Redefining higher education: Coming to terms with Education 4.0

The future would demand teachers to play a significantly different role of a “facilitator” in all walks of a student’s life as opposed to a mere source of transfer of knowledge.\

Educationists and institutes of higher education have been looking at ways of factoring the impact of globalization and revolutions in information technology. The major technological and behavioural transformations have significantly influenced the teaching-learning process. Today, a major debate is going on in the developed and developing world on how higher education is going to come to terms with Education 4.0 in the era of the beginnings of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Information Technology has peaked into the digital era with stakeholders in India deeply pondering on how the digital era and artificial intelligence are going to leave their mark on both teachers and students across campuses and cutting across all disciplines.

Education in India, down the centuries, has been an integral part of one’s life where success or failure have always been pegged to how a person has fared academically both in school or college. The omnipresence of education has been such that it was difficult to dream of moving up the ladder without a reasonable success in education at all levels. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in our country is currently at around 26 per cent and is estimated to grow rapidly to about 50 per cent in the next decade or so. To support and sustain high growth rate and an enhanced GER, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) more than a decade ago had estimated that around 1500 Universities in this country would be a reality, from the less than 400 Universities at that time. Today we have reached to more than 900 Universities which is on an expected trajectory of growth but unfortunately quality has taken a beating in the process. The spurt in the higher education space is not only confined to the formal education sector but would be equally fuelled by the non-formal, continuing and in-service education that would see higher enrollments and more number of new generation and executive courses, for instance.

One of the present characteristics of the higher education system in India is that many institutions are of a stand-alone nature; or rather unitary in nature. The stark fact remains that there are only a few truly multi-disciplinary institutions that are multi-faculty, multi-campus and multi-faceted as well. The advantage of having a “real” institution of higher learning offering broad spectrum of activities along with many disciplines and faculties is that these centers of higher learning have the potential to become front runners not just for teachers and students but also leave an imprint on global rankings. Further, yet another new and unique feature is that of a higher degree of research orientation in all institutions at all levels. In recent years, thanks to rankings and ratings, we have not only understood the importance of undertaking research and its associated quality but also the nuances of carrying it out.

What sets apart institutions of higher education in India is the fashion in which they go about implementing their mission with the vision. The most successful institution makes sure that it has a holistic approach—more of an enabler of life as opposed to putting out a one-time finished product by way of a student getting a job upon graduation. Higher education should facilitate opening up of new vistas of life as the budding professionals forge ahead with time. In future, as against the current practices, equal or higher emphasis would also be given to skills, hands on practices, industrial training, open learning, group evaluation, open book examinations and so on. In other words, faculty and students must be adept with dynamically changing practices with focus on assimilation, dissemination and generation of knowledge in right proportion but in any order. Ideally, institutions should become creators of knowledge; and the future would also demand teachers to play a significantly different role of a “facilitator” in all walks of a student’s life and not just a mere source of transfer of knowledge.

The ultimate aim of the knowledge providers should be to allow budding graduates to build their own desired profile of education or degrees, at their own pace and time, from chosen institutions and with desired course combinations. The problem with higher educational institutions in our country is that there are far too many fixed streams or specializations at the under graduate level itself rather than that of the post graduate level which may eventually prepare a poor academic foundation in the fast changing world. It is to be understood that return on investments (or dividends) are only short term gains for highly specialized approach at under graduate levels. In the Indian context, a few decades back we embarked on an ambitious method of Distance Education which was unfortunately muddled because of poor planning, ineffective control and lack of adequate supportive framework. Today it would seem that there are a few more cousins of distance education trying to do the rounds such as on-line, open, virtual and non-contact education. Although it would seem that they would be hugely beneficial in an age of lifelong learning but unfortunately these are not very sought after due to poor image or respect they have earned over the years. It is felt that it may be beneficial to wipe off the bad branding of these non-formal modes by once again renaming them as “flexible” education and in the process reflecting the more correct and appropriate description which has a truer reflection of its modus operandi.

Talking of or even trying to address the challenges of higher education in our country is easier said than done for the simple reason that for far too long we have not addressed the chronic ailments of this critically important sector. The difficulties associated with large diversity, non-linearity of scale of implementation and one size fit all are huge challenges for any scheme to be successful. Further, it is necessary to understand that taking Indian institutions to the global playing fields is not going to happen unless there is the clear realization that quality has to be nurtured even at the root levels—that is primary, middle and high schools. The rapid mushrooming of universities and colleges, especially the ones offering only single specialization courses has raised the question of whether enough attention has been paid to maintain adequate educational bandwidth and quality. There is also an impression that institutions are habitually getting away by distorting facts or just about following the culture of “minimum” standards only as stipulated by different statutory councils. With such and many other challenges, undoubtedly, teachers and the teaching profession earns the ire of everyone which affects their esteem adversely.

It is not as if a sense of despair is setting in but the fact remains that we have to reverse the current scenario to set new trends or be more innovative. Previously known as a knowledge powerhouse in the world, Indian higher educational institutions would have to be once again a leader than a mere follower. The key search question that will have to be answered is if institutions are providing the “relevant” and timely education that is the need of the knowledge century. A better systematic approach to answer this question will prepare our students to face any challenge or use every opportunity that comes along. Finally, in spite of several challenges, we have reasons to believe that India has a strong potential to be a world leader again. Infinite are the limits in the higher education space and we should realize its potential to full. Therefore let us not confine to borrowed models but re-define ourselves!

(The author is the Vice Chancellor, SRM Institute of Science and Technology and President, Association of Indian Universities. Views are personal.)

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Source-Financial Express

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