Redesigning our universities

April 26, 2018 01:30 AM Shyam Sharma


Teachers and students and the public alike will be thirstier for new knowledge if university education is defined as and designed for putting research first

Would you feel comfortable having a major surgery by a doctor if their training only involved trial and error? Would you want to drive on roads and bridges built by engineers who learned to do so from textbooks written somewhere else in the world? How about economic and social policies that are based on guesswork, historical and cultural understanding on hearsay and mythology, natural resources never explored, environment not systematically preserved, agriculture failing to advance—through research?  

Behind all of the above, the most important agent is the university. Unfortunately, our universities do not yet advance research sufficiently, whether as a mode of teaching and professional development of their faculty, as a skill for their students’ future careers, or as their own social responsibility. Other than some field work, some experiential learning, and some library research toward the end of some degrees, research is yet to become central to our higher education. And other than for a minority of scholars, research remains a ritual of documenting publication as and when required for hiring or promotion. 

Defining by research

An emerging nation needs a robust culture of research advanced by its higher education. Research is necessary for expanding knowledge, accelerating economic and social progress, improving the labor force, and elevating the standard living and quality of life.  

We need our universities to do research in the health sector for developing medicine and finding cures, understanding the human body and diseases, creating better management and service. It is not enough for doctors to simply learn surgery skills by repeating. Medical schools must engage them in systematic inquiry and recording, analysis and interpretation, presentation and feedback, so they can pursue their careers equipped to constantly improve. That is, we must ask: Do our medical colleges have strong enough foundations of research behind the training of our doctors?  

Through engineering schools, our universities must do research for designing new products, finding cost efficiency, and translating research into commercially viable goods and services. Our engineering colleges must develop and adapt to our local needs the emerging technologies of automation and robotics, inventory management and logistical systems, computer-aided design and new applications and platforms. We must ask: Are our engineering students graduating with sufficient skills for facing emerging challenges and creating new opportunities in their profession, nationally and locally? 

Departments of social sciences in our universities must do research for formulating new and better social policies, studying economic challenges and directing national planning, understanding political challenges and facilitating good governance, finding balance between public/private good and advancing sustainable economic development, and enhancing methods to document social progress. Sociologists must use research to develop new theories about human institutions and economists must create new ways to simulate, control, and facilitate the movement of wealth. Statisticians and mathematicians must use research to provide analytical tools, financial models, and accounting and actuarial systems. So, we must ask: Are our social scientists engaging students in gathering and analyzing data about social reality, in developing intellectual perspectives and practical solutions?   

The fields of the natural science in our universities must do research for advancing scientific knowledge (basic research) and applying that knowledge to social uses (applied research). The advancement of science through research and dissemination of knowledge has helped countries win war and make rapid socioeconomic progress during peace. We too must ask: Are our future scientists learning to explore the natural world and apply new knowledge for social advancement? 

In the humanities, our universities must do research for better understanding history and humanity, appreciating and connecting cultures, making sense of complex issues about life and inspiring people. Histories that are not rigorously critiqued and cultures that are not carefully studied can be superficial, or even full of lies and shallow beliefs and practices. Hence, we must ask: Are our students being taught how to use critical perspectives and the ability to rethink culture and history, to revisit and reinterpret them? 

The field of education in our universities must do research to improve teaching and learning by developing new pedagogical methods and curricular approaches, to understand social needs and affect educational policies. Thus, we must ask: Are our national education policies based more on rigorous data gathering and analysis about the nation’s material and social, economic and political contexts than they are on mere opinions and ideologies of our scholars? 

In agricultures and related fields, we need universities to use research for making giant leaps toward feeding, protecting, and creating opportunities for all people. They must research crop yield and genetically enhanced foods, effects of climate change and ways to mitigate them, irrigation system and disease control, food safety and nutrition. As such, we must ask: Are our future agricultural scientists learning how to find, assess, and build on current knowledge in their field?  

Doing it locally 

One of the traditional excuses about research in developing countries is that their universities cannot afford to produce new knowledge, so they instead just “apply” knowledge produced by more economically advanced nations. In reality, application cannot be easily separated from production of knowledge. Nor is all knowledge universal. Less economically advanced nations must also produce scholars and scientists who can contribute new knowledge and unique perspectives to the broader world—for recognition/respect and for long-term goals—as well as for local/national needs. 

Our universities must prepare students to take research skills into the workforce across the society. They must work with other social institutions—both public and private, national and international—to promote better governance and enhance rule of law, improve public health and make education accessible, and seek greater social justice for all. A culture of research also impacts individual citizens who learn to “find out” and “assess” and take “systematic” approaches to understanding work, society, and life. 

University research leads to both social good and private gain. Public investment in research universities is needed to explore broader challenges and tackle long-term goals of knowledge-building. Its spillover effect on industry and business is very high. Private institutions—academic, social, or even commercial—must also embrace research not just to monetize it but also to build social goodwill and longer-term benefits. 

Especially in the context of decentralized governance, making education research-based can help us put it to direct use, both by studying and tackling local socioeconomic needs/opportunities and by preparing students to do so in the future. To do this this, we cannot just adopt a model from another country. We must adapt good practices to our local realities, developing new designs and methods as needed locally. 

Changing by design 

To be truly effective as teachers, professors must continue to study their own fields of knowledge and connect their knowledge to other fields, exploring physical and social phenomena or developing new designs and products, creating art or developing technological applications. Those who only teach (or even help apply) knowledge produced by others can quickly become outdated in their knowledge, bored or boring, and uncritical and unable to prepare students for the future. Most teachers who don’t do research themselves are unable to teach research skills to their students. Even if the curriculum is changed constantly and teachers are excited by others’ ideas, teaching second-hand knowledge doesn’t make universities worth the money. 

But how can we change the current culture where research is rare, and teaching is divorced from it, toward robustly integrating the two? Do we need a paradigm shift or is gradual change enough? I believe that research must be turned into the primary driving force behind the new semester system, especially as a means for making education more socially and professionally relevant. For that to happen, however, it is not enough for the government or national policy to pass down mandates, or even accrediting agencies and university administrations to specify outcomes. Instead universities must change their very “design” in terms of providing incentive and support for research. Let me explain with an example. 

Growing up in a village of farmers, I had heard from older folks that if you place salt at the entry and water at the exit of a path, cows passing along it would drink maximum water and accordingly increase the yield of milk the next day. As a curious teenager, I once did the opposite, and the result was less milk the next day. Design matters. If we put incentives in the wrong place, we humans also respond in unproductive ways. 

Here, if education is water, research is salt. Teachers and students and the public alike will be thirstier for creating and consuming new knowledge if university education is defined as and designed for putting, research first. 


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