May 30, 2013

Government, industry, and academia...

Maintaining a slow pace on the blogging, I'm afraid. Some of it is me thinking, no, I need to process the experience...and the other would be me writing the post within the blog site, getting nearly finished with a long entry last night, then getting somehow kicked off line and losing the whole thing...

 
So, the last three days have been a series of really fascinating meetings. On Monday, I was fortunate enough (thanks to the wonderful Eisenhower Fellowship program coordinators)  to meet two Ministers of State; Jairam Ramesh, currently Minister of Rural Development and former Minister of the Environment and Forests, who was India's chief negotiator during the 2009 UN Copenhagen Climate Conference, and Shashi Tharoor, currently Minister of Human Resource Development (which covers higher education), former UN Under Secretary General and runner up to Ban Ki Moon in the last Secretary General election. In between those meetings, I got to speak with Parth Shah, President of the Centre for Civil Society, a Delhi think tank engaged in campaigning for education reform.
 
Meetings with the ministers were overshadowed by Saturday's attack on a state Congress convoy in Chhattisgarh which killed about 30 people; Minister Ramesh had been with some of those killed Thursday, and had supposed to see them again Sunday. My meeting with Minister Tharoor ended up squeezed in between a prayer meeting called to honor the victims and a dinner he had later that night. Thankfully, I had watched this recent recording of a Google hangout session in which the minister had answered questions about "the future of higher education", so we could dispense with the background. He spoke of the (catchily phrased) 4 "e"s needed in higher education; expansion, equity, excellence, and employability, and noted that the focus of the past few years really has been on the first two, and it is time to really pay attention to the last two. Of course, it makes life a lot harder to go for quantity and quality at the same time...!  He was also particularly frustrated with Parliament's inability to move on a number of bills awaiting discussion; one giving universities more autonomy (from the government), and, among others, one establishing new universities for innovation and research. Frustration with the inability of a legislative body to get things accomplished? Well, that seems familiar too... 
 
Minister Ramesh and I ended up talking more about his time with the Environment Ministry than about higher education- though our conversation on that topic focused on concerns about the faculty pipeline and the difficulties in training the next generation when faculty at colleges aren't engaged in research; he was - understandably, I think- rather pessimistic about the potential for global accord on specific climate change plans given his experience in 2009. In the "small world" category, he's known the chair of Environmental Engineering at WashU since they were both 5 years old, and his son is getting his Ph.D. at the same place I got mine...
 
Dr. Shah, an economist with expertise, among other areas, in education economics, was a lot of fun to talk to. We ended up digressing to behavioral economics, the growth mindset, teacher evaluation, the American higher education system (he taught at the University of Michigan)...and a lot of other topics. His group generally backs market-based approaches to educational issues- campaigning for school choice (vouchers), and opening higher education up to for-profit endeavors, to encourage investment in the education sector and competition to raise quality. His perspective was very valuable.  
 
Tuesday, I got two other sides of the story; I spoke with Jibak Dasgupta and Shalini Sharma from the Confederation of Indian Industry; he is a deputy director and she is the head of the higher education effort (perfect!) From them, I learned a bit about industry's perspective and the state of current efforts at fostering innovation; some involve setting up clusters with industry and multiple universities in locations around specific topics. The industry/academe connection just has not been there in terms of R&D, so resources (human and lab!) aren't necessarily being utilized efficiently. Shalini spoke about the fellowship program they've just started with graduate students, that matches students with problems generated by industry; the student works on those problems for their dissertation, but the industry owns the intellectual property. The student gets guidance and mentorship from both scientists within the industry partner and from his or her university. It seems like not only good opportunities for those students, but also a way to really build conversation and collaboration between academic and industrial scientists. 
 
Then I met with the Registrar (I'd say equivalent to Provost- Chief Academic Officer...but someone correct me if I'm wrong!) of the National Law University in Delhi, Professor Srikrishna Deva Rao. This was a university that seemed familiar to me in some ways, without a lot of the challenges I've been hearing about. They've got a 5 year combined  B.A./B.L  as well as a series of master's degrees and a Ph.D. There is significant concern for students' co-curricular lives, faculty are able to both teach and do research, there is an emphasis on active, hands-on learning in seminar courses and law clinics...so though we don't have bachelor's level law training this nonetheless did seem very much the style of higher education I'm used to. What I couldn't quite figure out was how they managed to achieve this! They're highly selective, so they only bring in about 80 bachelor's students in a class, and they've not been around too long. Prof. Deva Rao did cite their relative autonomy; they have a Supreme Court justice at their head (as opposed to, say, a state governor or appointee), and so have been allowed a lot more freedom to hire faculty when opportunities arise. This has allowed them to pursue targets of opportunity; students who completed PhDs abroad and are looking to come home, promising graduates of their own, etc. They do seem to be extremely well supported, as well as actively building an endowment through philanthropy...which is what gives them a lot of their freedom.
 
To keep this from getting interminable, I'm going to postpone discussion of yesterday's meeting (and subsequent tourist activity!) until I get back from today's...

Comments

Thanks for the update! These sound like fascinating exchanges. The emphasis on hands-on experiences seem especially promising for integrating with our curriculum. One question: you say " I had watched this recent recording of a Google hangout session in which the minister had answered questions about 'the future of higher education.'" Is this recording something I/we could watch? -- Matt

Hmm. I am still learning this application. Hopefully the link will come through here. Sorry about that. Also just learned I have to approve comments before they show up.