The higher education space in India is extremely heterogeneous. It has more than 40,000 colleges of different shades. You have women’s colleges, minority institutions, multidisciplinary institutions, HEIs (institutions of higher education) in arts and commerce, university-affiliated colleges, monodisciplinary colleges, etc. So you definitely need a more pluralistic approach in evaluating colleges.
We have nearly 40 million students enrolled in higher education. And almost 80 percent of them are in the undergraduate space. This is where the majority of your demographic dividend resides. Until magazines started making these rankings, the national discourse was about school, then university education. The colleges remained largely invisible. Only in the last 15 years has the conversation shifted to college as a dynamic and fruitful space, a rite of passage, which offers young people a first taste of freedom beyond straitjackets. of school and family. The first tangible experience of autonomy happens in middle school. It is a space for new forms of socialization.
Over the past decade, due to several initiatives such as reservations and the phenomenon of “massification” of higher education, formerly marginalized groups have entered the HEI space in unprecedented numbers. There are, for example, first-generation learners, mostly women who came to university from conservative communities. So isn’t it time for us to look at evaluation trajectories rather than the old meritocracy argument? Look for how far students have come from where they started? And how do colleges facilitate this transformation? It’s not just about ticking boxes like pass percentages, placements, and compensation packages. Comparing apples and oranges does not create a level playing field. Young people from extremely privileged backgrounds face fewer challenges than those from underserved communities. A well-endowed college cannot be compared to a college in financial difficulty or a newcomer. Is it fair to paint them all with the same brush? One of the required criteria is therefore to examine the extent to which colleges place importance on issues of equity and inclusion.
How many people know about CMS College in Kerala, founded in 1817? How many know Kanya Maha Vidyalaya, Jalandhar, founded in 1886? Or Bethune College in Bengal, founded in 1879? What was unique about these colleges? The history of an institution is important. Students should choose colleges that resonate with a rich history or because the college vibe, philosophy, and values resonate with them. So, when we refer to the “best” colleges, we must also look at their hidden curriculum. Each college has a distinct mission, vision, history, impulse, philosophy and inquiries like that of THE WEEK, must try to capture and celebrate these aspects and combat a monochromatic or monocultural understanding of what constitutes an education quality “.
A hidden agenda includes, for example, what also happens outside the classroom. What is the place, for example, of student associations in the ecosystem? What do they offer in terms of intellectual and social learning? What types of debates take place among student peer groups? How do these colleges respond to what Howard Gardner calls “multiple intelligences”? Do they leave room for experimentation? Do they enable young people to transcend conventional notions of success?
Academic excellence will inevitably remain an important benchmark. But what is the process by which colleges perform on this criterion? Do they provide aspirational space, creative space, democratic space, inclusive space and engendered space? Above all, do they offer a space for civilized dialogue? Or are they simply bound by disciplinary silos?
The NEP speaks of multidisciplinarity, but how do the colleges hear it? Do they exploit the different disciplines to create a new methodology of learning and being? Do they push the limits of the mind? What are the mind maps they are invested in? These are all the unspoken and “intangible” aspects that are the cornerstone of a good college that goes beyond grades, competitiveness, and standardized benchmarks. They are what make a college tick, in a distinct way.
Moreover, how do our “best” colleges nurture a sensibility that is as much touched by the pain of our planet as by the beauty of an unfolding bud. How well do theatre, music, art, debate, community engagement blend into daily rhythms of learning? Does it provide space for the dissenting tradition? College education is not about investing in the status quo. You must make room for those marching to the beat of another drum – an Archimedes, a Galileo, a Newton in the making. After Covid-19, in particular, young people expect the classroom to nurture healing spaces. Do colleges promote the constructivist classroom where teachers and students construct knowledge together experientially rather than simply “consuming” knowledge through the tyranny of the received curriculum. A college is not just a brick and mortar building. It must be judged by the yardstick of what it inscribes in the lives of its students. You must feel a buzz as you enter its portals, an energy that comes from young people on a journey of discovery undeterred by fear of failure. College can be the magical space that gives you the context to pick up and start again and again, changing course if necessary.
American activist scholar bell hooks invokes the “teaching of transgression”. And unless there is this dimension in what is called the hidden curriculum of a college, it will only produce clones with colonized minds. The NEP promotes critical thinking. Critical thinking involves students and teachers working together to anticipate a new reality. For critical thinkers, the future is not fixed, it is open and malleable. Therefore, technical solutions alone will not realize the transformative potential of education. There must be a substantial shift in perspective, a metanoia. Or else it will just be managerialism. The NEP gives you an amazing wish list. He doesn’t tell you exactly how to keep his promise!
Within the NEP there is a sort of tension between autonomy on the one hand and centralization on the other. For example, if you include after-school and outreach programs in your classes, you blind them, you tame them. You don’t allow them to breathe! You cannot enforce or standardize awareness. The process of creative engagement is triggered by a different impulse. You need to have enough time to soak in, to argue, to disagree. They are the means by which new ideas find articulation and resonance. This is how knowledge becomes liberating and how students are socialized in an educated democracy. Now is the time to shape new criteria for ranking colleges and transcend old assessment frameworks!
Padma Shri recipient Meenakshi Gopinath is an educationalist, political scientist, writer and Principal Emeritus of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi.
As said to Sneha Bhura