'There should be interaction between sciences and humanities': St. Stephen's principal

Prof John Varghese spoke to THE WEEK about how to improve the education system

51-Prof-John-Varghese Prof John Varghese | Sanjay Ahlawat

Professor John Varghese, principal, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, has a clear stance. He believes colleges must have autonomy and that arts and sciences must go hand in hand for the all-round development of a student. In fact, St. Stephen’s has curated unique courses―from interdisciplinary to pure STEM courses―and hopes to roll them out in a phased manner if it gets autonomy. Varghese spoke to THE WEEK about what can be done to improve the Indian education system, the increasing demand for STEM courses, and what kind of government intervention is needed to improve the research ecosystem. Excerpts:

If India is a world leader today, it is because we have encouraged differences thereby creating room for excellent men and women who offer a range of talents and abilities.

Q/ Has there been an increase in demand for STEM courses this academic year? If so, why?

A/ There has not been a significant increase in STEM courses this year though I would say that there has been an increase across the years. The current set of students have a variety of choices which was not there 10 years ago, thanks to technology, online courses and encouragement of languages. The benefit is for the students because now they have a range of interdisciplinary areas to choose from and this makes for a better set of students graduating from institutions.

Q/ What do you think can be done, especially by the government, to strengthen the STEM ecosystem and to encourage students to take up research and studies in the field?

A/ One is to increase investment in education because if we are leaders in the field today, we need to sustain that leadership and we will not be able to do so unless there’s increased investment by the government in tertiary education―which means research. We should also think in terms of merging, learning, collaborating arts and sciences and I can tell you from experience of St. Stephen’s that arts students turn out to be successful because of constant interaction between sciences and humanities. We have well-brought-up personalities who are good in their disciplines but also good as human beings because of this constant interdependence. So, the government can support new kind of courses that we have in mind. Colleges have also always been in favour of autonomy and if the government supports colleges’ pursuit of autonomy, we will be able to do much better.

Q/ Does that mean there has been an uptick in demand for courses in humanities?

A/ Yes, we have seen a demand for more courses in humanities, and thanks to the National Education Policy [2020], we see a healthy attitude of interdisciplinary studies which is beneficial.

Q/ What do you think can be done to further improve the Indian education system over the next few years?

A/ One of things we should not compromise on is to pay attention to different kinds of boards. I understand there are complications in terms of compatibility between boards, but each board, whether state or central or ICSE, has a unique set of contributions in the academic life of students. If India is a world leader today, it is because we have encouraged all these differences thereby creating room for excellent men and women who offer, not only to the industry but to the world, a range of talents and abilities. If we narrow down the choices to just one kind of board or one kind of entrance exam, it will do us great harm.

Q/ Do you think the entrance exams model should be reevaluated, too?

A/ When the whole world is driven by change, we should also encourage within the education system a multiplicity of choices which means every university should encourage students from different boards to come in and bring their benefits. I hope NEP will encourage these differences including the entrance exams which I think should be differently thought of or administered.

Q/ Though we are home to IITs and other premier institutes, the research ecosystem lags behind. What can be done to improve it?

A/ The first thing is to increase the industry partnership in academia because we have a lot of inert research which is happening with no active bearing on practical life. The industry leaders can guide academicians on what kind of research is needed. Also, not all research should be expected to produce immediate practical results, as many are not immediately tangible. It is a long-term plan and has a gestation period. The government should invest more in research and engage with those interested in research to find out how their work is going to help. We should do this in a more focused manner to fetch better results.