Multidisciplinary HEIs Under NEP: Dinesh D Harsolekar


The Challenges
The National Education Policy 2020 strongly recommends converting all higher education institutions into multidisciplinary ones. The policy document says that this is the main thrust of NEP and will radically change our higher education system. The policy states that single-stream HEIs will be phased out over time, and all will move towards becoming vibrant multidisciplinary institutions or parts of multidisciplinary HEI clusters to enable and encourage high-quality multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary teaching and research across fields. Single-stream HEIs will, in particular, add departments across different areas that would strengthen the single stream that they currently serve.

NEP says that by 2040, all higher education institutions (HEIs) shall aim to become multidisciplinary institutions and have larger student enrolments, preferably in the thousands, for optimal use of infrastructure and resources and to create vibrant multidisciplinary communities. Since this process will take time, all HEIs will plan to become multidisciplinary by 2030 and gradually increase student strength to the desired levels.

The policy document mentions many examples from the ancient Indian education system and gives strong arguments favoring multidisciplinary institutions.

All the reasons given by NEP are indeed valid. In modern society and the world, which is constantly becoming competitive, our students cannot afford to keep the horizons of their knowledge restricted to just one field. They should be conversant with different branches of knowledge and familiar with multiple skills. Apart from technical skills, they should also have human and social skills. NEP is also right in observing that the large institutions will benefit from the economy of scale as they can make the optimum use of the resources.

Although the intention is brilliant and praiseworthy, the road to reaching the target is full of hurdles. Secondly, an important question arises. Is it necessary to convert all the institutions into multidisciplinary institutions?

If we look at our present system, we have some specialized universities like technical universities, agriculture universities, and health sciences universities. Barring these exceptions, all our universities are multidisciplinary, whether they are state universities, deemed to be universities, or private universities. But the million-dollar question is, are students getting multidisciplinary education in these universities? In most cases, the answer will be negative.

Therefore, the challenge is not to convert existing universities into multidisciplinary institutions or create new ones. The bigger challenge is to enable our institutions to offer multidisciplinary programs. Why are our universities not able to offer interdisciplinary programs to students? The simple answer is inadequate resources and a rigid curriculum structure. Although NEP strongly suggests flexibility in the curriculum, enabling students to use this flexibility will require sufficient resources.

Many years back, we introduced the choice-based credit system in our universities. But, most universities could not implement it in its true spirit. We can’t claim that we have implemented CBCS because we give students letter grades, grade points, and credits instead of marks. There is much more to a real CBCS. The reason for not being entirely successful in implementing CBCS is the same, i.e., inadequate resources and a rigid curriculum structure.  

Even after so many years, we could not successfully implement the small reform of CBCS. Therefore, converting all our institutions into multidisciplinary institutions or making all the institutions parts of multidisciplinary clusters in the next eight years (2030), as proposed by NEP, will be a daunting task. It would be prudent to plan what is needed and achievable.    

In the last 75 years, we forced students to learn what we wanted to teach them. Now we want to push the institutions to teach what the regulators want. We must change our mindset to give up our fascination with the words – control, compulsory, mandatory, rules, etc. We must understand that the quality of education can improve only through creativity and innovations. And excessive standardization kills creativity.

Under some broad guidelines issued by the regulators, we should allow all the institutions to operate according to their resources and vision. However, we must create an environment that encourages institutions to come forward to offer multidisciplinary programs. It should happen gradually through encouragement and incentivization, not through compulsion.

If we look at our HEIs, we will see that the institutions which have proven themselves and are known as the premier institutions are specialized or single-stream institutions, IITs, NITs, IIMs, and IISc. They figure in the world ranking of institutions, and their ranks are improving every year. Then why disturb them?

Speaking of IIMs, management education is inherently multidisciplinary. A good MBA curriculum encompasses courses of varied nature and equips management graduates with multiple skills. The up-gradation of the curriculum should be a permanent phenomenon. But the MBA curriculum does not need a change because it is not multidisciplinary. There may be other reasons.

Some IITs and IIMs have ventured into other disciplines. They did that without regulatory compulsion. That is how it should happen. 

Instead of multidisciplinary institutions, we should speak about multidisciplinary programs. With the availability of online courses, all the single-stream institutions can offer multidisciplinary programs. However, the most crucial point is that nothing should be imposed on students. They should be counseled to broaden their learning horizons, and for that, they should get the required facilities and resources. But at the end of the day, they should be allowed to make choices about what they want to learn. 

We must have a great vision and grand plans for the future. But to achieve that, we must first pay attention to solving the grassroots-level problems. Our admissions to HEIs and the academic calendar have gone haywire for the last few years. Most HEIs struggle to generate resources because of our regressive policies. Unless we find permanent solutions to these fundamental issues, our grand plans will give us more pain than pleasure.    

As I said in my article on the implementation of NEP, instead of being over-ambitious, we should relook at some of the recommendations and make a plan to ensure a speedy execution instead of keeping a twenty-year time horizon.

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