Universities Must Promote National Interest

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Education is the key for the development process of an entire nation and can help in taking the country to global heights as a leader in the forefront, says Prof Mahendra P Lama, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), in conversation with Rozelle Laha

From being the founding Vice Chancellor of Sikkim University to Pro-Vice Chancellor of IGNOU, please share your experience as a teacher over the past 21 years.
Our country requires good institutions, primarily because students opting for higher education are very bright, targeted and forward. We need to channelise their creative minds, and their constructive and collective strength. As the founding Vice Chancellor of Sikkim University, my first aim was to build a national institution that would take care of the local youth, their needs, and an institution that would cater to the entire nation. Despite of the immense support from the central government and MHRD, we have failed to give good institutions to the people of the Northeast that are able to cater to the talented crowd there.
India has a huge role to play globally as far as education is concerned. The British, Americans, Chinese, Japanese have been using education as a very strong instrument in their foreign policy. While they are talking of hard powers like about atom bombs and tanks, but at the same time, they also give ample significance to education as a key soft power. Indians have not been able to play much on the soft power game despite of a strong historical background in education. Indian Universities should strive to promote the national interest to the global world.

 What are the major determinants of quality for education?
There is a huge difference between what we produce and what is required. When we think of quality in higher education, we should think of getting access of the same to all communities thus creating the right people to cater to the needs of the nation and transforming India into a major education hub by reaping the benefits of diverse culture, demography and geography available in the country.
The condition of the educational institutes in the country is very poor. The number of higher education institutes is insufficient to cater to a population of more than 100 crore. Availability of a university per thousand of population in India is one of the lowest in the world as compared to China, Japan or America.
On a positive note, despite of the state of Indian institutions, foreign students and faculty do come to our country. So, it is evident that they are willing to be here. We only need to create a strong strategy and ensure quality to attract more such people here.

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lama2Sikkim University offers some unique courses unlike other universities. What inspired you to introduce such courses and how have students responded to these courses?
Most of the universities are teaching more or less similar courses these days. In Sikkim University, we did not want to offer courses available in other parts of the country. So, we established the School of Sustainable Development, School of Peace, Conflict and Human Security Studies, School of Indigenous and Folk Studies, School of Global Studies among many others. These courses attracted applicants from countries like China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and India.
Most of our present day conflicts are related to natural resource management (land, water, mineral resources), but very few universities in our country offer any course on natural resource management. Similarly, India is a country that shares borders with China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and coastal border with Sri Lanka, how many universities in the country offer courses on border? We at Sikkim University realised that with new set of courses, we will not only attract students from India but also abroad.

Please throw some light on the scenario of education in the Northeastern states with reference to the Northeast Region Document.
Most people perceive that the Northeast is all about insurgency, violence and terrorism, but the fact is that people resorting to such activities comprise of less than one percent of the population living there. They do not represent the entire population. We must establish institutes in the region that would attract more students from other parts of the country who can then carry the message that Northeast is not only about insurgency. Iis also about people, food, culture, intellectual resources and heritage.
Many institutes in the Northeast that were built by the British continue to remain robust, but post independence not much was done towards building good institutes.
The Northeast Region document (released by Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, in the presence of all the Chief Ministers of the Indian states) lays ample emphasis on improvement of education, health and infrastructure of the region. We also have a Northeastern Council which is equivalent to the Planning Commission of India and Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region, but nothing much happened in terms of improvement. Government of India has a Look East Policy as a part of its main foreign policy plan. But, in the policy, where is the Northeast? When they look towards the east, they talk only of Southeast Asian countries like Malayasia, Singapore, Korea whereas the first thing they should look at is their own Northeast. The Northeast is the gateway to the Southeast Asian countries and the Northeast of the home country should be discussed more seriously.

Higher education should channelise creative minds and collective strength of youngsters

What role can universities like IGNOU play in making education more inclusive in the country and what is your vision?
IGNOU is the only institution in the country which is truly a people’s university, as it has reached to the remotest of remote areas across many communities. We aim to reach out to the millions of students who still don’t have access to higher education; to the unconventional catchment areas within India and play a critical role by imparting education with help of technology. We also aim to spread the concept of open and distance learning system across the globe.

What is your take on teachers’ training programmes in the country?
India needs quality teachers. After the qualification of Bachelors of Education was made compulsory part of school teachers’ training by March 2015, we realised that 80 percent of our teachers are not trained. To add to it, when educational boards like CBSE and the various state governments planned to train the teachers, we gathered that there are no teachers’ training institutes either.
So, with the help of skill training institutes and private institutes, IGNOU plans to train as many teachers as possible in the coming months. However, with such a huge demand in place, our efforts will be able to cater to not more than two to five percent of the need.

Higher education must be made more relevant to the society, community, country and the global world

As an eminent educationist, where do you see India five years from now? Are we headed in the right direction?
Yes. Policy wise, we are heading towards the right direction, but implementation wise, we still have a long way to go. In my opinion, a few good institutes will take the lead in making India an education hub.
There is a major lack of serious debate, discourse and discussion on higher education. The higher education system should not be led by the government. It should be led by the demand of students and aspirants. As of now all higher education related discussions are primarily triggered from the government’s end, which again is a major deviation from our foreign counterparts.

IGNOU’s Plans
• To reach out to the unconventional catchment areas in India
• To create a global mark with its open and distance learning system
• To train as many teachers as possible in the coming months
• To use technology to impart education with the help of skill training institutes and private institutes


• The need of the hour is to create a good set of teachers, so that students need not leave their hometowns to study in institutes like Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University or University of Hyderabad in pursuit of getting trained by the best.

• While migration of students from the Northeast is a sign of national integration, the reverse migration would have justified it better

east is a sign of nationl integration, the reverse migration would have justified it better

What are your future plans for IGNOU?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has signed an agreement with the African countries to set up the India- Africa Virtual University. The three partners from India i.e. the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Human Resources Development and IGNOU, together are launching a pilot project early next year. This initiative would help us understand the African countries, renew our relations with them and make a very strong education base there. We also plan to have similar initiatives with our neighbouring countries.

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