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  • Writer's pictureAchin Jain

Taking Higher Education in the Right Direction

In a conversation with the CollPoll team, Dr Parag Diwan shares his thoughts on the current state of the higher education system in India, strategies for becoming a successful institution, and enhancing the quality of education.

This interview was first published on the CollPoll website here.

Q1. You’ve led many progressive institutions in India and have shown them the path to growth and success. What best practices do you suggest other institutions should adopt to enhance the student-faculty experience and achieve excellence?

I recall the days, 20 years ago when we started the journey of establishing a new university. In those days, private universities were very few and since we came from a corporate background, we did not have a set inclination that academics can only be done a particular way. Thus, we were very innovative, looked into practices that weren’t traditional, benchmarked global practices, and really followed the path of glocalization for purpose of the Indian higher education system.

Our university became the first institution in the country to have a completely adopted ERP system. Later we went for SAP and ERP systems that already have best practices which we adopted rather than changing SAP to adapt to our practices which may not have been best.

Secondly, we followed a different and more innovative approach to doing things. We engaged with faculty, students, and other stakeholders to know about their ideas of a good university and to participate in the process of building a well-structured institution. It was more of a collaborative process and not a top-down process. This led to a lot of innovative practices that are still continued in the institute. And, I think that’s the DNA of a modern, pioneering institution.

Q2. It’s been almost two years since the Pandemic has impacted institutions. What do you think are some of the positive changes in this situation witnessed by the higher education sector?

As it is said, every cloud has a silver lining. I believe one of the biggest changes brought about by the pandemic in the education sector is bringing online education to the mainstream. A lot of people earlier had apprehensions about the implementation and usefulness of online learning.

When the pandemic happened, institutions had to move online which led to deep learning for both students and teachers on – how to go about learning and teaching on an online platform. Everyone adapted a lot which brought technology in education to the mainstream. Today, we see a preponderance of online education and MOOC courses.

Furthermore, this also made parents aware of the pressure on their children of sitting and studying continuously in one place and realize their mental state. They now understand better the need for a good environment where students interact in person with each other and participate in co-curricular activities in teams rather than being chained to a digital device.

Basically, it led to the development on both sides of the spectrum – how to make technology mainstream and the importance of the physical environment for building students’ personality and behaviour. I think these are the two positive things that came out of this very strongly.

Q3. Digital transformation doesn’t just stop at buying software. Ground-level implementation is the key. Could you share some guidance for the leadership of institutions on – how to go about implementation, especially the behavioural and cultural changes and breaking the decades-old processes?

Many old and prestigious institutions have always followed the manual way of getting things done – big fat file works, paperwork that needs to be signed by multiple signatories and a long approval process. Shedding these bygone ways and moving towards digital transformation becomes quite difficult for them. It is easier for newer institutions of today to adapt to digital changes. However, in both cases, there are issues of deep-rooted resistance to change, more from older employees.

A good leader looks into ways of making sure that digital transformation processes happen as painlessly as possible and that there is a smooth transition from the old, paper-based system to an automated one. This change requires immense willpower and strength.

Getting rid of legacy systems is a very difficult task for any academic leader. It’s definitely not easy and there is no single prescription, everybody has to go through this process and find their own recipes to make it happen, with the will and the right strategies in place.

Q4. What are the core areas institutions in India should focus on to go from a nationally recognized institution to a globally recognized institution considering how competitive the international higher education system is?

One of the main areas is – the diversity of students. Most Indian universities have outbound traffic, meaning that Indian students go out to pursue higher education. While the reverse traffic is far too less. This raises the requirement for – interesting courses, a welcoming environment, and tolerance of multiculturalism – to invite international students for experiencing Indian education. Thus, helping them become the biggest global ambassadors.

Secondly, how well the innovation and entrepreneurial culture of universities is evolving is also important. Today, students look into the innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem of their institution. It is imperative to encourage startups and creative learning to lead them by good examples.

Thirdly, the most essential area to get accreditation, good ranking, and global recognition is – the kind of research performed by the institution. The impact an institution has on solving global challenges and issues, helps it lead in the long run.

Any academic institution that wishes to be globally recognized should work on the following three dimensions!

Q5. How can institutions improve the quality of faculty, considering this is the most important aspect that students look at during admissions?

Faculties are in short demand everywhere. Most institutions today, poach the faculty from each other. Thus, the same set of people keeps on rotating from one institute to another, every one or two years. However, it is important for institutions to hire young bright PhD graduates or other higher qualifications and create systems to grow them into talented teachers.

Institutes need to work on their development for the first few years, train them toward academic pedagogies, and create seed funding for them to develop research which is the need of the hour. Putting in the right time and effort will result in great teachers!

Secondly, it is necessary to improve the performance of teachers coming from diverse backgrounds – their teaching methods, conversational skills, language capacity, and their bent of mind toward students.

Thirdly, focus on developing the right research acumen.

In my opinion, leaders should divide faculties into 4 quadrants:

  • One quadrant holds great classroom performers, and typically 60-65% of faculty should lie in this category because teaching is one of the most vital activities.

  • Another 15-20% should be the people who do excellent research and aim towards improving the quality of papers coming out of the institutions.

  • The third quadrant should be networking faculty, including people who represent the institution and connect with different industries, find great placement opportunities, and get funds for research and development.

  • The last and final quadrant is of Superstars, comprising 2-3% of faculty who excel in all the three quadrants.

The idea should be to focus on strategies required to move people from the first three quadrants to the fourth quadrant. If you achieve this goal or move 5-10 people every year to this category, your institution is on the right path to excellent faculty development.

Our sincere thanks to the CollPoll team for this simulating conversation with Dr Diwan. We look forward to many such conversations in the near future.

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