Highly literate Kerala has not made much headway in higher education. All that is changing under the stewardship of the Kerala State Higher Education Council.

Higher education seems to be witnessing a revamp in the State thanks to a series of steps introduced in the sector since 2006.

From evolving programmes to provide equitable higher education opportunities to addressing the twin issues of access and excellence, the State government has been able to coordinate effectively various stakeholders in the field.

Mahatma Gandhi University offered a platform for the representatives of the higher education sector in the State to join hands and discuss the new initiatives at a conclave held on the campus on September 15 and 16. Renowned academics from across the State debated various issues concerning the sector, and called for strengthening the ongoing programmes to achieve excellence in the field.

Elaborating on the highlights of the two-day conclave, Rajan Gurukkal, Vice-Chancellor of the university, who coordinated the programme, told The Hindu-EducationPlus that the conclave observed that new initiatives were based on the tacit recognition of the fact that economic backwardness and low academic quality were inseparable.

“Addressing the socio-economic causal links of the problem of low gross enrolment rate (GER) of the youth in the State's higher education sector, though it is much higher than the national average, the Ministry of Education had floated a number of merit scholarships for students of backward families. The Higher Education Scholarship Fund, the Suvarna Jubilee Merit Scholarship Scheme and the Muslim Girls Scholarship Scheme are examples of the initiatives in this regard.

A notable new initiative for enhancing GER has been the scheme for expanding educational opportunities in backward areas through the opening of applied colleges, polytechnics and model colleges,” Dr. Gurukkal said.

Speakers at the conclave said the new initiatives began with the constitution of the State Higher Education Council under the vice-chairmanship of the renowned academic K.N. Panikkar.

They pointed out that the council had introduced a series of academic reforms such as the semester system in the undergraduate stream through the choice-based course-and-credit system, cluster of colleges and adoption of a variety of strategies ensuring excellence in higher education.

Expressing optimism that the initiatives launched by the council during the past four years would sow the seeds of a strong foundation for higher education in Kerala, Dr. Panikkar, who reviewed the new initiatives in higher education at the conclave, urged the universities to enhance cooperation by sharing resources in specialised fields.

Collective work

Pointing out that universities should depart from existing norms to accommodate the scope for a collective development in the field of higher education, Dr. Panikkar said the key to improving the quality of higher education was to evolve a system that would release the creative energy of students by ensuring their academic freedom.

Explaining that the council had undertaken a major programme to restructure undergraduate programmes, Dr. Panikkar said the courses introduced under the choice-based credit-and-semester system would familiarise students with disciplines other than their field of specialisation.

He said that the purpose of such exposure to various disciplines was to equip students to undertake interdisciplinary study and research later on.

Dr. Panikkar said the successful implementation of the scheme by the universities in the State had given the confidence to take further steps to push higher education in the State to compete with the best in the field.

Listing out the series of new initiatives undertaken by the council, Thomas Joseph, Member Secretary of the council, said the key programmes included the restructuring of undergraduate education, the formulation of a State higher education policy, a scholarship scheme, cluster of colleges, the Erudite scheme and the formulation of a databank on higher education.

Prof. Joseph said the choice-based credit-and-semester system was implemented in colleges affiliated to Mahatma Gandhi, Sanskrit, Calicut and Kannur Universities from 2009-10.

The University of Kerala implemented it in 2010-11.

“Apart from developing the conceptual framework, the council has provided training to the teachers and extended financial assistance to colleges and universities for the implementation of the scheme. Restructuring undergraduate education has achieved a big success.

A manual on grading at the undergraduate level and a manual for grading in undergraduate courses and additional guidelines for common/methodology courses have been published by the higher education council in this connection. The council has also appointed committees for making recommendations on follow-up reforms in examinations and in postgraduate education,” he said.

The objective of the Higher Education Scholarship Scheme, which was launched on January 3, 2010, is to provide attractive merit-cum-means scholarships to the needy students.

As part of this mission, nearly 1,000 general scholarships would be awarded to regular students pursuing the study of sciences, social sciences, business studies and Humanities through full-time aided courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in government and aided colleges and departments and institutions under the universities in the State in 2010-11.

The Erudite programme also earned appreciation from various quarters. A scholar-in-residence programme, the initiative was implemented by the council in association with the universities. Under the scheme, Nobel laureates and scholars of similar stature would stay on the campuses and interact with teachers and students.

The government had sanctioned Rs.7 crore for implementation of the programme. Thirty-six scholars, including seven Nobel laureates, had already visited various universities.

Prospects

Listing the academic initiatives of Kannur University, Michael Tharakan, Vice-Chancellor, told the participants that the university had gone ahead turning all problems into prospects of development using the various schemes under the new initiatives despite facing an acute manpower shortage and geographically contingent limitations.

Ramachandran Thekkedath, Vice-Chancellor of Cochin University of Science and Technology, said that the university could make considerable progress by undertaking the various new schemes.

Reviewing the other major initiatives, Dr. Gurukkal said the establishment of inter-university centres as common resource centres of excellence in specialised areas of convergence at select universities for open access, academic interaction and collaboration was another major new initiative towards promotion of advanced interdisciplinary teaching, research and extension.

The government had introduced nine such centres in the State, including the one for biotechnology at Kannur University, plant physiology at the University of Calicut, nano-science and nano-technology at Cusat, bioinformatics at the University of Kerala, and biomedical research, sustainable development, disability studies and social sciences research and extension in Mahatma Gandhi University.

Motivation

The other initiatives included a programme for faculty motivation, new scholarships such as ‘Inculcate,' ‘Nurture' and ‘Inspire' for fostering excellence in science; ‘Acquire' for encouraging interest in social science and ‘Thanma' for promoting literary skills, besides special incentives for developing talent in sports and creative arts. Dr. Gurukkal said that the main objective of ‘Acquire' is to evolve strategies for motivation development among students in learning social science. It involves designing appropriate programmes for nurturing inquisitiveness and developing aptitude to know social science.

‘Refresh', a faculty training programme that aims to provide advanced, training to faculty of Engineering colleges and Polytechnics, is a significant move towards quality assurance in teaching. For enhancing quality of science learning, the new initiatives included the establishment of a science exploratorium, C.V. Raman Centre for Basic Astronomy and the Sarabhai Space Gallery.

Technical education

The conclave also reviewed the technical education field in the State. It was observed that the scheme of visiting faculty academic interaction for motivation and the advanced training programme for engineering faculty contributed to the overall development of the area.

Speakers also lauded the focus on studies in renewable energy, as a brilliant alternative, under the model polytechnic scheme evolved by the government.

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