Published On: Tue, Nov 6th, 2018

Transitioning from Good to Great: What makes a University stand out

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-          Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, is India country director of UNSW

A few universities stand out. The majority do not. It is what makes all the difference between good and great.

To a large extent, education has become a business and much like the Ambassador car, it sold because there was limited competition and strong demand. Similarly, it is possible to run commercially viable educational institutions even by providing sub-standard education at high cost.

Some do learn, however, to differentiate themselves by focussing on the quality of education. They stand out and become premiere institutions in the country. The demand for admission increases dramatically and the only way to manage this is to raise fees and the admission criteria. Given the supply-demand mismatch, this actually works. The better private sector institutions follow this model. Among the government-run institutions, however, there is pressure to take in more students and that, in turn, negatively impacts Faculty-student ratio with the inevitable fallout on quality.

How education is delivered can determine a nation’s future. It is argued, for instance, and not unreasonably, that education needs to reflect the demands of the real world. In other words, educational institutions are not cocoons. The external environment needs to necessarily be part of the educational institution, so that neither students nor Faculty are alienated. They live and breathe in the real world. Social scientists refer to this intermingling of theory and practice as praxis. Good and poor universities fail to recognize this. Those that do and rewire their pedagogy to reflect this oneness make the transition from good to great.

This is easier said than done. For one, it requires a paradigm shift in thinking. It requires understanding that education is not an end in itself but only a means to transforming lives, in anticipating change and crisis, and in creating a just society. Anything short of that cripples the very raison d’etre of education itself.

A shift in pedagogy requires that education enquire what the demands of the external environment are. This, in the words of educationist Ken Robinson, is the revolution of thought and not just the evolution of thinking.

Consider four aspects, for instance, that the Indian education system is yet to embrace whole-heartedly:

  1. 1.       Fluid Course Structures

The days of rigidity in the course structure where students are forced to take up subject areas they have no interest in, along with those they like, are long gone,thanks to a fundamental evolution in people’s mindsets. Today, certain colleges offer students the opportunity to choose their own subjects, through dual degree programmes, leading to interesting combinations that best reflect individual interests, helping them make the most of their aptitude. The current job market is strongly in favour of people with multiple skillsets, where people are specialised in a particular field of study but adapt when put into situations that require other skills, or even more importantly, using both skills in unison to develop their own USP.

  1. 2.       Learning Team Work and Problem-Solving

Most institutions fail to distinguish between teaching and learning because they fail to recognize that a teacher is simply a facilitator. He or she simply sharpens the pencil. The lead [aptitude] is already there and all the teacher is required to do is to help the student realize, recognize and reveal this. This is much like the quote attributed to Michaelangelo. When praised for his mastery, he is reported to have said, ‘The sculpture was already there. All I did was to chip away at the stone and reveal the sculpture.’

Learning to work in a team is critical to employability. Employers look for those who can be team players. Finding solutions in today’s work environment is also a team effort. As Emma Perry, who did her Under Grad and Post Grad education in Media Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the University of New South Wales, Sydney says, ‘What stands out about UNSW is that it is always about people. You learn to work with each other and in the process, you learn so much! Studying at UNSW was the best thing that happened to me!’

  1. 3.       The Challenge of Technology

Rapid changes in technology and its embrace are here to stay. Apps, Big Data Analytics, Quantum Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and many others are now part of our everyday vocabulary. Technology can be controlled only if it is mastered. But what technology lacks is the human element and human skills. It is important, therefore, to recognize that modern education needs to constantly emphasize the continuum between STEM and non-STEM courses because that is what the modern workplace would demand of its workforce.

  1. 4.       Cultural Diversity

The future is multicultural. The digital world has ensured this. Great universities recognize and embrace this. Consequently, their pedagogy empowers students with the knowledge and sensitivity that is required to work effectively in multinational companies with people from around the globe and with different cultural backgrounds.Aayushi Pandey, Business School alumnus from UNSW, says that one of the biggest take-aways for her was the opportunity to study with students from different countries. In her words, ‘It made me see things differently.’

India’s educational institutions are decades behind embracing this kind of shift in thinking and pedagogy. The sheer challenge and compulsions of demand have taken innovation away from them. For those that are experimenting, the numbers they deal with are miniscule in comparison to what India needs. Indeed, some of the better educational institutions in the private space cater to 2000 or 3000 students only because of the fairly widespread belief that scale and quality are incompatible. Factually, this is not true. UNSW has 56,000 students and is internationally ranked by QS.

A time will come when Indian educational institutions will stand with the best in the world and hold their own. But, this will take time. Till it happens, Indian students are likely to gravitate towards institutions abroad. Current trends suggest that these would be Australian.

Spearheading the revolution from good to great, UNSW is organizing a series of spectacular technology-driven India Open Days in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai andPune, starting on 18th November.

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