May 30, 2013

A different university every day...!

After 9 days here, I have finally ventured up to "The Deck", the Mediterranean themed rooftop restaurant in the complex I'm staying at, overlooking the pool. It's probably a good thing I didn't come up here earlier; I've been eating quite healthily and this is likely to ruin my stellar record so far...but it is a pleasant place to sit and write. They are charging the equivalent of $50 for a bottle of Australian wine that I know I can get at the grocery store near me for $10 tops, though, so I'll stay away from that. Though I'm looking forward to trying Indian wine (I'm serious, I am.), I think I'll save that for an indefinite later.

So, catching up, yesterday I visited Jawarhalal Nehru University, with which Washington University already has a partnership through the McDonnell Academy of International Scholars. There was certainly an ease in speaking to faculty members and administrators from Arts and Sciences disciplines; much more common frames of reference. I spoke with the Rector, Dr. Sudha Pai, a political scientist by training, Dr. Harjit Singh, the Chief Advisor for International Collaborations - a geographer, Dr. Arun Attri, the Dean of the School of Environmental Science, and Dr. Rajiv Bhat from the School of Biotechnology, who is also running admissions. 
It is effectively a graduate only institution; the only bachelor's level degrees they offer are in foreign languages; all else is Master's or PhD...nonetheless it is effectively a residential institution. Students live on campus...and so do the faculty. Apparently students take access to faculty seriously, and will come and knock on professors' doors at night if they need something. Now, I know we strive for faculty accessibility, but I don't see that model being embraced at home! They have a lot of active research collaborations with other universities as well as exchange programs; it felt quite vibrant. The community outreach going on in the school of the environment was really exciting; trying to generate academic connections for people working on their own on reforestation or sustainability projects. That is one place I hope we might be able to come up with some form of collaboration- student/community engagement on environmental issues. One thing all commented on was that the students pushed for what they want; they have a slightly more flexible approach when it comes to curriculum and so faculty are allowed to update their courses every year- this becomes something of a mandate as students protest if they're being taught exactly the same material year after year.
Finally, that afternoon, I braved the heat to do some touristy-stuff, namely, visiting the Qutb Minar, an end-12th century minaret; the tallest in India at 72+ m, surviving lightning and earthquakes. It was genuinely impressive
Today, I met with Dr.J.G.P. Tilak, Head of the Department of Educational Finance at the National University of Academic Planning and Administration. He studies, as you might expect, educational finance, and has just finished a project coordinated by Stanford looking at the expansion of education in BRIC countries...and I have to say (who have I become?) I'm looking forward to reading it when it comes out. Basically, I brought out everything I've learned in the last week about higher education policy and asked him about it. He was cagey, but understandably so; yes, it's hard to predict how reforms will pan out and there is so much heterogeneity in higher education that a counter example can be found for nearly any and every proposition one could make. One of the more interesting things I learned, among many, is that accreditation for universities isn't mandatory. That really pulls the teeth from the process...apparently that is one of the reforms that is being attempted. Also, if I understood correctly, demand for higher education has actually fallen off in the last year or two; there are actually seats available; so realistically quality/desirability/employability of graduates will have to be improved before enrollment rates can be pushed up (15% of college age students are enrolled; more like 18-20% if you include non-traditional degrees/paths; vs. 40% in the US).