Our institutes of learning need to be grounded in realities and challenges at the grass roots level, while also maintaining high academic standards.
The recent proposal of the Karnataka State Higher Education Council (KSHC) to implement a uniform curriculum across universities in the state, has faced serious objections from academicians and thinkers. Responding to these objections, the KSHEC has decided to opt for a “model” curriculum for universities rather than a “uniform” one. It is now left to the discretion of the individual university and its Board of Studies to follow it or not.
In this context — also in view of the challenges faced by universities as a result of the COVID pandemic — it is important to introspect on the nuances that have emerged in Indian universities since their origin. The concept of the university in modern India was incubated with the establishment of three universities in 1857 — the Universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. As the British intended to create mere second-class clerks (not thinkers) to help them with their administration, these universities played the major role of issuing degrees to the students. However, after Independence, the number of universities increased and research activities were initiated in many of them in correspondence with the Western model. Here, it is crucial to revisit the idea of university in the West, as the concept of the modern university in Indian academia is to an extent borrowed from it.
In Europe, many of the universities integrate into their immediate communities. This is because a university is considered a centre of knowledge which gets students from local communities. The formal education they get in universities is also a chance to explore their communities academically. A university is a platform to deliberate regional issues as well as a knowledge centre to explore solutions for them. Moreover, many of these universities are traditional in their institutional framework and their tuition fee is affordable. Students are likely to choose universities based on what they offer rather than the location or prestige of the university.
In contrast, though American universities have stemmed from their European counterparts, they have drastically transformed in the last hundred years. Being set up in a competitive capitalist society, they are concerned about global rankings. They focus on attracting students as well as faculty from across the world. They offer a liberal education, where courses are flexible and students have a vast range of subjects to choose from. Although the tuition fee is comparatively high, grants, scholarships and loans are available. The students in American universities choose their institutions based on the prestige and ranking of the institution.
In India, we have neither remained loyal to the European model nor have completely shifted to the American model. Nevertheless, there is a popular demand to make the universities competitive and get listed in global rankings. Additionally, the possibility of the implementation of a uniform curriculum by the central government has created apprehensions among academicians. The main cause of their apprehension is the loss of regional identity and autonomy. Several academicians have pointed out that retaining diversity in a multi-cultural society is essential.
Our universities need to be strengthened at the grass roots level. We need quality classrooms, proficient teachers, better infrastructure and a congenial academic atmosphere to contribute research to the society. Also, universities should not hike the tuition fee to unaffordable levels.
Moreover, one can think globally while being grounded in a region. The best example is the renowned Kannada poet Kuvempu. He became a public intellectual, academician and writer of great excellence who talked about universal brotherhood without globetrotting. What matters most is the academic atmosphere and the student’s eagerness to learn. An apt curriculum and pedagogical method should encourage and stimulate critical thinking.
In this context, KSHEC’s decision to design a “model” curriculum is wise. It gives space to individual universities to decide texts of their choice and maintain regionality. At the same time, it also provides a yardstick to assess standards and the ground reality. The KSHEC should now focus on designing a broad framework to improve the quality of the teaching-learning experience in universities in the state.