Starting with the Vedic period India has had a rich legacy of knowledge creation and dissemination. Our Rishis – acting as Gurus – excelled in knowledge management. They were able to orally transmit knowledge enshrined in our Vedas from generation to generation, spread over two millennia, and still retain its fidelity. They prepared students for life. Indian education suffered a setback during the second millennium due to invasions from the North West and subsequent colonial rule. The British established three universities in the country in 1857 and some more were added subsequently.
It was felt in 1938 that the quality of education that was being provided in Indian universities was outdated. Sargent Committee (1944) made recommendations to move away from the examination-centric system to a knowledge-acquisition approach. Improvements in salary and career management of faculty were part of many of its other recommendations. The Committee felt that it would take almost 40 years to successfully implement its recommendations. Its view was that faculty was the lynchpin to bring about meaningful improvements and it takes time and tremendous efforts to usher in a change in their teaching methodology, domain knowledge and communication skills. Indian leaders felt that the country cannot wait till 1984 to achieve its objectives. Subsequent events proved that Sargent Committee was right in its assessment.
Radhakrishnan Committee in its report (1949) recommended incorporation of some very relevant changes in higher education system. It emphasised adoption of a system akin to liberal education and to attract the best talent in the country to join as faculty. At that time India had only 17 universities and 496 colleges and implementing these recommendations was manageable, but this was not to be. Similar fate befell the National Education Policy, 1968 and the National Policy on Education, 1986. Some structural changes in the system did take place but not much was done to build capacity of faculty to adopt liberal education. National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP-2020) has again highlighted that liberal education delivered by competent faculty is the key to future of higher education in the country.
Liberal education empowers the students and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change in a globalised environment that is dominated by ambiguity and fast changing technological advancements. Experiential learning, inculcating problem solving and critical thinking skills form the essential features of pedagogy to help prepare students for life. In addition, students are expected to imbibe transferable skills, social responsibility and a strong sense of ethics and values. Thus, liberal education inculcates maturity, ability to succeed on one’s own, developing tangible professional skills and respect for different cultures. Faculty plays a critical role in such an environment and acts as provider of wisdom and learning.
Regrettably, teaching is not a preferred choice for academically well-endowed students in India. Even higher education institutions (HEIs), instead of bestowing the status of Guru on faculty and treating it as an asset in the process of nation building, merely consider them as employees. The faculty is still rooted in a teaching methodology of 1940s. Concepts related to their own professional development through self-learning and knowledge enhancement are conspicuous by their absence. Efforts of regulatory bodies to improve the quality of faculty through measures linked to HR policies have been counterproductive. There are almost 14.5 lakh faculty members in Indian HEIs and bringing about a change poses a major challenge. Moreover, there is a need to improve standards of teaching-learning in institutions categorised as teaching universities and autonomous colleges by NEP-2020, where more than 95% of Indian students study.
Considering the intellectual aspirations of Generation-Z the faculty needs to master the art of teaching through creative classrooms. That implies inculcating abilities in students to use imagination, critical thinking techniques, and to create new and meaningful forms of ideas where they can be independent and flexible. Instead of being able to reiterate what has been taught, an ability has to be developed in them to find more than one solution to a problem, analyse those and evaluate different options. Students have to be encouraged to come out with out-of-the-box solutions thereby fostering divergent thinking in them. Faculty members would have to draw upon their ingenuity and that demands serious efforts toward their capacity-building.
A deliberate, well thought out, pragmatic and sustained campaign needs to be launched to build intellectual capacity of the faculty. It requires concerted efforts through committed trainers and mentor professors who possess a missionary zeal and passion to bring about a change. Rethinking established practices, innovations to provide for underserved population and improving educational outcomes is the need of the hour. Effective use of technology and learning management systems, flipped classrooms, introducing gamification techniques, using social media as a catalyst, incorporation of simulators and computer-based testing could greatly help. So far in the national discourse on NEP-2020 this aspect has not yet received its due. Since faculty is the most critical change-agent a mission-mode priority agenda is needed if India is really serious about reaping its demographic dividend.
Brig (Dr) R S Grewal, VSM
(Author of book ‘Envisioning Indian Higher Education)