June 22, 2013

Wrapping up the trip


My last day in India! I will admit to being excited about going home, though the actual trip is something I'm dreading. I've actually got the whole day free since my flight isn't until 11 pm. It's going to be a long night; get on the plane at 11pm, land in Newark at 4:30 AM Newark time...so it'll be 15 hrs of night-time...kind of jarring on the day after the summer solstice. 
This morning I walked down to Safdarjung's Tomb, a late (1750s) Mughal construction, and then around Lodi Gardens. It was so nice in the gardens to see still beautiful tombs that were part of a living landscape; people jogging, walking their dogs, practicing yoga. Later in the day I plan to go to a nearby craft market- Dilli Haat, where they reserve booths for artisans from all over India so that the traditions of many geographic regions are represented. A lot of what I read said it's also a foodie haven, as regional cuisines are also represented within the restaurants and food stalls... but having not been actually sick all month, I think I will choose not to tempt fate this close to the end and forgo the market food.
So, finishing up with Friday's two meetings; two very distinguished playes in the world of higher education- Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations, and Chairman of the National Innovation Council and Ashok Thakur, the Secretary for Higher Education. A challenge in meeting people at that level is that they're always overly busy, running way behind schedule, interrupted constantly with paperwork, phone calls, etc., so it can be hard to have a conversation. 
Generally if I'm able to extract one or two insights, I count myself lucky. In this case, I may have suffered for doing my homework; Sam Pitroda asked if I had read the National Knowledge Commission's report, and when I said yes, he said that most of what he could tell me was in there, and the same thing happened with Ashok Thakur and the (governmental) Twelfth 5-Year Plan (higher education section only!). However, I did get to ask followup questions based on what I had read. Sam Pitroda, a leader in telecommunications development for decades, logically is a firm believer in the power of online tools to address not only the questions of access to education, but also of the unequal distribution of quality...since at least materials, lectures etc. by the best could be put online and made available to those with internet access. He believes as these resources will become available, more and more students will simply bypass the physical university system and get their skills online. Really the credentialling is the main issue in that case, but that could end up becoming employer driven (employers figure out how to determine whether applicants have what they need). More outside the box, Dr. Pitroda said how about (with an understanding of the impracticality) not actually giving a degree until the "graduate" is employed; if after "completing" a degree, an employer says, well, you need two more English courses before we would hire you, then they get the degree once they finish what they need to actually be employable. We try to get at this issue, I think, by an increased emphasis on internships in the summers after the first or second year...so that a student, if they find they have a passion for a career in the field they interned in, can have a real sense of just what training they'd need to excel, when they still have time to get that done.
Ashok Thakur spoke about the main policy initiatives they're working towards, and answered two of the questions I've had for a while now. The first was regarding the desire for more autonomy was very common at many of the institutions I visited; how did the government feel? They are proposing a system whereby those institutions who were accredited at the highest level (A grade, and I'd have to look up just what that means) would get the kind of autonomy that some of the IIMs and IITs currently enjoy. Which brings up my second concern; while mandatory accreditation does sound like a necessary step, the implementation seems like a daunting if not impossible task.  I have been wondering about how this would be feasible; the idea is, according to Sec. Thakur, that the government would delegate some of the accrediting duties to boards/groups/societies/etc in relevant fields, or other institutions (I wasn't quite clear on that part). Certainly that would address some of the scale issues, but seems potentially dangerous; the more groups, the more likely some will have self- interest that could harm the process.
Well, this will almost certainly be the last thing I post from India, I will add some thoughts once I've had the chance to process through all of this back home. I certainly have learned a lot, and I'm not thinking of "higher education" in quite the same way I was when I got here. There are a lot of potential collaborations here as well as some incredibly admirable individuals and institutions, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been exposed to all of it. On the logistical end, the Director and staff at UPIASI, Sri, Gosain, and Ruchika made this the smoothest trip I have ever taken- also grateful for that.

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