IIT-Mâ€™s new leavesPerhaps as a reaction to the increasingly articulated criticism that Indiaâ€™s much-hyped institutions of science and technology education are producing a new generation of narrowly specialised science nerds and â€˜techno-cooliesâ€™ lacking broader holistic education, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) is all set to introduce revised study programmes in the humanities in the academic year 2006-07. Under the aegis of its department of humanities and social sciences (HSS) which has been operational in a low-profile manner since 1959, IIT-M will now offer a never-before five-year integrated Master of Arts degree in development studies, economics and English studies.
"We have always believed that engineering students need exposure to the humanities. Thatâ€™s why we started our multidisciplinary HSS department. Its faculty of 17 has hitherto been teaching humanities courses tailored for engineering students. We felt that if they upgraded and taught these three subjects as full-fledged programmes to humanities students, they would do a great job. Our engineering students will also benefit from the introduction of these newly developed courses," says Dr. M.S. Ananth, director of IIT-M.
The distinctive feature of the programme is that it allows students to acquire a wide exposure in the humanities and social sciences during the first two years of the new Masters programme by introducing them to a variety of common subjects related to the three major disciplines, before they choose their majors. A variety of elective courses will be offered to provide good foundational knowledge. Another defining characteristic is the involvement of the engineering, sciences and management faculties to offer innovative â€˜minor streamsâ€™ or electives in collaboration with the HSS department. "Thus the humanities, engineering and science streams will study their electives together in the same class, allowing for cross-disciplinary interaction," says Prof. V.R. Muralidharan, head of the department of humanities and social sciences, IIT-M.
New minor stream electives available to students include environmental policy, financial and healthcare management, technology policy, computers and society, development policy and planning, besides electives already available to B.Tech students. Humanities students will have to study compulsory courses in ecology, environmental and life sciences, basics in statistics, mathematics, information technology, communication skills and a foreign language.
IIT-Mâ€™s initiative to introduce degree programmes in the humanities has been greeted with much enthusiasm by students and the academic community who believe that the arts and social sciences students will receive excellent education given the reputation of IIT-M for excellence. Dr. Nirmala Prasad principal of Chennaiâ€™s M.O.P. Vaishnav College believes that IIT-Mâ€™s humanities study programme will open the eyes of students to the value of liberal arts subjects.
Senior academicians are also of the view that it may serve to correct academic imbalances. "In Tamil Naduâ€™s schools, students are conditioned to believe that they donâ€™t have a future in the liberal arts and they tend to flock en masse to medicine, science and engineering programmes. There is little awareness that basic knowledge of psychology, history, economics and sociology is essential for students of all disciplines to understand the political and socio-economic problems confronting the country," says Prasad.
IIT-Mâ€™s five-year Masterâ€™s programme in the humanities has already received 800 applications, with more pouring in against a scheduled intake of only 30 students in all three disciplines. The selection process is therefore expected to be highly competitive and will be based on a humanities-sciences entrance examination (HSEE) 2006 which will test English and comprehension skills, analytical and quantitative ability, general, environment and ecology knowledge. The examination is slated to be held on May 21 in the four metros.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)
Anniversary politicsThe 150th anniversary celebrations of the University of Calcutta (which incidentally, has resisted pressure to change its appellation to the University of Kolkata) were flagged off on January 24 by President A.P.J. Kalam. With the university in an upbeat mood and in the throes of change which will hopefully erase many of its archaic academic practices, levels of excitement at the Founderâ€™s Day function were so high that no one remembered to sing the national anthem at the end of the programme! University authorities apologised for the slip later.
"Having stepped into its 150th year, what better way for the University of Calcutta to celebrate, than to bring about a change in the content of the courses taught here," remarked pro vice chancellor Dr. Suranjan Das. "Like many other traditional universities of the world, we too, are revamping our syllabuses to adapt to the ever-changing requirements of students. A problem with vintage universities like ours is that there is great emphasis on individual excellence in science, technology, history, literature and so on. It is time now to turn things around and look forward to collaborative research rather than individual academic excellence."
But according to senior academics, this is easier said than done because the city does not have enough institutions to provide quality postgraduate, i.e research, education. Indeed, there was a time when there was a great imbalance between infrastructure and head count. Owing to this imbalance, many students migrated, usually to foreign destin-ations. The university hopes that the new postgrad study programmes will stem the exodus.
For this purpose, greater interaction between schools and departments of foreign universities and their counterparts in Calcutta University is in the offing. A memorandum of understanding to this effect has been signed with Tokyo Universityâ€™s School of Oriental Studies. Another MoU is scheduled to be signed this month with Monash University, Australia.
At the undergraduate level as well, courses are being overhauled. For instance, age-old examination patterns are being phased out, making room for credit-based semester systems.
According to Das, the establishment of the universityâ€™s Techno Campus at Salt Lake in suburban Kolkata is the realisation "of a long-cherished dream". "Information technology innovations and their all-pervading impact on education can be witnessed in the new policies of the university. A new e-communication system has been installed, to enable the management to supervise the university better," adds Das.
Moreover, a new policy initiative of the university is to bestow academic autonomy upon select elite institutions. St Xavierâ€™s College and Presidency College head this list.
Inevitably, the proposal to grant autonomy to Calcutta Universityâ€™s best colleges has run into a political road block. Hardliners in the ruling CPI (Marxist) party which dominates the West Bengal College and University Teachers Association (WBCUTA) are against the dilution of government and the university control over these colleges recommended for autonomy by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
West Bengal higher education minister Satyasadhan Chakraborty says the state government will back the autonomy proposal when it gets "the teaching communityâ€™s support". Promptly, West Bengalâ€™s reformist chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee delivered a rebuke: "This is not the last word on the subject. If necessary, I will intervene." State assembly elections are due in West Bengal in three monthsâ€™ time and poll watchers are confident that Chakrabortyâ€™s days as higher education minister are numbered, if the CPI-M led Left Front government is returned to office as expected.
Political issues apart, what matters are funds â€” and how efficiently they are put to use. The allocation made by UGC in 2003-4 was Rs.2.03 crore for the University of Calcutta (cf. Rs.2.95 crore for Jadavpur University). It now remains to be seen what the UGC has in store for the University of Calcutta in its 150th year.
Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)
Gender bias correctiveA cautious beginning in correcting gender stereotyping â€” the bane of Indian school education â€” is evident in the new textbooks of the countryâ€™s largest school texts publisher, the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT). The councilâ€™s textbooks are prescribed by 8,000 CBSE schools and estimated 3,000 Central government schools countrywide.
The new texts cautiously project the achievements of women in fields other than domestic and subservient roles. "The idea is to counter typical beliefs that women are less competent than men in workplaces and the professions. We want to change the image of women as being suited only to jobs of teachers and nurses. The new textbooks will prompt students to perceive women as bread-winners and respect girls from childhood. We have researched and added numerous examples of women achievers who have never been chronicled," says Poonam Aggarwal, head of the department of women studies, NCERT.
The expectation is that the new texts will inculcate new thinking about women from childhood. "Society envisions stereotyped roles for men and women, but itâ€™s high time such archaic notions changed. We involved teachers, focus groups, textbook committees for correcting gender stereotypes in the curriculum. Obviously reversing deep-rooted biases will take time but children need to be taught that women are as capable of performing every job competently," adds Aggarwal.
Apart from content matter, the reverse cover pages of several NCERT textbooks will display the achievements of women in various fields and highlight provisions of the Constitution that prohibit gender discrimination to propagate affirmative action in favour of women.
The school teachersâ€™ community which is heavily women intensive, has welcomed the NCERT initiative. Comments Bharati Sharma, principal, Amity International School: "This welcome and overdue initiative needs to be supplemented by teacher involvement. Although itâ€™s a positive step, we need to intensify the gender debate through student led discussions on the capabilities of women."
"The perspective of most Indian families on women is prejudiced. Gender balanced textbooks will definitely help to change opinions about womenâ€™s capabilities. More vitally, in the long run, this will reduce female foeticides and dowry deaths," adds Sunita Khanna, a teacher at Delhi Public School.
Priyanka Gupta (New Delhi)
Mobile computer literacy projectMaharashtraâ€™s first internet literacy programme for rural areas was kick-started on February 13, when the stateâ€™s first mobile van complete with computer and internet facilities was flagged off by deputy chief minister R.R. Patil in Mumbai. Assigned the mission of spreading computer literacy within rural Maharashtra, the project is the brainchild of Dr. Rajan Weklukar, the highly respected vice chancellor of the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University (YCMOU), Nashik.
Established in July 1989, YCMOU is the countryâ€™s fifth open university offering 54 academic programmes and 204 subject courses to its 4 lakh registered students, through eight regional and 1,400 affiliated study centres, spread across Maharashtra (pop. 96 million).
Explains Dr. Anuradha Deshmukh, head of programme evaluation and the quality assurance resource centre of YCMOU: "Our experien-ce of distance education has made us aware of the needs of rural areas in the state, and we know that the biggest problem is shortage of competent teachers in remote villages. The basic objective of the mobile computer literacy project is to at least partially reduce the digital divide between rural and urban Maharashtra. We have teachers to impart instruction but they are not accessible to rural folk. Our project intends to rectify this situation."
While the inaugural van is set to roll out within a couple of weeks, YCMOUâ€™s target is a van for each of Maharashtraâ€™s 35 districts. Assembled at a cost of Rs.20 lakh, the inaugural van is equipped with six personal computers and has a seating capacity of 12 for students to get hands-on experience in PC usage. "The van is also equipped with a connection to Edusat, the satellite launched by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) for education purposes," says Deshmukh. "This facility will give our vans connectivity enabling rural students to interact with the countryâ€™s best teachers, ask questions and receive answers," she says.
The plan as visualised by YCMOU, is that each van will be stationed in every district and taluka headquarters for three months to enable students to register and pursue short-term courses in computer literacy, which will be conducted during specified hours daily. "We are finalising the fee structure and a system by which students can write exams to evaluate their learning achievements," says Deshmukh, adding that the vans will also be used for other purposes such as telecasting public health programmes.
While the first van has been financed and operationalised in collaboration with the Commonwealth Youth Programme, YCMOU hopes that the state government will partner with it in getting the other 34 vans rolling. "The department of higher and technical education has shown interest in the project. We hope to be partnering with them soon," says Deshmukh.
The open universityâ€™s enthusiasm for this project seems to have rubbed off on officials in the state governmentâ€™s somnolent education department. "We are certainly interested in the project. Once we have a detailed proposal from YCMOU, we will examine it and finalise a further course of action," says a deputy secretary of the state governmentâ€™s education department who preferred to remain anonymous.
But given the slow pace at which the stateâ€™s educracy moves, the YCMOU faculty is keeping its fingers crossed.
Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)
Cautious new optimismFollowing a tumultuous 20-month period marked by hasty decisions, careless announce-ments, attempts to push political nominees into the syndicates of the stateâ€™s seven varsities, vociferous debates on introduction of English in primary schools, frequent court rulings on CETs (Common Entrance Tests) and reservations in private unaided colleges of medical and engineering education, academics in Karnataka (pop. 57 million), have accorded a cautious welcome to the new Janata Dal (S)- BJP coalition government which was sworn in on February 3. In particular they express satisfaction that the three new education ministers â€” Basavaraj Horatti, V.S. Acharya and D.H. Shankaramurthy â€” are making all the right noises and may well mitigate, if not end, the chaos and confusion in the education sector.
Certainly the auguries are good. The first decision of the new higher education minister Shankaramurthy has been to revoke the previous governmentâ€™s proposal to amend the Karnataka State Universities (KSU) Act 2000, to facilitate government nomination of "people who have served the cause of education" rather than "eminent educationists" to the stateâ€™s seven universities as stipulated by s.28(g) of the KSU Act. "We will not allow our university campuses to be politicised. Academics should be allowed to function independently," declares Shankaramurthy. Moreover Shankaramurthy, a BJP heavyweight who is unencumbered by the socialist baggage of his Congress predecessor, seems determined to resolve the impasse between the state government and privately promoted professional education institutions (engineering, medical and dental colleges) grouped under the umbrella body Consortium of medical, engineering and dental colleges of Karnataka (Comed-K), without recourse to further litigation. Despite three Supreme Court judgements (TMA Pai Foundation Case (2002), Islamic Academy of Education Case (2003) and P.A. Inamdar Case (2006)), several government notifications and reams of explanatory reports, a settlement has eluded the state government and Comed-K. "I have convened a high-powered meeting of Comed-K representatives with the chief minister and am determined to resolve this matter once and for all within the ambit of the Supreme Court judgements in the TMA Pai and P.A. Inamdar cases, which in my opinion are fair to both college managements and students," says Shankaramurthy.
Likewise the new governmentâ€™s medical education minister V.S. Acharya seems determined to augment medical education capacity asap. "The previous administration had sanctioned Rs.55 crore for setting up six new government medical colleges. This amount was deemed insufficient by the Medical Council of India (MCI). I have asked for an additional Rs.30 crore to overcome the shortfall and speed up the work of building infrastructure to MCIâ€™s satisfaction. I am sure this year MCI will not reject our proposal and we will be able to admit students into some of the new medical colleges," says Acharya.
Yet the education minister most likely to succeed is Basavaraj Horatti (JD-S) who acquired a good reputation in the previous government as rural development panchayat raj (RDPR) and science and technology minister. A former physical education teacher, Horatti has represented the teachersâ€™ constituency as an MLC for over two decades and played a major role in introducing in-service training programmes for science teachers.
"In my capacity as RDPR minister in the previous government, I had ordered construction of 23,000 toilets in the stateâ€™s rural schools by March 31. I will ensure this target is met and that the new government releases adequate funds for infrastructure development in all schools. Moreover we will take a final decision on introducing the teaching of English in government primary schools from class I. This issue has been pending for much too long," says Horatti.
Meanwhile the primary, higher and medical education reform promises of the new set of ministers have been met with cautious optimism by academics and educationists in the state. Comments Dr. M.S. Thimappa vice chancellor of Bangalore University: "With the revocation of the proposal to dilute the KSU Act, the new government has got off to a good start and the new education ministers seem serious about education reform urgently required in all sectors. But such bold declarations of intent have been made and broken too often. So we shouldnâ€™t pitch our expectations too high. Letâ€™s wait to be pleasantly surprised."
Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)
Gradual consensusThe union human resource development ministry is quietly testing waters for sex education in schools with the introduction of a pilot project last month (February) on HIV/ AIDS awareness in seven Central government owned Kendriya Vidyalaya schools in Delhi. Under the project, teachers and groups of students from these schools attended intensive training workshops organised by Eduserve, a Delhi-based education consultancy. "The objective is to institutionalise sensitisation to the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and to create awareness about safe sex practices for its prevention on a perpetual basis," says Dr. Meenakshi Nayar, director of Eduserve and a renowned psychologist.
With a public consensus over introducing sex and reproductive health education in school and college syllabuses having failed to emerge, projects like this fall into the sphere of alternative or supplementary education. But even though there is no consensus on the pedagogy of sex education, there is broad agreement within academia that it is necessary. Given that nearly one-third of Indiaâ€™s population is in the 10-24 age bracket, the introduction of HIV/AIDS education is crucial to save this precious human resource.
Therefore even prior to the pilot project in the KVs, the HRD ministry had cautiously broached the subject of sex education. While listing the ministryâ€™s achievements at the Sixth Editors Conference on social sector issues recently, officials highlighted its "adolescence education programme" stating "the ministry has launched a national adolescence education programme (AEP) to address issues related to HIV/AIDS awareness and life skills in curricular and co-curricular activities in secondary schools." For the record, education departments administer AEP with state AIDS control societies with a similar arrangement at the national level between the HRD ministry and NACO (National Aids Control Organisation).
Meanwhile, HRD ministry officials from minister downwards remain adamant about denying information and responses requested by EducationWorld on issues of public interest. Nevertheless EW has learnt that AEP, which is projected as a major programme to prevent the spread of HIV infections and scheduled to cover 86 percent of the country during 2005-06, is a non-starter in many states. With ministry officials not quite serious about its implementation, the programme lacks teeth and has remained extraneous to school curriculums.
However disparate initiatives have been launched to make youth sensitive to the HIV/ AIDS scourge, although national synchronisation is lacking. For instance, the pilot project in KVs doesnâ€™t fall under AEP. Likewise a Unicef AIDS awareness programme has been introduced in Rajasthan, and may find its way into private schools, but it is also being taught as an extra-curricular subject.
According to a Unicef, report, the teachersâ€™ community is wary of the subject because of societal prejudices. "It is teachers who must act as agents of change in introducing sex education in schools. That is why we have targeted them in our programme," says Nayar.But Nayar also blames parents who seem unaware of the dangers of the deadly HIV/AIDS scourge. "Our young population is encountering problems on sexuality on an everyday basis, but many parents have absurdly obsolete notions about sex education, counselling etc. They need to acknowledge that sex education is no longer a morality issue. A HIV/AIDS epidemic could wipe out our young population," she warns.
But on the positive side people are beginning to speak up for sex education. "We fully support every endeavour to educate and modify behaviour of young people to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS, a pandemic stalking the nation," says Dr. Vinay Agarwal, general secretary of the Indian Medical Association.
Gradually â€” in typical Indian style â€” a consensus for introduction of sex education in schools is emerging.
Autar Nehru (New Delhi)