Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Higher Education in Kerala - Bodhigram Seminar

Venue: Bodhigram Center, Thuvayoor South, Pathanamthitta Dt., Kerala
Date: December 20, 2011
Organized by John Samuel

Moderator: Ambassador TP Sreenivasan (TPS), Chairman, Kerala Higher Education Council
Dr. TG Arun, Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, United Kingdom
Prof. CT Aravinda Kumar, School of Environmental Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam
Prof. KM Seethi, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam

Ambassador TPS

TPS started off with the need to re-assess the answers to fundamental questions concerning education, especially "What is the aim of higher education?". He went on to present several points that could/would help shape the agenda/focus of HEC over the next few years.
  • Focus on Employability: TPS stressed the need for focusing on employability. The current agenda of HEC, he said, would emphasize on creating new courses/programmes that would focus on creating a pool of graduates who are well suited for the job market of the world in the next 5 years. He added that this could help fill the void of courses/programmes in many areas which offer good employment opportunities such as printing technology and anthropology.
  • Creating World-class Universities: Quoting the Shanghai rankings in which the first Indian University (IISc) is ranked in the 301-400 bracket and other rankings that rank Indian Universities on a similar quality, he said that there is a visible need for world class universities. Ensuring more academic freedom and ensuring that there is enough emphasis on research could be ways to move forward.
  • Quality and Quantity: He said that though quality was often sacrificed for the sake of quantity in the Indian higher education scenario, we havent been able to even ensure enough quantity either.
  • Arrival of Foreign Universities: TPS opined that the arrival of foreign universities into the country could provide more opportunities and enough checks have been put in place wrt transfer of funds outside India, and hence, need not be viewed with as much skepticism as it is being viewed now (e.g., Devinder Sharma, among others). This topic, however, was not picked up by later speakers in the discussion.
  • Accountability, Accreditation and Assessment: These were brought up as areas that need improvements. In addition to NAAC, a state-specific Accreditation agency called the SAAC would be setup very soon.
  • Concerns about Reception of Reforms: The HEC is being viewed as yet-another-body by many institutions, and reforms that it has been trying to bring through (during Dr. KN Panikker's tenure) have been opposed by many colleges. This has been a road-block and reform measures need to be aware of such facts. (See this for a news report on higher education reforms during the previous HEC)
  • Industry Interaction: He stressed the need for more debate on how academia can meaningfully interact with the industry in a synergistic manner.
Dr. Arun

Dr. Arun stressed on the Social Sciences education in the state and presented an optimistic view based on recent development such as quality gaining new impetus as a concern under UPA2, and accelerating internal competition being a positive sign for higher education in India. He, however, raised several concerns about the education sector (with focus on social sciences). Some of these are as follows:

  • Is there a remedy to the current situation where professional education is widely viewed as being limited to medicine, engineering and nursing?
  • Why are we not able to create a community that is suited for the new kinds of jobs?
  • Most of our management schools focus on western principles and case studies; for example, there is no study focusing on the Indian experience such as self-help groups.
  • There is an increasing homogeneity of views among social scientists; we should develop an effort to encourage diversity of views, at least in social sciences (where it is most important).
Dr. Arun concluded with a three-point suggestion for the HEC:
  1. State directed policy initiative (e.g., a masterplan or roadmap) is required for higher education in Kerala.
  2. There should be a renewed emphasis on knowledge creation in academia
  3. HEC should monitor global changes in the job market and should develop a dynamic and up-to-date information portal that keeps people in Kerala informed about job prospects for the future.
An interesting academic question raised by Dr. Arun was on the perceived/actual duality of research and teaching. He brought up the question as to whether teaching and research are orthogonal responsibilities of an academic or whether there could be some synergistic relation between the two (perhaps, also thinking aloud as to whether we could invent mechanisms to create a synergy).

Prof. Aravindan [SLIDES]

Prof. Aravindan stressed on the need for quantity improvement in higher education. He said that there is a tremendous opportunity presenting itself before us with the projected improvement in the pan-India higher education enrollment from 12% to 30%. He critiqued the lack of planning in higher education and the premise that economy and education are unrelated. However, the Kerala scenario has been seen to be among the better ones in India, with MGU (h-index = 35) and CUSAT being recognized as among the better universities in India in terms of research output. The not-so-employable nature of certain courses was also brought up for discussion. Prof. Aravindan concluded with a listing of several areas for improvement:

  • Removal of bureaucracy from academics: He said that academia is tremendously bureaucratic and is among the most bureaucratic public institutions.
  • Lack of Manpower: Sanctions of funding need to come with adequate manpower, else, the call for quality cannot be addressed.
  • Need for Transparency in Appoinment
  • Take steps to reduce/remove inbreeding
  • Integrated Masters worth experimenting: The separation between undergraduate and graduate research is often artificial and unproductive.
  • Emphasis on Knowledge Creation (Research) needed
  • Promote (creation of) Centers of Excellence
  • Consortium for research: Inter-college consortia to further research could help alleviate the infrastructural issues.
  • Group Appoinments: The Japan model of appointing faculty groups instead of individual faculty could be worth experimenting with.
  • VC and Syndicate Appoinments.....
Prof. Seethi

Prof. Seethi had a mostly pessimistic view of the current model and stressed on the need for radical action to bring about a qualitative change. He stressed that we are nearing a crisis in Kerala academia and the path forward for HEC would be really tough. He raised several points such as:

  • Politicization: The trend of cleansing the academia of previous government's actions and the call for greater autonomy of educational institutions are at loggerheads.
  • Academia Mediocrity: Kerala's biggest crisis is the mediocrity of academia. This is also a prelude to a larger crisis in the near future.
  • Employability: Prof. Seethi critiqued thew stress on employability (as raised by TPS) by saying that education would be helpful even for those who may eventually not make use of it, in their jobs.
  • Social Sciences: Kerala, as a society, has a unique aversion to Social Sciences. A society that doesnt teach social sciences is sure to go to ruins, and hence, something needs to be done quickly about it.

Being my blog, I take the freedom to comment on some things above (while fully understanding that what I think is not one-hundredth as important as the opinions of the eminent speakers above). :)

Was pleasantly surprised that the lack of infrastructure did not come up as a burning issue (as much as I expected). Perhaps, we are doing well on provisioning colleges/universities with adequate infrastructure already - I used to have a view that we, being a poor country/state, could focus on infrastructure-light research areas (such as Computer Science, Mathematics, Statistics, Economics, among others); with infrastructural concerns not being in the center-stage anymore, such as view is less valid.

The education as an enabler or for job is a debate that could go on for ever, and keeps coming up over and again (most recently, in The Educational Lottery); and the obvious thing is that the academicians would line up on the "enabler" side, whereas the policy makers could lean more towards the employability side. Given the vast skilled and unemployed workforce, we definitely do need to focus on employability - however, an all-out approach for employability could lead to sacrificing the knowledge creation goal (since people who study to work, would be less likely to indulge in knowledge creation).

In a casual conversation with Dr. Ajith Kumar (CSES), it was interesting to understand that the traditional metrics of quality for research in science and technology (e.g., h-index) are largely inapplicable for social sciences. For a study on Kerala society, one would unsurprisingly cite papers that relate to Kerala (mostly), and hence, traditional citation based indices for a researcher focusing on Kerala studies would be indicative of the size of the population of the community focusing on Kerala studies (and less indicative of the quality of research). Perhaps, the lack of interest in social science (education and) research is contributed partly to such academic visibility issues? I was also pleasantly surprised to see Kerala's universities being among the forefront in the country in terms of academic indicators (as Prof. Aravindan had pointed out in his talk).


JS Adoor said...

Thanks Deepak for this excellent report. I hope to get the whole report within the next couple of weeks.

deepak said...

Thank you, JS. Looking forward to the comprehensive report from you. In all solidarity to your earnest endeavor in getting people and ideas together towards making change happen.

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