New UGC guidelines mandating community outreach programmes for higher education institutions in India must be debated upon and internalised by said institutions
Students of higher education institutions experience two things- teaching, which is primarily meant to make them market-ready and research for career development. No institution in the country has emerged as a model for outreach as there has been no pressure either from the funding agency or the stakeholder. As a result, many of the educated individuals come out of the portals of higher learning sans concern for fellow citizens. This is in spite of the presence of passionate teachers with an enviable record of community outreach services. The trend is all set to change for the better in the coming years.
On November 29, 2019, the University Grants Commission (UGC) sent a circular with a document, 'National curriculum framework and guidelines for fostering social responsibility and community engagement in Higher Education Institutions in India,' to all universities with a request to act on it. It is basically intended to exert pressure on higher education institutions to prepare a comprehensive plan to link the institutions with the community through teaching and research on a sustainable basis. This has been the aim of the Ministry of Human Resource Development from 2011 and it gained shape in the "Unnath Bharath Abhiyan." UBA 2.0 was launched by the Government of India in 2018 in a more systemic way by developing a framework for universities to reformulate their curriculum scientifically and meaningfully to incorporate outreach programmes to benefit both the community and students. It is now made mandatory to incorporate the outreach service in teaching, learning and research programmes.
It is to be noted that this concept is not new to India. At the dawn of Independence, on the advice of M. K. Gandhi to work with rural communities, a large number of institutions were created by Gandhian activists. Of them, 14 were recognised as Rural Institutes by the Government of India. But, within a short span of time, 13 Rural Institutes were merged with the mainstream educational system, which never insists on outreach service as mandatory. Outreach or community service has always found a mention in the policy documents of the government ever since the Radhakrishnan Committee report was released. But UGC did not make it mandatory for all higher education institutions to involve themselves in community service. There are standalone activities through the National Service Scheme and a few institutions engage themselves with the community on the basis of their philosophical foundations. Barring a few, all institutions of higher learning concentrate only on teaching and research.
About 68 per cent of our people still live in rural areas. Suffering masses are mostly found in rural areas. In this context, the new initiative of MHRD through UGC makes it mandatory for higher education institutions to reach out to rural communities through systematic academic and research programmes. They have to undertake a massive curriculum exercise to incorporate outreach programmes in the teaching-learning schedule. In the same way, socially relevant research has to be designed with a view to finding solutions to the problems of rural areas. It requires a change in the mindset and orientation of teachers. Through its report, UGC has addressed all structural and policy problems which have acted as hindrances to outreach activities in higher learning institutions, besides addressing financial issues. Now, every university has to internalise the document and conduct a workshop based on it to incorporate the community engagement for outreach service in their curriculum. It requires a lot of thinking on the part of the teachers.
Universities have to prepare areas for research based on the pressing problems faced by the rustic population. It requires rural-mindedness as M. K. Gandhi advocated. The rule applies for both general universities and professional entities like medical, technical and agricultural universities. Equally, it is important to prepare the communities in rural areas, institutions and organisations working with the communities and the district administration for a meaningful and impact- making. If it is done seriously, the gap between book view and field view will narrow down and students will become sensitive to social issues. They will have concern for fellow citizens. Many of the social issues can be addressed through outreach programmes. The capacity of teachers will be enhanced. Socially relevant research will be carried out to help the community.
Academicians and students will have to help the policymaking community with their research. Many of the rural development issues need soft solutions, for which higher learning institutions have to work. For instance, toilets are being constructed by the government but toilet culture cannot be created by it. It can be created only by changing the mindset and behaviour of people through awareness programmes in the outreach activities of universities. Higher learning institutions should seriously internalise the document and take up mission-mode activities to fulfil the goals of the UGC document. It requires serious debates within and outside the institutions to bring clarity on the process of implementation of the new programme.
G Palanithurai is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are strictly personal