Need To Rethink Higher Education In India

Staying Ahead In Uncertain Times
Need To Rethink Higher Education In India
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co-Founder and Dean of Rashtram School of Public Leadership
5 min read
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We are increasingly moving into a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It is all around us and sucking us deeper into it each day. Pervasive and disruptive technology, rapid information flow, globally interconnected supply chains and financial markets—what is true today is not true tomorrow. Further, with the information overload, what is true is not known, and there are contestations on the truth. This has made each of us and the leaders globally nervous. Any strategy can be disrupted tomorrow due to a change anywhere else in the world. There is a need to make sense of the world and understand how one cannot just fit into it but lead the rest. With the world’s youngest population, the biggest impact on India is on education and careers. The education sector needs to evolve to these changing needs. And time has already run out. 

The Indian higher education sector is one of the largest in the world with more than 51,000 institutions. While this has increased access to higher education, the quality remains poor—low employability of graduates, outdated and globally irrelevant curriculum, poor quality of teaching, crumbling infrastructure and non-existent research, among others. A recent report on higher education in India by Brookings shows that about 50 per cent of enrolment in higher education is in three degrees—bachelors of arts, science and commerce. Most of these courses are run through colleges affiliated to universities and there is limited scope of innovation. The over-regulated and under-funded higher education sector of India does not have the agility to provide a globally relevant and world-class education India desperately needs. Is there a way out? Yes, we need autonomous higher education institutions that have the power to constitute their own curriculum and take independent decisions on academic matters. These institutions should design innovative programmes which makes graduates not just job or career seekers, but leaders in their respective domains. They need not conform to the traditional three-year degree format which has outlived its utility. 

We have an excellent example in the Indian School of Business (ISB), which is an autonomous institution ranked globally among the top-30 business schools and the highest in India. The market determines the credibility of ISB’s management programme and ISB does not depend on a regulatory body for that. The country needs a similar world-class institution for other areas of leadership—academic leadership, political leadership and social leadership.

India has a knowledge tradition of several millennia. It is a civilization that stayed ahead of the rest of the world due to the highly evolved ways of thinking. We need a flavor of that in the classrooms today. In today’s education system, an authentic deep study of the ancient texts and the knowledge systems is missing. An example text is the Arthashastra written by Chanakya more than 2,000 years ago. It has stayed relevant to this day and continues to sell. Imagine the depth of timeless knowledge in this single book which evokes curiosity in the reader through the ages. The author Chanakya is little known as well. He was a political science teacher at the Takshashila university. He dethroned Dhananda, the strongest king of his time, for his misrule. He made an ordinary village kid, Chandragupta Maurya, one of the greatest kings of all time. Chanakya was a master of several subjects—statecraft, trade, ayurveda, crime, law and governance, among others. Yet, he did not possess anything, left no heirs and passed away in anonymity after achieving his mission. What education system can produce such great men? We find a glimpse of an answer to this question in Arthashastra. In the very first chapter of the book, the first subject Chanakya writes about is ‘right thinking’—Anvikshiki.

This is significant because we are not taught how to think correctly and clearly, yet our every decision and life direction depends on it. Just one subject Anvikshiki from one of the books from our knowledge tradition can transform the education system of the country. Imagine the wealth we are sitting on and yet unaware. We need the future graduates of our country to be leaders imbibed with this knowledge. 

The VUCA world has disrupted governments, businesses, societies and personal lifestyles. People seem to have lost control and technology has taken over. We need to produce leaders—thought leaders, political leaders and social leaders—who can navigate the changing world and lead India to its future. There is an urgent need to evolve our education system to catch up and produce such leaders who can make sense of this disruptive change and show a direction. Unfortunately, our higher education institutions are yet to wake up to this changed reality. But, we have a native strength—the Indian knowledge systems—which kept our education relevant and our country forward in changing times through millennia. It is time to delve deeper into them and incorporate those principles into our curriculum. An autonomous higher education institution that has the ability to produce leaders through innovation in curriculum and pedagogy is needed. It is already too late. 

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