Subba’s Serendipitous moments

April 29, 2008

Indian Education

Filed under: Education,India,Learning,Model — Subbaraman Iyer @ 12:12 am
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My friend and prolific blogger Atanu Dey has been shouting himself hoarse about the reforms that are needed in the Indian education system. He has written numerous posts on the subject and I only hope that he gets support.

A civilization which has Acharya devo bhava (The Teacher is GOD) as one of its basic tenets and which revered teachers and placed a high premium on education is clearly rotting.

Given my yearning for learning, I have attended several virtual learning programs including the one conducted out of Berkeley (HAAS school of business) over the video conferencing/ web. Even though I am not a student in the campus, I am amazed at the dedication of the faculty and the overall support the institution provides. When will we get even close?

The Times of India in a hard hitting piece brings the point home.

A few weeks back, one of my brightest students who, for some reason, resisted going abroad, asked me: “What is the difference between universities in the West and here?” A direct question on a subject like this can be difficult to answer.

There are visible differences determined by the funds at one’s disposal. But are there deeper ones? I tried to recall my experience as a student abroad and compared that to what my students in India go through. I zeroed in on two points.

The first concerns teaching, or rather with how teachers perceive their role and relationship with students. In our colleges and universities the proportion of teachers who prepare seriously for their classes is rather small.

Delivering a lecture is reduced to a routine, to the extent that one doesn’t think about individual classes, let alone individual students. The emphasis is on the number of lectures one delivers per week, not on their quality.

Even in cases where the quality is high because the teacher is an active scholar, interaction with students is minimal and concern for individual students and their progress is rare.

This is in sharp contrast to the treatment of students in the West. In most European and North American universities, each student is made to feel involved in the progress of the course. A lot of first-hand reading and writing is expected from everyone.

The teacher is expected to respond to each student’s writing as many times as the course calls for. Comments made on the student’s writing are not of a routine nature; rather, they convey the teacher’s incremental impression of the student’s work, including the reading done. As a student advances to higher levels, the teacher’s responsibility and involvement increases.

This is in sharp contrast to our universities where most doctoral students pine in vain for regular guidance. The teacher-student relationship here is a subset of the larger institutional ethos.

In universities, it is negative from day one when the student runs from one window to the next, completing admission chores. Regular teaching begins weeks after the academic session has officially started and remains sporadic.

Research students wait for months to receive their advisor’s comment which often turns out to be perfunctory.

Most teachers don’t care for their students’ intellectual progress or emotional well-being. The absence of kindness and concern in teachers’ behaviour is not confined to universities, as the recent spate of reports on severe corporal punishment shows.

The second major difference between universities overseas and ours concerns the condition of libraries. Why our libraries are so bad is a puzzle which cannot be explained by citing the paucity of funds alone.

I knew a librarian who was well-trained and cared for reading, but apparently did little to save his library from rapid decline. He said: “Most of our students study for marks and they can get marks without using the library”. What about teachers?

The frustrated man showed me records of books that teachers had borrowed over 10 years ago. Reminders and fines were of no avail.

The joy of browsing in a library remains alien to most of our students. Neither the syllabus nor the pedagogic relationship with teachers impels students to self-exploration.

As philosopher Mrinal Miri has pointed out, one can get through our system and do well, without coming across a single uplifting idea which can be sustained for a while. To get their entrance ticket for the examination hall, students are required to surrender their library tickets and obtain a ‘no objection certificate’.

This procedure shows how little we trust our students. We assume them to be cheats who run away with books. This attitude reflects the colonial character of our universities.

They have done little to overcome this legacy. They exist like relics of a bygone era, serving essentially as expensive babysitters for teenagers. It is a rare youngster who survives our higher education with self-esteem and a dream. Is it a surprise that such students normally want to proceed abroad to realise their dream?

Even while going abroad they face obstacles. American universities do not trust our mark sheets. They ask for a transcript freshly typed out and signed by the head of the relevant department. For this service, departments and colleges charge a bewildering variety of fees, ranging from Rs 25 to Rs 400 per copy.

The money is not all; the student must wait for days and run the stressful risk of losing the chance to go. In a recent case where the student had lost all hope of getting the transcript signed by the head of her alma mater, an authority no less than the vice-chancellor had to intervene. Mercy was finally shown but not without a farewell insult for using a short cut.

An alumnus who now resides in the US was less lucky. Her application for admission to a new course could not meet the
deadline because her old university in India failed to send a fresh transcript of the degree she had earned 15 years ago.

Should we be surprised that India did poorly in a recent ranking of the world’s 200 best universities?

I just saw another piece here which was equally heart rending. I am sure we all know someone at least remotely similar to these characters, but that doesn’t make it less tragic

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  1. Hello there. I was sent a link to your blog by a friend a while ago. I have been reading a long for a while now. Just wanted to say HI. Thanks for putting in all the hard work.

    Jennifer Lancey

    Comment by Jennifer Lancey — April 29, 2008 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  2. […] Iyer addresses the issues facing higher education in India. I tried to recall my experience as a student abroad and compared that to what my students in India […]

    Pingback by Higher Education Issues | DesiPundit — April 30, 2008 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

  3. Yes,
    Even I don’t find much difference between the universities in the West &here in India.
    But we do have many good universities here in India.Then why go abroad &study..??

    Comment by Aditi — May 8, 2008 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

  4. […] numerous posts on the subject and I only hope that he gets support. A civilization which has Acha Repair Bill n Is Real Agreement Near? Iowa FarmerGovernor Jim Doyle is expected to return […]

    Pingback by best study abroad programs — May 9, 2008 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

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