public support for higher education institutions, which Gandhi wished long ago.

UNESCO has been promoting a balance in higher education between local societal requirements and global agendas. GUNI’s 6th World Report on Higher Education is appropriately focused on ‘Towards a Socially Responsible University: Balancing the Global and the Local”. It demonstrates that push towards chasing global university rankings tends to reduce local relevance of higher education institutions. Any regular assessment of each higher education institution should be aimed at improving its systems and capacities for more relevant teaching and research. In such assessments, feedback from students, alumni and key societal actors should also be included.

The draft NEP has many important suggestions to make higher education more purposive towards enabling India to achieve its constitutional vision and future aspirations. Yet, greater clarity about relevance to different regions, segments and markets of Indian society needs to be systematically assessed before prescribing a singular remedy for all. Such an assessment can enable closer societal engagement between higher education experts and larger publics in different contexts and regions of the country.

 

Dr Rajesh Tandon
Founder-President, PRIA
UNESCO Co-Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education

Source: PRIA, Democracy for All

 

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