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Straight Talk: Do you attend a model University?

Does technology alone make a model university or is there something more to it? Dr. Pushkar looks for a believable definition of the term ‘model university’.
BY Pushkar |   18-09-2015

It was recently reported that the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to develop Acharya Nagarjuna University (ANU) into a model university. The university and the state government in question are not particularly important; the news item could well have been about some other university in some other state of India. What is of interest is the manner in which the ANU vice-chancellor described a “model” university:

The university has 4,649 students enrolled in seven campus colleges and 1,517 research scholars and all their admission records have been computerised. We have a complete data base of all teaching and non teaching staff and all of them have been provided with an office mail id. We have also installed 60 CCTV cameras with digital video recording facility on the university premises. We are also installing bio metric attendance system for students, teaching and non teaching staff (emphasis added).

Is this a good description of a ‘model’ college or university? The question is a not trivial one given that India’s higher education sector has been described by one observer as a “wasteland pretending to be our higher education system.”Indeed, the question is particularly relevant at this time of the year when hundreds of thousands of young women and men, most exhausted and/or relieved after several weeks of negotiating intense competition for a place at a ‘good’ college or university, are settling down at their respective institutions. A large majority of them, whether enrolled in arts, sciences or engineering, whether at public or private institutions, have very little idea about what awaits them over the course of the next three or four years.

Before discussing whether computerisation, CCTV cameras and bio-metric attendance are important characteristics of a ‘model’ university, let us make a few broad observations about India’s higher education sector that are hard to dispute.

Most young women and men in college today previously attended schools which impart poor quality education so that very few of them possess the necessary comprehension, writing and verbal skills in any language to do well academically. Not surprisingly, most struggle through college, unable to overcome the deficiencies accumulated during their schooling. If they do not, it is often because colleges offer watered-down substandard course content across disciplines, and/or have, wittingly or not, created short-cuts for students to do reasonably well, or at least secure pass grades in exams. These days, whether one is a student of physics or political science, it is probably quite difficult to fail exams due to the easy availability of reliable educational tools such as ‘guess papers’, (see photos), and ‘answer keys’. At best, however, students learn to do well in exams and little or nothing more.

At the end of it all, students earn a college degree without getting an education. Indeed, it may seem uncharitable to say so but it seems that most students are in college only to get a degree. Recently, Meghnad Desai expressed this perspective rather bluntly: “We still have lot of hunger for education but lot of it is to get certificates, not education.” These certificates, as we all know, are quite useless. Annual employability reports by organizations such as Aspiring Minds leave no doubt that a majority of graduates do not acquire the necessary knowledge and skills during their time in college for meaningful employment in their areas of study. While unemployable young women have the option to settle down as wives and mothers, men must seek employment. Instead, however, most join the ranks of the “timepass” generation, looking for that elusive job that may not come their way for years.

Given this larger reality of India’s higher education, how can a “model” university of the kind described by the ANU vice-chancellor change things? Can such a model university better prepare students for employment?

Computerisation of admission records, and maintaining a complete data base of teaching and non-teaching staff facilitate the tasks of university administration. But does good record-keeping imply good administration, so that the larger cause of providing quality education is served better? How? Is an office email id a better tool for communication between faculty and students, or faculty and administrative staff, and more importantly, for imparting education than a gmail or outlook id? Biometric attendance can ensure that students, faculty and staff are present where they ought to be, but so what? Does the mere presence of teachers in a classroom assure good teaching? Does attendance have clear benefits on the academic performance of students, or on the efficiency of non-teaching staff? What about CCTV cameras? Is there a serious law and order problem on the SNU campus which requires such monitoring? Will cameras be placed in classrooms to ensure that teachers talk and students listen and write? Who will do the watching?

It is common in India to assume, whether on purpose or by mistake, that a required set of inputs, especially those that are technology-based, can achieve desired outcomes. Worse still, the expression of desirable goals, or even good intent, on the part of political leaders, or those in leadership positions, whether at universities, or in other sectors is confused with actual good outcomes. Perhaps no one seriously believes what they say or hear, because the same good things keep getting said by different people in different places without much improvement in outcomes.

Perhaps the vice-chancellor said other things about his understanding of a “model” university which was not reported. However, describing a “model” university as one with air-conditioned classrooms, free wi-fi, large playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts and gymnasium, with CCTV cameras to monitor good behavior, is seriously flawed. Computerisation of everything means nothing. None of these things are essential ingredients of a “model” university.

Higher education institutions require adequate infrastructure and fairly competent administration for their success. Above all, however, they require suitably-qualified faculty who have been recruited on merit. Good teachers can help weak students compensate for their deficiencies and inspire better students to greater success. However, most higher education institutions in India do not routinely hire on merit. Hiring committees discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, personal relationships, academic qualifications, gender or something else. It is not uncommon for better-qualified candidates to be rejected in favour of lesser ones. When well-qualified faculty is hired, their departments and the institution turn against them so that they eventually leave.

For those who are in college or will attend college in the coming years, you should know that a “model” university is one which makes it a habit of hiring and retaining the best faculty it can find. The rest of it is mostly for show.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa



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