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Synergy between research & outreach

Synergy between research & outreach
It is an axiomatic truth that higher the usage of science and technology by communities, higher will be the quality of life. Higher the practice of democracy at the community <g data-gr-id="78">level,</g> higher will be the dignity of life. To enhance the quality of life and to achieve <g data-gr-id="76">dignity</g> of life for the citizen, education has to play a key role and educational institutions have to contribute substantially. 

Their teaching programmes have to be geared towards producing quality human resources needed in the industry, agriculture and service sectors. By producing knowledge through research and by disseminating knowledge to the stakeholders through outreach or extension programmes, the higher learning institutions have to work for improving the overall economy and polity of the society and the country. In the last six decades, the educational system in India has geared up to move into expansion mode leaving the quality unattended. It is always a natural corollary that while expansion takes place at a faster speed, quality will be the casualty.

In India, the universities are offering academic programs, but their research does not exhibit the same intensity as teaching. Thus, the higher learning institutions do a little research and offer teaching programmes, with the aim of producing more number of students. As a result, we find there is a mismatch between the reality and the capacity, skill and capability of the candidates passing out from the academic programmes of the higher learning institutions. Many do not realize the importance of the link between research and teaching. There is yet another dimension which is totally missing in higher learning institutions- outreach activities.  Focusing on this would enhance the quality of the products coming out from the academic institutions.

It is essential for connecting academic institutions directly with the community through their services in the form of information, idea, skill and knowledge for enhancing the quality of life of the people. The higher learning institutions have not developed a scientific framework for outreach activities and hence there is no systematic outreach programme at present for the students. Outreach programme is not to serve the community alone, but to enhance their systematic understanding of society and to inculcate the value of working with the community with concern. Recently, at the convocation of Agricultural University, Punjab, the President of India has made a fervent plea that every higher learning institution should work with people in four or five villages for the transformation of the communities. The objective of this is to encourage our higher learning institutions to engage the community through their support services and enable them to lead a decent dignified human life.  

The higher learning institutions have enormous intangible assets in the form of knowledge, skill, ideas and information which are useful for the transformation of the rural society. All the above can be directly transferred to the community for the benefits of the people. However, there is a lacuna in the institutional mechanism that causes obstacles in the transfer of these benefits to communities from the universities. Teaching and research in the university system will get strengthened and applicable only when the universities connect themselves with the community. Even the Nayudamma committee, while reviewing the IITs made a strong recommendation that IITs have to carry out outreach programmes for the benefit of the rustic folk, but they have overlooked this conveniently. 

At the dawn of independence, fourteen rural institutes were created to carry out extension activities in Gandhian paradigm for rural transformation. Barring one, all have merged into mainstream education. Agriculture universities had extension activities and they have also left those activities to Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK). NSS is the only unit from the academic institutions that has contact with community and that too not in an organic and systematic way. Thus, extension or outreach is considered unwanted and unnecessary work for the academics. Teaching and research can be done within four walls of the university, but for outreach activities the teachers and the students have to go to the community. It is largely felt that working with the community is not an easy task. Hence, neither policymakers nor academics think of the interface between the university and the community.

Both teaching and research can be done systematically within the premises of the institution. But the outreach has to be carried out in accordance with the requirements and settings of the communities which are not under the control of the university system. Many of the academics do not know the advantage they can gain out of their engagement with the community. It is not a service. It is a kind of learning to make the academic programme socially relevant. Only a few civil society organizations have continuously advocated and recommended to the central government and the University Grants Commission to make extension programmes a part of the core responsibility of the higher learning institutions. 

This advocacy was also based on the experience in the US and the west. In response to the continuous persuasion, the University Grants Commission has launched a scheme called “Centre for Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement (CFSRCE)” in select universities. Its main objective is to promote partnership between university and community to develop knowledge for improving the quality of life. It is a based on called experiential learning. A variety of activities has been indicated for universities to engage communities for the benefit of both. There is yet another breakthrough in this regard. While ranking of the universities in India is based on the performance, one major component for evaluation that has been incorporated recently outreach or an extension of the university on par with teaching and research. However, many academics remain ignorant about this.

Though this new initiative is being appreciated, the argument which I want to advance here is that every university can do such a kind of community engagement either in the rural or in urban areas and thereby a meaningful relationship could be fostered between higher learning institutions and the community. We already have a positive outcome from experiments in a few higher learning institutions.

We can systematically advance such activities for the benefit of the students, teachers and the communities. When the academic community engages themselves in community work on socially relevant and critical issues of development, large number of social issues of the communities will be addressed very easily without looking for government support. While doing so, socially relevant issues could be identified for research. When they work on socially relevant research in the universities they can integrate it with policy advocacy more relevant to the development of the communities. In this exercise, both community and the institutions can get benefits. Apart from the above two, students passing out from the academic institutions will have adequate skill and capacity on the relevant issues of development. 

Policy makers will also gain much from this kind of a exercise. Democratic practices can be nurtured and communities will be therefore engaged in this process. By doing these activities at the community level with the active involvement of the teachers and the students, social responsibility could be cultivated as a value in the staff and students involved in this work. They require a centre in the university to coordinate the academia from different departments to organize community activities. This is possible with the existing infrastructure and staff as we already have community colleges, adult and continuing education, lifelong learning and extension departments in the university system that have different mandates. All the units work together for outreach programmes. These centres can link with Gram Panchayat or a municipality or a division in a corporation for outreach activities.  Hence, it is high time to realize the value of extension and it can be incorporated in the new education policy.

(The author is a professor at the Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram Rural University. Views expressed are personal.)

G Palanithurai

G Palanithurai

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