Relevance of Higher Education in 21st Century

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In a world increasingly defined and re-defined by the forces of the 21st century, all domains of human transactions have undergone massive change. Globalisation has made it mandatory to treat the world as one giant market for each and every product, service or process. Hence, no matter what the domain is, it is inevitable to consider its prospects and ramifications worldwide. Today, the chosen area of one’s endeavour is limited only by his/her imagination, otherwise all the world is a stage. Therefore, it has also become mandatory to restructure our systems and processes because for a global market, a system that stands the test at the global level is required. These are global challenges and global opportunities for what one has to offer to the 21st century world. In this context of ceaseless transformation in every sphere, education has no luxury to be a glorious exception. Across the world, it is pertinent to note that education is also measured against global benchmarks and international parameters. University rankings are the testimony of this globalized benchmarking of higher education. At such a time, when higher education is also undergoing a paradigm shift in terms of its foundational concepts, practices and benchmarks, it would be ideal to revisit higher education in India and discourse on its relevance to the globalized nature of the 21st century Indian scenario.

Dr Haresh Tank is Director, Station-e Language Lab. In the capacity of Director, he is in charge of conceptualizing and perationalizing initiatives with a special focus on Skills Development. He holds a doctorate in Statistics and is a noted Statistical Analyst. He was also nominated for Young Scientist Award


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Above image highlights links between university schools or learning areas and their contribution to the different sectors

Across the world, higher education is deemed equivalent to opportunities for the youth to explore and widen the horizons of knowledge and seek the fulfillment of their aspirations. For a country like India that is deemed the youngest country in the world, it is easy to relate the development of the country to its youth and their development to higher education. In such an equation, it is advisable to ensure that the youth get the higher education of the international standards because they will be required to compete and perform at the international level. Unfortunately, it seems that there is a long way to go before we equip our youth through higher education for such international competition because our universities have not figured very high in the University Rankings and the employability ratio of the oft-quoted World Bank figure of 10% for general graduates does not seem to be going away too soon. If higher education is the system to provide the youth the opportunity for the development of their skills and competencies so that they realize their full potential and fulfill their aspirations, we are yet to see that happen for scores of youth who seek these employability skills and await simple straight forward employment opportunities. It has been stressed in various researches and reports on education that the aspects of experiential learning, application- based education and training of the youth to address the market needs are invaluable for the relevance of a country’s education and disregard for all this will invariably lead to erosion of the significance of education system itself. Hence, higher education is required to take cognizance of the fact that the world expects it to provide youth for its varied business and market needs and the responsibility of training them for that cannot be any longer avoided or postponed. Increasingly, higher education and employability are being related with each other and rigorously discoursed on different government and industry forums. Universities have enjoyed and continue to enjoy certain intellectual freedom that no organization in any domain does because everything is tied today to impact, outcomes and results. But the scenario has undergone a thorough change since the governments, industry bodies, companies and people at large have begun to link higher education to employability and employment and we have come to a point of no-return. Therefore, higher education will need to strive to fulfill its mandate of providing trained and skilled workforce to the country. It is not exactly disadvantageous to higher education because it is in this way that the relevance of higher education will be enhanced and its significance will remain sacred and beyond question.
The reasons for strengthening the relevance of higher education in the 21st century are many. Firstly, the 21st century as a knowledge century needs a robust system of higher learning. Secondly, if higher education fails, everything else is likely to be adversely affected – the economy, business, industry, etc. Thirdly, it is for creating knowledge workers of the 21st century that we need to empower higher education with respect to its relevance and its contribution to the society and national development. This is not the conjecture derived out of idle thinking. It concerns what is at stake. It is aptly captured by Dr Ragunath A Mashelkar, “As I see it from my perch in India’s science and technology leadership, if India plays its cards right, it can become by 2020 the world’s number-one knowledge production center, creating not only valuable private goods but also much needed public goods that will help the growing global population suffer less and live better.”
In India’s growth story, becoming ‘world’s number one knowledge production center’ is not optional. It is mandatory to accomplish it because unless there is knowledge production to suit the 21st century needs, India will never become an economic superpower. Increasingly, economic growth is directly being linked with what kind of education is provided to its youth. It is unequivocally clear that higher education is particularly entrusted with this responsibility of ‘knowledge production’, that Dr Mashelkar refers to, that is beneficial to the country and to the world. For such knowledge production and knowledge application, the youth need to be trained for a different skills set. The novel modes of teaching have to come into play and ICT has to be integrated to hone the skills of this high-tech generation for the kind of world they are likely to deal with as professional is quite different from the precepts taught at university departments. Connecting these dots in higher education is required to be done on priority basis so that we can see the full picture and act accordingly. Thus far, we have operated from an ivory tower but now that is a luxury we cannot afford because we have a large youth population to answer to and stakeholders in the world business and industry to provide skilled workforce for. Economics and Education have never been such close allies in national development. But the time is ripe for such a collaboration of mutual interest. Universities will enrich themselves further if they take a cue from market needs and offer courses and train students for skills and competencies that cater to specific industry and market situations. For an economy like ours which rests heavily on the Services sector, it would be ideal to have some skills development provision for the youth for that specific sector so that when they enter it, they excel at it. In all, the question of relevance of higher education is linked with questions of skilled workforce and economic development. If we, the policymakers, administrators and academicians, answer the question well, it will be our genuinely enduring contribution to nation building and, as for the question of the relevance of higher education, it will cease to exist.

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