University, the cornucopia of ideas

University, the cornucopia of ideas

Universities are the commanding heights of intelligentsia. A university stands for adventure of ideas and onward march of human civilisation. As the economies are no longer built upon physical and natural resources and the societies in knowledge economy increasingly built upon human resources, universities assume a monumental role in shaping the course of human civilisation. 

Making of a vision for a 100-year-old university

Universities are the commanding heights of intelligentsia. A university stands for adventure of ideas and onward march of human civilisation. As the economies are no longer built upon physical and natural resources and the societies in knowledge economy increasingly built upon human resources, universities assume a monumental role in shaping the course of human civilisation.

The Osmania University celebrating its 100 years of existence is in the midst of reworking this vision for the next 50 years. Though, it’s a gigantic task to plan for a half century ahead, it’s a worthwhile activity that can serve as a guiding spirit for any other university aspiring to relocate itself in the newly emerging knowledge landscape.

The major deficiency in Indian higher education system is its failure to produce institutions that have a global reckoning. This results in migration of young minds in search of more exciting learning opportunities. Instead, our universities can also harness the globalised educational environment to emerge as world-class universities. To begin with, we can at least transform our varsities into learning destinations for students from the emerging world.

The best universities are responsible for many of the discoveries that have made the world a safer, richer and more interesting place. The point of introspection for a university should be on its original contribution to society around, more so in the case of public-funded universities.

The Osmania University is celebrating its centenary in the early years of the formation of new state of Telangana. The university was in the forefront in the movement for separate statehood. Therefore, it is much more pertinent to ensure that the university research and education system rises up to the challenge of finding creative solutions for the problems of Telangana society.

But, westernisation of higher education led to delinking of universities from the native community and society. The time has come to reverse the trend to make universities socially relevant and intellectually stimulating.

As William Barton Rogers, the founder-president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), observed, education should be both broad and useful, enabling students to participate in the humane culture of the community and to discover and apply knowledge for the benefit of the society.

Despite a lofty talk of university-industry interface, the gulf between the two is widening. University faculty should lead the industry, while the industry leaders should actively take part in university teaching.

University system caught in the rigmarole of rules and regulations often fails to create a congenial environment for a live interaction between the university and the industry. Necessary governance and administrative reforms are needed for encouraging a close engagement between the two to make the university education relevant to the economy.

Universities should be able to show that they have taught their students to think critically. At a time when public intellectuals are increasingly becoming an endangered species, the task of producing critical minds is of much greater importance. This requires universities to constantly probe the world of thought and action to seek explanations for public actions.

An environment of vibrant debate that promotes diversity of views and free and fearless expression of ideas is the soul of the university. Not to undermine the importance of skills to fit into the modern work place, still, universities are not and cannot be polytechnics. Universities should be the cornucopia of ideas.

The time has come for the universities to move away from abundance of monotonous lectures, text books , prepared study material, examinations whose scores have little or no relevance in the market place, static and staggered syllabi that does not keep pace with the rising demands of industry and society, and the eco system that does not inspire learning and experimentation.

We have to evolve new forms of learning, though immediately we cannot abandon the conventional models. Why can’t we think of a university learning eco system that is challenge-driven rather than information-centric, where students work on projects in teams trying to solve problems that have no clear answers?

Let the industry or government or for that matter any other user agency that would benefit from these answers finance the projects. Such an approach may seem to be disruptive but it amounts to creative destruction. Innovations in teaching-learning approaches should redefine the form and content of a university.

Universities should promote deeper learning. The present-day teaching methods stifle understanding. A university should spark curiosity in young minds.

Universities cannot produce compartmentalised knowledge systems. Inter-disciplinary interaction triggers cross-fertilisation of ideas. Perhaps, an artist can significantly contribute to a structural design than a civil engineer.

Universities can combine online and offline education to make value addition to higher learning. Mere information-imparting courses can be offered online so that the offline courses focus more on application of knowledge through experimentation and innovation rather than end up in rote learning.

Thus, university campuses should have incubators, design factories that can convert a good idea into a good product or a service. World’s best universities offer such facilities for the teachers and the students on the campus.

A university in a democratic society should play the role of social critics. It should reflect on the contemporary epoch with a sense of impartiality and intellectual maturity. Thus, universities should contribute to public policy, economic growth and human development.

The interaction with the alumni cannot be an event-specific endeavour. Alumni, especially those who excelled in respective professions, can be a source of guidance to revisit the curriculum and teaching methods.

The education and experience offered in the university should foster a lifelong connection with the alma mater. The systems, processes and the university governance structures should be reformed to ensure such a dynamic interaction between the university and its alumni.

Great universities develop an organic link with the city and the community around. Varsities cannot exist in social vacuum. They cannot be the islands of geographical spaces or emotionally walled or gated communities.

Instead, the universities should dynamically contribute to the cultural, social and economic life of the city that hosts it. The centenary cannot be a campus extravaganza alone. The entire city should feel enthralled to host this proud moment in its history.

Universities should continue to combine the best traditions of excellence and equity. They cannot be elite institutions that make education a class preserve. The academic community of the university should be signified by its social diversity.

There are myriad ways how a university can sustain its engagement with the wider intellectual fraternity. The notable example is the contribution of Oxford University Press through its publications. This is how a university can be active worldwide.

Though a university of international standing, Oxford University Press caters even to the preschool education, indicating the potential with which a university can serve the society. The strategic plan document of the Oxford University for the period 2013-18 says that a great university both conveys the knowledge created by its community and is open to new ideas generated elsewhere.

Digital technologies are revolutionising the generation, dissemination and assimilation of knowledge. The new technologies provide the unique opportunity even to the conventional universities to expand their intellectual footprint beyond the geographical frontiers.

Enhanced online presence of the university through courses, lectures, documentation of research is the most effective means of influencing and engaging with the global students. The Cyber University can be a complementary and parallel platform to its traditional presence.

The university should develop an online archive of research and the publications done by its students and faculty.

A university should provide an unparallel academic journey that would ensure personal, professional and intellectual transformation. Students coming out of the university campus should have a sense of confidence, pride and a challenging spirit to conquer the world. Universities cannot be the factories that churn out degrees that have little or no relevance to one’s own or societal development.

University products should not claim value in a society, but, contribute a value to the society. Societies turning more and more complex are desperately looking for leaders. Universities should generate leaders across various fields of social and economic enterprise.

A university should be a place for free inquiry, critical questioning, free and robust expression of diverse perspectives, augmenting innovation and enterprise, incubation of productive ideas and wider engagement. University education should offer a fine combination of rigorous academic study, the pleasure of facing the challenge, the excitement in discovery and intellectual stimulation.

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