By Sanjeev Chopra
‘Exploring Horizons’ by Vice Chancellor Onkar Singh is an exploration on various aspects of the ecosystem of education, in general, and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), in particular, in contemporary India. A hard hitting, empirical and frank analysis of the various issues that confront our institutions, as well as the likely prognosis, forms the core of this eclectic collection of forty-two essays published in blogs and various newspapers such as the Times of India, Pioneer, Imphal Free Press and The Rise.co.in. Each of them is an independent seven-to-ten-minute easy read, but also interconnected. The core argument of the book is that while we are very good at ideation – the problem lies in the follow-up and the fine print.
Thus, while in theory it looks fine that faculty should be engaged in research, we should also pause for a moment to see how it affects teaching, especially undergrad teaching? What is the point of having so many doctoral candidates if the quality of their dissertations is so average that scholars have to pay to get their essays published, which in turn is a necessity for getting the PhD cleared. A peer reviewed paper makes sense if it is peer reviewed professionally. But given the spate of UGC approved journals which are not read even by the other contributors to the issue, it is nothing short of an academic scam. He examines all these points in his essay on higher education, which cover many other aspects – including the appointment of VCs and the headline grabbing controversies between the Governors and state governments of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, to name a few.
As one cannot get into the details of each of the 42 essays, let me pick up some themes which are likely to be of greater interest to the general reader. He raises the question about the NEP’s insistence on teaching in the local language at a time when many state governments including Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, NCT of Delhi and the Atal schools of Uttarakhand have over the years introduced the teaching of English from the first grade. And, to good effect, for the fact is that English has nearly become the ubiquitous language of higher (and if one may add – even technical education). English also acts as a bridge for communication among students and teachers of diverse geographical locations and socio-cultural backgrounds, irrespective of the difference in their primary languages. One has to accept the fact that, as things stand today, the purpose of education is largely perceived as a passport for survival in society through employment, entrepreneurship, higher education and research. My suggestion here would be to maintain a healthy balance by ensuring that, at school level, while science subjects should be taught in English, social studies subjects may be in any one of the twenty languages of the Eighth Schedule. However, this brings us to the larger issue – when entry into the top engineering, medical, law and central universities is based on the entrance exam, rather than the results of the boards, teachers, parents and school managements tend to focus primarily on the JEE or the CLAT or the CUEET rather than the Board results. Willy-nilly, this has led to the unprecedented growth of the coaching industry which has mushroomed in every nook and corner of the country. Schools and even HEIs exist only to provide the formal requirement of attendance, whereas all the pedagogic inputs are supplied from the coaching centres. In fact, one is told that many coaching centres have now tied up with schools to ease the process of marking attendance for the pupils: the gaming is good in the context of the immediate, but will surely have deleterious effects on the social, cultural as well as physical growth of students in the long run.
Singh asks: How does one end the menace of cheating and gaming in the examinations? His solution lies in reducing the weightage of the final examination, and open book examinations with a focus on Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). However, this will mean that teachers will have to work harder in setting the questions, and also evaluating the answers.
Many state governments have taken some innovative steps for improving the quality of higher education. These include Odisha government’s initiative of centralised recruitment for all appointments in HEIs to ensure greater transparency to reduce the tendency of each university recruiting from its own graduate pool, besides saving the candidate the hassle of filling forms for multiple universities at the same time. On the other hand, there is the problem of the universities losing all control in the selection of their faculty with its attendant negatives. Plus, any centralised recruitment will only lead to yet another set of guide books and coaching institutions who will prepare the candidates to ‘crack’ this as well. Already one sees the number of advertisements for the National Eligibility Test. Perhaps a mix of both – a centralised prelims test, followed by interviews with the concerned HEI with equal weightage to both.
Another thought-provoking essay is about Haryana government’s shift from grant-in-aid to long term soft loans to HEIs for improving their infrastructure and to take up professional courses which can generate revenues, collaborative industry liked research as well as opening the infrastructure for commercial activities. Well, if the experiment works well, it can be the harbinger of a major change in the way public universities are financed, and one is keen to await the outcomes.
In the light of Justice Gavai’s recent obiter-dicta observations regarding children of IAS/IPS officers from the SC/ST community continuing to get benefits of reservation, the debate on caste-based reservation has stirred the hornet’s nest. In this context, Singh’s take on Justice Chandrachud’s refusal to accept the narrow definition of merit only in terms of success in competitive exams becomes important. However, admission to an elite institution like an IIT is not the ‘be -all’ and ‘end-all’ of social mobility. Institutions must make everyone aware of the socio-economic background of their cohort members.
Finally, this is a book which gives us a good insight into the mind of an academic who has served in several institutions across the country and now leads the Veer Madho Singh Bhandari Uttarakhand Technical University; but more than that, he is a VC who is willing to engage and speak out his mind on issues which require a nuanced approach rather than a yes/no formulation.
(Sanjeev Chopra superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration in 2021 after thirty-six years in the IAS. He is now the Festival Director of Valley of Words (VoW) and a Visiting Professor of History, Public Policy and Knowledge Management at the Swami Rama Himalayan University, Dehradun. He has held the Hubert H Humphrey, Robert S McNamara, Twenty First Century Trust and the Royal Asiatic Society Fellowships)