Power of a billion knowledge workers

Tags: Op-ed
Power of a billion knowledge workers
NUMBERS GAME: The academic administration must address the problem of class-size in SUs. Is it possible for the same faculty to teach a class of 200 students at a time instead of the ‘usual’ 50-60 students?
Imagine our country with a young force of 400 million knowledge workers in the next five years and a billion in 20 years! This thought has been germinating in my mind for the past few months. For a perspective, the numbers mentioned are more than the population of Europe and the whole of US. But that is the demographic dividend of a young nation with more than 500 million of an average age of less than 25 years that beckons us! If this possibility was to come to fruition, the world would transform within a decade. The knowledge-information-innovation paradigm is already exploding at the seams — and a knowledge workforce trained and developed in India can set the country apart economically and intellectually.

The question is who will do it and how can it be done? Without doubt, this vision requires an integrated policy-strategy-execution interface and a collective willpower. However, one great asset this country has and which has remained understated and under-utilised is the publicly funded state university (SU).

India is blessed with a dual-type higher education system where the central and state governments are equally interested in knowledge dissemination, standards monitoring and management, and infrastructure creation. The role and function of SUs is crucial in not only extending and promoting higher education in far-off regions (from Delhi) but also train and develop manpower for local industries and capacity building. Given the right impetus and challenge, SUs ought to be the paragons for promoting discourses and skills in local dialect and languages in our culturally diverse and rich country.

However, in order to be change-agents, the SUs have to first change themselves, starting with their vision about themselves and developing new mindsets. While the central universities ought to develop manpower in terms of ‘think and act global’, the SUs ought to have an agenda on the lines of ‘think glocal, act local’ at least for the job-oriented graduate courses.

SUs face two major hurdles in teaching and training of massive numbers. One, the academic administration must address the problem of class-size — is it possible for the same faculty to teach say a class of 200 students at a time instead of the ‘usual’ 50-60 students? The biggest bottlenecks here are the blackboard and two-way conversation. These limitations can be overcome by using available computer-related and screen technologies which are not very expensive and which can easily be mastered by the current teacher.

Second, can the same faculty teach say 1,000 students at a time? Here too, a combination of web-based and computer technologies allow us to do that. It is rather strange that in the modern age of technological progress, a faculty has to repeat herself from the beginning while teaching a second section the same lecture delivered in first section.

The problems of preservability and sharing of lectures is universal. Existing technologies can be tweaked to not only record (preserve), but also share the session across space and geographical boundaries in local languages. This means that someone interested in pursuing college education in a village can do so without loss of current employment or migrating to bigger towns. Interactions between the teacher and distant fellow students can be managed through meeting points at pre-fixed hour using the existing telecom infrastructure available in villages.

SUs are the pivot on which The following mandate of four-As related to higher education can form the template for action-plan for the SUs:

(1) Availability: Making the job-oriented and other courses available to the students in local languages. This does not require massive effort but a mental desire and willpower. Some creativity is required in designing courses which give a candidate choice of pursuing different levels of proficiency in the subject according to convenience and personal choices.

(2) Accessibility: Sometimes even though the course is available, yet it may not be accessible for the desirous because of technical and infrastructure bottlenecks. Modern technologies (not very expensive and easy-to-learn for the student) can help overcome the infrastructure related bottlenecks.

(3) Affordability: Normally costs are not an issue in SUs-owned programmes but could be so for job-oriented courses run jointly with private parties.

(4) Authenticity-accreditation: The biggest role of the SUs is in maintaining the standards of the education delivered and assessing the student for providing certification. This is the card which opens the door for the student for still-further studies (say, PhD), in the job-market, or be locally self-employed.

State universities, in the first stage, can launch staged-courses in science streams such as physics, chemistry, maths, biology (including practical laboratory experiments at predestined locations at convenient timings), and at the end of which, a candidate will receive appropriate certification of proficiency leading to appropriate jobs such as lab assistants, school teachers, or at least get part-time tuitions in local villages.

The state governors (as chancellors of SUs) and vice-chancellors ought to be leading change agents and visionaries for a movement that can result in accelerated learning and creation of massive pool of knowledge-based skills and talents and economic prosperity.


(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)

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