Kovind must revamp education
The election of new President Ram Nath Kovind has left many in eager anticipation of the new steps that he would take. As he brought about a monumental change as Governor of Bihar in the state's system of education, expectations from Kovind to uplift the condition of higher education in the country stands tall. Discussing the possible growth, Dr Chandra Bhushan Sharma, Chairman of National Institute of Open Schooling, speaking to Millennium Post, emphasises an urgent need to revamp higher education, especially distance-learning in our rapidly growing economy.
How do you think the appointment of Ram Nath Kovind as President will impact higher education in India?
The President of India is also the Visitor of the Central Universities and as the appointing authority of the Governors of states who are also Chancellor of State Universities the role and responsibilities of the President can be massive and crucial in revamping higher education in the country. If you study the past Presidents' tenures and some of the initiatives undertaken by them, you can make out the impact of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Shankar Dayal Sharma, KR Narayanan, A P J Abdul Kalam, and even Pranab Mukherjee to mention a few. This indicates to us what impact a President can make in the performance of education, especially higher education.
As the Visitor of Central Universities the President has on a few occasions asked for clarifications directly from the universities on issues raised through the media. It should not be seen as interference in the working of universities, instead, the Visitor being the appointing authority of the Vice-Chancellors, must exercise his authority to seek clarifications on issues which make or mar the image of our institutions. More than the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) the Visitor should be in control of the universities. The MHRD can have political agenda but we do not expect the President House to have any agenda in either asking for clarifications or giving directions to universities. The President always remains dedicated to the Nation and its Constitution.
Can you mention some instances where you think the Visitor could have been sought for an explanation?
I am not aware if the Visitor had asked for any clarification from JNU authorities but the incident where anti-national slogans were shouted definitely calls for an explanation. Instead of the MHRD calling the shots, the President House could have intervened. Delay in decision making because of the long winding judicial process tarnishes the image of the institutions.
Institutions are not made in a day but their image can definitely be destroyed overnight. The image of JNU has since suffered a setback.
Similarly, in the History text books of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), derogatory comments were made about Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Students protested and ransacked IGNOU centres in different parts of the country. The matter was also discussed at length in the Parliament, and the House was assured that the President of India who alone had the power to make an inquiry into such cases would be requested to do so. No one knows what action was taken against the guilty. But undeniably, such instances dent the image of Institutions.
Quite often courts have been moved in cases of irregularities in appointments. Not long back the Supreme Court removed the Vice Chancellors appointed by the Chancellor of Bihar universities before Ram Nath Kovind stepped in as Governor. The Supreme Court had made some very damaging remarks about the appointments. Similar cases have been reported about appointments of teaching positions in other universities as well.
Learners and society at large start looking at institutions with suspicion which is followed by a complete loss of faith in the teachers or the institution. This is very damaging for our institutions and hence, for the Nation. Our learners must have faith in their teachers.
You mentioned about IGNOU. What role do you visualise of the President in changing standards of distance education?
I'm glad you asked me this question. As I have spent more than three decades researching and teaching in this distance education mode I am concerned about the status of distance education in our country.
India has the largest network of distance education in the world. The IGNOU Act mandates IGNOU to provide and maintain standards of distance education in our country which should be at par, if not best, in the world. This was done by IGNOU through its Distance Education Council (DEC). However, the DEC was abruptly closed and monitoring of distance education was given to the University Grants Commission. The President as a seasoned jurist would know we should have amended the IGNOU Act before closing the DEC, but this was not done.
Also, distance education is not for the relevant age group and also not an alternative for those who have not been able to find a seat in the colleges. Distance education is for those who lost the first opportunity and are now working and at the same time want to pursue education to earn a degree. These are experienced people. But we have been using Distance Education as a short-cut to a degree. This defeats the basic purpose.
That is why we need to use various sources of media and technology to reach out to the learners who may have some time between their assignments. We have not been able to use the EduSat and other expensive facilities available to the distance education institutions. President Kalam addressed students and President Mukherjee interacted with university communities through a teleconference. President Kovind could also make use of the two-way video facility available to reach out to the entire university community.
What efforts, if any, have been made in this direction?
There was a committee constituted by the MHRD to submit its recommendations to the Government of India. The Committee had submitted its recommendations including the draft for the Distance Education Council of India Bill in 2014. We need to move swiftly towards legislating distance education as we have nearly ten million learners pursuing education through the public and private distance education institutions. The quality and acceptability of distance education remain suspect. We need to take immediate steps and the new President has huge responsibilities in fulfilling this task.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that India would launch a satellite through which our country would provide educational content to other South Asian countries. We worked on this idea and recently, former President Pranab Mukherjee launched SWAYAM, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platform where we have put our educational content to be accessed free of cost. The SWAYAM Prabha platform, which has 32 direct-to-home channels, was also launched. I was one of the eight national coordinators who worked on both the concepts and who received the President's award for the mentioned contributions. As the institutions managing these facilities are centrally funded the President has a responsibility and he should definitely keep an eye on their performance, especially about their quality.
What role do you think can the President has in these initiatives of the MHRD?
Institutions of higher education are 'autonomous' and thus, the MHRD has a limited role. The President or the Governors as Visitor or Chancellors have a major role even in maintaining and augmenting quality. President Mukherjee hosted a number of teachers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and organised meetings with several opinion leaders. This was a great morale boosting exercise.
One of the reasons, to my understanding, for the poor state of affairs in our institutions, is the frequent teacher-bashing. Everyone has one ready-made argument for poor teaching in our institutions and that is the poor performance of teachers. Let us start respecting our teachers. The President can overturn the situation. If he starts felicitating teachers then the situation will change much faster than anyone can imagine.