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Improving the quality of higher education

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The pressing challenges of equity, climate, and health will only intensify in 2023. India’s education, especially its colleges and universities, must rise to these challenges and help address them through teaching and research. Appropriately, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has envisioned higher education that is multidisciplinary, equitable, and research-oriented. Historically, academic disciplines have been systemised in tandem with developments in society, leading to the rigid compartmentalisation of learning. As universities become multidisciplinary, they must also go the extra mile to ensure interdisciplinary teaching and research.

As it turns out, the drivers of the planet’s most wicked problems, in essence, cut across multiple disciplines. It is important to recognise this. Only by transcending disciplinary boundaries can our students develop holistic, real world, and sustainable thinking to find answers. Offering students flexibility and choice along with the ability to be broad and deep in their learning is at the heart of interdisciplinarity work. A computer science student with a minor in biology and a concentration in environmental sciences will be the one to analyse medical and patient data to diagnose and predict disease progression because of, say, air pollution and rising temperatures in north India. Interdisciplinary learning driven by individual preferences will help the next generation design solutions for their futures.

While multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning suggest an overhaul of today’s higher education system, it is, in fact, a circle back to our roots. Takshashila (followed by Nalanda, Vallabhi, Vikramshila) was arguably the first important example of an interdisciplinary learning centre that housed scholarship in areas beyond its geographic or ideological context. The presence of scholars and leaders from China and ancient Greece served as evidence of its global outlook and presence.

While multidisciplinary education seems to be the way to go, it stands incomplete without equal access for all. Historical evidence suggests our ancient universities were multidisciplinary as well as open-access institutions, supported by generous philanthropy. From astronomy to law and religion, one could walk in, qualify for admission regardless of their background, and carve their learning trajectory. Unfortunately, most higher education in India today is private (at about 70%, the highest proportion in the world), expensive, and often elitist. Efforts need to be made to engage students from all walks of life, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who may not afford a good education.

Navigating the many forms of exclusion demands a multi-pronged approach that spans systemic and mindset changes, bolstered by financial support. Educational institutions will become most potent when they host a spectrum of students together. It is this diversity that will power innovation.

Ultimately, Indian higher education will have to adopt the widespread use of digital- and online-learning technologies to bridge the educational divide. The provision of online degrees and certifications, the licence to blend up to 40% of the curriculum with online learning, and the plans to build a digital university will be crucial to secure affordable access to high-quality higher education in the next 10 years.

India needs its best minds to work on and significantly impact the world’s toughest problems. For this to happen, our best faculty and students need to carry out cutting-edge research. Unfortunately, teaching and research have often been delinked in our country, despite the fact that it is research excellence that powers teaching excellence, and vice-versa. New thinking and insights from research-active teachers create an engaging classroom experience. In turn, inspired young minds are motivated to research solutions to intractable problems. While funding in India for research is relatively limited, the country has the most formidable brain power to work on data-driven research on equity, climate, and health.

In line with this, the National Research Foundation has been mooted by NEP to create and sustain an ecosystem for high-quality academic research, much like the National Science Foundation in the United States. There is an urgent need to increase the allocation to higher education in the budget outlay, which is lower than that of other countries. While India’s target remains 6% of its Gross Domestic Product, the budgetary allocation hovers around 3.1%, within which the spending on higher education has been particularly low.

This year should see accelerated progress on the implementation of NEP, which is a clear call to action for India to reboot and take its higher education to an exciting and whole new level. To survive, the world needs India’s brain trust. The sooner, the better.

Pramath Raj Sinha is founder and chairperson, Board of Trustees, Ashoka UniversityThe views expressed are personal

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