The higher education space in India is extremely heterogeneous. It has over 40,000 colleges of different hues. You have women’s colleges, minority institutions, multidisciplinary institutions, arts and commerce HEIs (higher educational institutions), colleges affiliated to a university, single-discipline colleges, and so on. So, you definitely need a more pluralistic approach in evaluating colleges.
We have nearly 40 million students enrolled in higher education. And nearly 80 per cent of them are in the undergraduate space. This is where the majority of your demographic dividend resides. Up until magazines started doing these rankings, the national discourse used to be about school and then about university education. Colleges remained largely invisibilised. It is only over the past 15 years or so that the conversation shifted to college as a space which is vibrant and fecund—a rite of passage, which offers young people the first taste of freedom beyond the straightjackets of school and family. The first tangible experience of autonomy happens at college. It is a space for new kinds of socialisation.
Over the last decade, on account of several initiatives like reservations and the phenomenon of “massification” of higher education, erstwhile marginalised groups have entered the HEI space in unprecedented numbers. There are, for example, first generation learners, mainly women who have come into college from communities that are conservative. Is it then not time for us to look at trajectories for assessment rather than the old meritocracy argument? Look for how far students have come from where they began? And how the colleges facilitate that transformation? This is not just about ticking the boxes like pass percentages, placements and compensation packages. Comparing apples and oranges does not create a level playing field. Young people from backgrounds of extreme privilege navigate fewer challenges than those from underserved communities. A college that is well endowed, cannot be compared with one that is struggling financially or is a new kid on the block. Is it fair to paint them all with the same brush? So one required yardstick is to look at how highly colleges value issues of equity and inclusion.
How many people know of CMS College in Kerala, founded in 1817? How many know of Kanya Maha Vidyalaya, Jalandhar, founded in 1886? Or Bethune College in Bengal, founded in 1879? Now, what was unique about these colleges? The history of an institution is important. Students must choose colleges that reverberate with rich history or because the ambiance, ethos, and values of the college resonate with them. So when we refer to the ‘best’ colleges, we also have to look at their hidden curriculum. Every college has a distinctive mission, vision, history, impulse, ethos, and surveys like THE WEEK’s, must try to capture and celebrate these aspects—and combat a monochromatic or monocultural understanding of what constitutes education of ‘quality’.
A hidden curriculum includes, for example, what also happens outside the classrooms. What is the place, for instance, of student societies in the ecosystem? What do they offer in terms of intellectual and social learning? What kinds of debates go on among the student peer groups? How do these colleges cater to what Howard Gardner called “multiple intelligences”? Do they allow space 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 for an aspirational space, a creative space, a democratic space, an inclusive space, and an engendered space? Above all, do they provide a space for civilised dialogue? Or, are they just bound by disciplinary silos?
The NEP talks about multidisciplinarity, but how do colleges understand this? Do they harness the different disciplines to create a new methodology of learning and being? Do they push the boundaries of the mind? What are the cartographies of the mind that they are invested in? These are all the unspoken, ‘intangible’ aspects that are the lifeblood of a good college which goes beyond grades, competitiveness and standardised benchmarks. They are what make a college “tick”, in distinctive ways.
Furthermore, how do our ‘best’ colleges nurture a sensibility that is touched as much by the pain on our planet as the beauty of a bud unfolding. How seamlessly does theatre, music, art, debate, community engagement blend into the daily rhythms of learning? Does it provide space for the dissenting tradition? College education is not about being invested in the status quo. You need to make space for those who march to the beat of a different drum—an Archimedes, a Galileo, a Newton in-the-making. After Covid-19, especially, young people expect the classroom to nurture healing spaces. Do colleges foster the constructivist classroom where teachers and students together construct knowledge experientially rather than merely “consuming” knowledge through the tyranny of received curricula. A college is not just a building of brick and mortar. It must be gauged on the basis of what it inscribes in to the lives of its students. You must feel a buzz when you enter its portals, an energy that comes from young people on a voyage of discovery undeterred by the fear of failure. College can be the magical space which affords you the context to pick up and start again and again, changing course where necessary.
The American scholar-activist bell hooks invokes ‘Teaching to Transgress’. And unless there is that dimension in what is called the hidden curriculum of a college, it will only yield clones with colonised minds. The NEP extols 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 fixes alone will not realise the transformative potential of education. There has to be a substantial perspectival shift, a metanoia. Or else, it will just be managerialism. The NEP gives you an incredible wish list. It does not quite tell you how exactly to fulfil its promise!
There is within the NEP, a kind of tension between autonomy on the one hand and centralisation on the other. For example, if you include extracurriculars and outreach programmes as part of your courses, then you make them hidebound, you tame them into acquiescence. You do not allow them to breathe! You cannot enforce or standardise outreach. The process of creative engagement is sparked by a different impulse. You must have time enough, to imbibe, to discuss, to disagree. These are the ways in which new ideas find articulation and resonance. This is how knowledge becomes liberatory and students get socialised into an educated democracy. The time is here to fashion new yardsticks to rank colleges and transcend the old frames for evaluation!
Meenakshi Gopinath, a Padma Shri recipient, is an educationist, political scientist, writer and principal emerita of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi.
As told to Sneha Bhura