Interdisciplinary Approach Promotes Critical Thinking

TG Sitharam, Chairman, AICTE, provides an insight into how the organisation is enabling the implementation of NEP

You have recently assumed charge at the helm of AICTE. Drawing from your vast academic experience in leading engineering colleges, culminating with being the director of IIT Guwahati, what for you are the key priorities for technical education institutions?

At AICTE, a significant genre of activities is spearheading an industrial co-innovation network while concentrating on diverse research fields in cooperation with international institutions and research centres in order to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In sync with Prime Minister Gati Shakti Scheme, AICTE is dedicated to creating better opportunities in the field of employment generation and entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, AICTE establishes an ecosystem for co-innovation and start-ups and provides incentives and awards to students and faculty for job-specific abilities. In addition, AICTE suggests switching from building Towers of Excellence to a Network of Excellence with Collaborative Value Positions incorporating other prestigious institutes and universities of the country.

What are the strengths of our technical education institutions and where are they found lacking? How do you propose to further improve their quality?

The technical educational institutes in the country are transforming in the era of disruptive innovation. Their strength lies in the lap of innovation and modern technologies. Yes, there are some challenges but our sincere efforts are thriving at establishing an entrepreneurial ecosystem and providing youth in India with employment prospects. AICTE institutions can produce a lot of innovations and new start-ups with more advanced research at all of its institutions, which can open the door for a fantastic job creator. This calls on AICTE to act as a facilitator for all stakeholders by evaluating the potential impact of sustainable development using the right tools and methodology in line with the Ministry of Education's goal.

You have assumed charge at a time when NEP is being implemented in higher education institutes. How does NEP promise to be a game changer for the youth of today? And how can it be implemented in the true spirit? What are the challenges that you see in its implementation?

National Education Policy-2020 is a landmark document and a guiding source to bring reformative changes in the Indian education sector. The NEP 2020, India's first major policy since 1986, has various challenges of tackling many questions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "We are approaching the 75th year of Independence. In a way, NEP implementation has taken on importance in relation to this event. A new India and young people who are prepared for the future will be made possible by this".

AICTE has charted out the modalities for phased implementation of the Policy at various levels and broadly earmarks the short-term, mid-term and long-term goals which will be assessed and reviewed periodically. The school curriculum has been modified to include financial literacy and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of the roll-out of important NEP initiatives. Given that the mother tongue or regional language was given priority under the NEP, similar measures have been taken, albeit on a trial basis, in a number of states.

Additionally, the Ministry of Education has introduced the much-discussed Academic Bank of Credit, a concept that would give college students several admission and exit alternatives. Aside from these, there are a number of important initiatives, including the NIPUN Bharat Mission, which aims to improve students' reading, writing, and math skills by the end of third grade, the Vidya Pravesh school readiness programme for first-graders, the DIKSHA teaching-learning content repository, and the NISHTHA teacher training programme for secondary-level educators. A few states have started the programme's rollout. On August 24, 2022, Karnataka became the first state to implement NEP. A series of NEP initiatives recently undertaken by Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh are giving this massive project a much-needed boost it needs.

India has done an outstanding job of building a vast infrastructure throughout the nation to provide engineering education to thousands of candidates in every state each year. However, in order to meet the demands for the next generation of engineering skills, we need to scale up high-quality technical education. We have researched the existing state of engineering education in order to assist the reforms that are being taken for the training and employment of engineering graduates and AICTE is working towards it.

Standing of Indian institutes in global rankings is a point of discussion in academia now. Do you think these rankings truly reflect the work that our institutes are doing? And if so, how can we improve our standing?

Universities that don't rank highly on these global ranking list experience persistent concern. They may experience a sense of 'lagging behind' because of this. It causes people to stigmatise them. We are focussed on the ranking system that is 'value-neutral'. Most of us will lose the moral fortitude to rethink the scale of the university's ties to the outside world throughout this process.

Global Universities are more focused on using figures, calculations, and tables to illustrate their points. Citations per paper, papers per faculty, the percentage of international students, the prestige of the employer, the teacher-student ratio, and the global research network are some examples of these statistics.

Even though these studies were published in international publications, statisticians are unable to comprehend their relevance, despite their ability to quantify the papers by faculty. It is hard to discern whether these tools are actually fostering the growth of novel, exciting concepts in the natural and social sciences while also raising global awareness of ethical issues.

Professors have perfected the skill of partaking in the practice of producing papers in this academic competition for publications, citations, and global networking. They have the ability to control the carefully designed networking circuits in order to increase citations. But we need to do more on patents and Intellectual property filings.

Then, what should we do next? Awakened intelligence and knowledge need to be equated in global universities and colleges. It should strive to bring together relevant research and development-led innovations to transfer technologies and develop products.

Learners who are empathetic and sensitive must be fostered. These students ought to hone their academic abilities in the fight against social issues like racism, casteism, and religious bigotry; and it ought to connect wisdom with knowledge. In order to work toward a future that is egalitarian, environmentally conscious and spiritually exalted, wisdom must reframe what study in science, technology, economics and sociology means.

Moreover, to be noted, seven IITs opted out from the THE World University Rankings in 2020— Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras & Roorkee and raised questions about the rankings' integrity and criteria. They had said in a joint statement that ‘this year's list will not include the seven IITs. If Times Higher Education is successful in persuading them about the guidelines and transparency in their ranking procedure, they will re-evaluate their choice the following year. However, since 2020, several IIT’s have not participated in THE Ranking until now.

What is your view on making our youth job-ready versus developing their entrepreneurial acumen?

It is a question better to be left for the youth to decide. We can only guide them toward their ideas. Whatever they choose, being a self-dependent entrepreneur or a manager of a firm who leads a team, it totally depends upon them. AICTE builds a neutral environment for both. One thing which should be noted is that all cannot be entrepreneurs. But, if one sincerely works hard to develop skills in multiple areas, one can develop entrepreneurial acumen.

Most higher education institutes are now focussing on research (especially interdisciplinary work) and incubation. What are the factors behind a successful research ethos in an institute?

Focusing on creating a multi-disciplinary educational environment is a crucial step that will benefit the students and have a lasting impact. Research and innovation is key for successful educational institutes.

Students will have a wider range of subjects to pick from without the limitations they encountered earlier thanks to the flexibility to choose subjects from the sciences and humanities with the option to also learn fine arts and sports.

Additionally, this method will promote critical thinking, self-reflection, research, leadership, collaborative abilities, a sense of dedication, professionalism and a greater awareness of one's socio-cultural surroundings.

One of the cornerstones of the NEP 2020 is to train the faculty and mentors for research and innovation through a targeted procedure and planned way. The teachers must receive training immediately in order to improve their abilities in conducting research. They must be knowledgeable about cutting-edge research and development; innovation to transform their ideas into products and teaching through effective approaches to provide top-notch content.

Another innovative measure is the 'National Credit Framework', which allows vertical and lateral mobility. This will have a positive effect on encouraging more interested aspirants to choose academia as a career. India needs to open up more PhD applications to those with a Master's degree or four-year undergraduate degree students as it is key for the nation. I am optimistic that there will be a noticeable improvement in the high-calibre faculty numbers in higher education.

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