G. MAHADEVAN

Achinakam in the Kuttanad area is a place that is crisscrossed by backwater canals. Yet there is a perennial shortage of drinking water in the area. In December 2009, the Mahatma Gandhi University launched a project for installing rainwater harvesting systems at Achinakam. At the heart of the scheme is finding appropriate technologies to suit the geographical and soil conditions of the area. “Even the job of erecting rainwater harvesting tanks proved to be a challenge because the area has loose soil. The structure would just sink in,” Dr. Gurukkal pointed out.

This scheme is typical of the new template that the varsity has fashioned for itself in order to bring about quality assurance in the higher education system in its neck of the woods. “When there is no gap between the learner and the subject, there is no alienation in the mind of the former,” was how Dr. Gurukkal described the concept behind this scheme. The Social Links Programme put in place by the varsity is a response to the long-understood fact that conventional higher education—not just in Kerala but across India—has proved to be of no use to the common people at large.

This is because higher learning encased itself in ivory towers, seldom deigning to address the needs of even those who lived cheek-by-jowl with university campuses. The programme aims at “disseminating the socially useful aspects of higher knowledge,” the varsity's concept note on the new quality assurance template notes. The scheme of the Kerala State Higher Education Council to give undergraduate courses a makeover, gave the MG University the perfect occasion to effect a revamp of its curricula. According to Dr. Gurukkal the varsity chose the participatory model of curriculum revision and roped in the services of experts in university departments and those in the affiliated colleges. Not wishing to reinvent wheels, the university procured curriculum models and course designs from universities of repute from around the world. The services of curriculum design expert N. J. Rao from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, was also sought by the varsity.

Knowing well that universities in Kerala aren't exactly famous for concerted, synchronized development activities, the varsity set up a core group for the coordinated implementation of various education schemes such as Edusat programmes, the Erudite programme, the scholar-in-residence programme and the short-term scholarship programme launched by the education department to enable students to work with eminent scholars at various institutions.

Another important component of the MG University's quality assurance template was the setting up of a Centre of Convergence. Such a centre was inevitable given that higher education world-wide is inter-disciplinary in nature and that leading universities have long ago realised that convergence is more about identifying areas that have hitherto belonged to no discipline than about gathering two or three established disciplines around one theme of study. At a more practical level, the varsity also realized that if it were to successfully implement an inter-disciplinary approach in the new choice-based semester system for degree courses the concept of convergence should be firmly established in its academic consciousness. The convergence initiatives of the university have attracted funding from the state government. If Rs.3 crore has gone to the Centre for Nano Science and Technology, a special grant of Rs.3 crore has been received by the School of Environment Sciences and Rs.2 crore by the School of Bio-sciences.

Perhaps as a logical extension to inter-disciplinary study, the varsity has also established a centre for innovative research and for the protection of Intellectual Property Rights. This centre has also been tasked with ensuring convergence of science, social sciences and humanities subjects. If the university is to make all these centres and their projects function well now and in the future, it needs the right kind of students / scholars who are intellectually and conceptually qualified for the same. The ‘Pick the Students Young' programme put in place by the university could stand it in good stead on this front. The scheme aims at recruiting the most brilliant of students after their Plus Two for an integrated five-year postgraduate course. A Master of Science programme has already been started.

Marketing a university and its courses to a global audience may be indispensible in these times. Dr. Gurukkal argues, however, that making a university answerable to the development goals of the society is a far more important imperative. “Politics of knowledge giving rise to critical consciousness, the socialisation of which enables people's participation in public policy debates is what I consider the top priority,” Dr. Gurukal pointed out.