Maghan Varkey, Director - Edunoia, ABND Education Practice
I remember the time when I was preparing to take my first step towards my Higher Education journey. I come from a family background with a Mother who worked in Research & Development and a Father in Finance. The one who spent her life in Science advised me to choose Commerce and vice versa. I visited a Career Counsellor, but that did not help build cognizance about the various career trajectories that I could explore in the long term. I did the only thing that I was aware about at the time; I based my decision on grade. I figured that if you were a Grade A student, you studied science and eventually became a doctor. Halfway into my Zoology degree, I realised that that wasn’t the path for me and decided to train for and ultimately took the CAT post my graduation. I was one of the only 2 people in a class of 80 MBA students with a Science background; I had to work twice as hard to start with the basics, against others who already had 3 years of academic, and more years of work experience ahead of me.
But, when I look around me today, I know that I am not the only person in the room with a career pivot. I am surrounded by Engineers who became Business Consultants, Designers who became Brand Strategists, and Content Developers who became UX Strategists. The real world does not exist in silos and it’s impossible for learning to remain unidimensional.
So, when the National Education Policy of 2020 launched, it was a boon as it encouraged universities across India to introduce liberal and interdisciplinary learning. Higher Education should have never been about getting a degree but rather about making sure you're ready for the world, and the NEP encourages this. Whether you're in a field that requires domain expertise or not, you need to be able to think critically and have a problem-solving approach. You need to be aware of real-world dynamics from an early stage and be able to apply your learnings from one discipline to another. And while there were few institutions who became pioneers in Liberal Education a decade ago, the NEP 2020 changed the game. It brought a whirlwind of change in academic curriculum, degrees with various entry/exit options, emphasised the need for a strong faculty community, and more.
However, with it also came several challenges. Over these past two years, having interacted with numerous Universities and Schools, the following pain points grew more and more evident:
When you speak to an audience in the education sector, there's never going to be a narrative that doesn't sound good. If we observe communication of leading liberal education institutions in India, few key words remain constant throughout – Global Exposure, Future-forward Pedagogy, Holistic Education, Holistic Admissions, Diversity, and Collaboration. This isn’t just among legacy names, but newer institutes are falling prey to it too. It’s an issue of short-term agility rather than focusing on long-term clarity. In conversation with an academician from one of these leading institutes, one statement caught my attention, “unless the parent has a high level of understanding, the level of awareness is relatively low. The more direct you are or the more objective driven you are, the more you will appeal to them.” With every institute claiming interdisciplinarity and the lack of awareness about what it truly entails, it is no longer about just being distinctive. Universities need to focus on what makes their learning experience more relevant to various stakeholder groups over the others.
“Interdisciplinary learning is going to become the rich man’s B.A and B.Com - that’s how students are looking at it and that’s why universities are investing in it.”, said another academician to me. The new education system needs to be positioned as less of a privilege and more of a natural transition from a STEM focused generation to a new-age way of learning.
Foundationally, the academic excellence of a University is mapped with the number of Ph.D. faculty. However, today, this shift in approach also requires the faculty community to respect and lean into other disciplines, while being experts in their own. They need to build a culture of innovation by bringing different perspectives into the classroom. The NEP recommends that academicians be trained in AI, Design Thinking, and other subjects, but beyond all of this, faculty need to feel like they are supported in their own personal growth as well.
The NEP also looks at Industry Practitioners to take up faculty roles at Universities to fill up the lacuna of practicality which may be missing in academics. Outreach, in this context, becomes all the more vital in order to empanel the right practitioners and create opportunities to build programs which are more integrated with the industry.
Two years ago, we were all talking about buzzwords like "big data" and "machine learning". Today, those words are still being used—but they're not at the forefront anymore. Instead, we're talking about how we can use technology to improve our lives and make us better humans. We're talking about how artificial intelligence can help us understand ourselves better and get more out of our relationships with each other. We're talking about how augmented reality can make our lives easier—and more fun! The five pillars of the NEP – Affordability, Accessibility, Quality, Equity, and Accountability - will evolve too, and it will be interesting to see how much will change over the next decade.