Reinventing the University

S ANANTHANARAYANAN discusses how this institution of learning is changing from the inside as well as the outside:

S ANANTHANARAYANAN holds an MSc in Physics and qualifications in IT, Public Admin and Law. He is also winner of an award from the Government of India for science communication. He is pictured here as he travels today (28 Oct 2014) on a coach from Oxford to Gatwick on his return journey to India via Copenhagen.

Scholarship only
Early universities, whether at Nalanda in India or the monasteries of 11th century Europe, were devoted exclusively to scholarship. It was only in the 1800s that these educational institutions followed the lead of England and Germany to give equal importance to scientific research. This change represented a stamp of approval of experiment and enquiry, till then an activity of tradesmen or mavericks whose discoveries entered universities only after they were regarded as classical learning.

Further missions
“But in the past few decades,” says a review in the journal Nature, “universities around the world have begun to take on further missions. Today, they are supposed to be not only centres of education and discovery but also engines of economic growth, beacons of social justice.”

The review then examines changes and innovations in the USA, China, South Korea, the UK and South Africa, of partnering with industry or commercialising research, to changing methods of administration and motivation and also overturning methods of instruction and delivery.

Funding by the industry
Funding of research or related facilities by the industry has been a practice for some decades. Academics now routinely patent discoveries and universities formally connect faculty and students with companies through technology transfer, industrial partnerships, internships and mentoring. Going a step further, industry in the USA has started stationing its staff right within the research lab. This removes the physical separation between the market and academia and makes for a relationship where each inspires the other and promotes shared excitement in solving problems.

Challenges of co-location
Co-location presents challenges, of course, say Jana J Watson-Capps and Thomas R Cech of Bio-c-Frontiers, a start-up at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. The first is the difference in motivation, academic or commercial. This demands that the rules be clear, that there are goals to be attained, but without impeding the course of research. Funding of the joint work needs to be from sources other than research funds, like rent from the co-located company or grants. Conflicts, including the ownership of IPR, need to be addressed and also evaluation of students by academic standards despite the proximity of other beneficiaries.

Co-location goes further than bringing research and industry together, it connects the university to the community and involves the academic view in daily matters, as well as engaging the lay public in matters academic, which people too often choose to ignore.

Chinese three-step
Jie Zhang, academician and associate of the Chinese and US National Academies of Sciences and president of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, describes China’s concern to enable universities sustain the economic growth of the last few decades. Investment has increased and China’s expenditure on research and development in 2012 was over $160 billion and over $100 billion on education. The R&D expenditure in India, in contrast, was $40 billion in 2012, rising to $44 billion in 2014.The education budget was below $10 billion dollars in 2012.

The number of full-time researchers in China increased by 38 per cent from 2005 to 2012, of published articles by 54 per cent and the patents awarded increased eightfold in the same period. But the quality of research, Jie Zhang says, as judged by how often Chinese papers are cited, has not kept pace. In 2007, Shanghai Jiao Tong University hence embarked on an improvement drive, through high quality recruitment, recognition and incentives. World-class scientists were hired to work at the cutting edge and to set a high bar.

New junior researchers were competitively selected and their progress carefully evaluated. Attractive salary, incentive and career paths were devised and schools were given autonomy, finally arriving at a performance-based tenure regime similar to that of the leading US universities. And for existing academics who do not fit into the new system, there is a fair exit scheme, which makes the change acceptable. The measures taken have brought the university within top ranks worldwide and both patent publications and citations are growing.  The measures have prompted a shift in educational emphasis and a culture that values and rewards innovation has taken root, he says.

The German experience
Chemist Worfgang Hermann, president of the Technical University of Munich since 1995, has succeeded in changing the archaic, hidebound bureaucratic legacy since the 1960s and turning the university into a model of creativity, freedom and flexibility, writes Alison Abbott in the Nature review. Hermann replaced the control of the government education ministry with a board of trustees, she says, and restructured the institution on the lines of MIT in the USA. He brought in rigorous and uniform coursework for PhD candidates so that a graduate school could maintain a standard. The freedom to raise funds as an “entrepreneurial university” was a revolutionary change, in keeping with the changed role of modern universities.

While there was resistance to the changes, the results — soaring scholarly output and sumptuous funding — have put an end to all of it. “This new culture is now ingrained,” says Hermann. “The next generation of leadership will continue in this vein.”

Korea — flipped classroom
Tae Eog Lee, who heads the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology University at Daejeon, South Korea, has actually suspended the practice of teaching by lecture, says writer Mark Zastrow. In the “flipped classroom”, as Lee describes his new method, students do not sit through lectures but watch on-line lessons at home and come to class to discuss concepts and work on problems in groups. Teaching staff supervise and support, but the learning is by the students themselves. Lee says this way encourages creativity, teamwork and curiosity, all of which is suppressed by a one-way lecture, or even, as many believe, by Korea’s hierarchical society itself.

Other institutes in Korea have tried the concept before, but Lee, in just two years, has taken the lead in the movement and 60 classes are now “flipped” at Kaist. He hopes to raise the number to 800, or 30 per cent of all classes in the next three years. The bulk of the students exposed report a better understanding of subjects taught this way and also higher motivation and concentration. While there are doubters, Gerard Postiglione, who studies Asian higher education in Hong Kong, says universities in Asia are watching to see how the Kaist initiative, now the second best in Asia, progresses. Some have already followed suit, including the prestigious Seoul National University.

UK goes on-line
Elizabeth Gibney reports that Mike Sharples, at the Open University at Milton Keynes, UK, is overtaking the wave of Massive On-line Courses (Moocs), recorded lectures from US universities that thousands of students could follow on the Internet for free. Sharples follows the thinking of the late Gordon Pask, a British educational psychologist who believed that students built up knowledge through mutual interactions. He redesigned the Moocs with social engagement at the centre of the learning process. The courses allow discussion on every single element of the content, with the devices of “like” and “follow” of social networks, and learning can take the intensity of on-line games. “It seems obvious in retrospect that people would want to talk about their learning, but it wasn’t obvious a year ago,” says Sharples.

The new Moocs have better figures of the proportion of students who complete the courses they join. Although the enrolment is still less than that of Stanford and a provider at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the leaders grant that Sharples’ method, which uses student feedback to improve the interaction in the platform, is “evolving at a torrid pace”.

Social transformation
South Africa has changed how education is delivered to undo the effects of earlier practices like apartheid. Linda Nordling reports that the University of Cape Town programme helps disadvantaged children, mostly non-white, to acquire skills that their wealthier contemporaries take for granted. This includes help in language, counselling to develop better study habits, foundation courses in subject areas as well as field visits, like aquariums or the fossil park, science-related experiences that students may have missed while growing up. To provide time for extra activities, the UCT has an optional four-year programme to complete the three-year Bachelor’s degree programme. Students join all together, but opt, after six weeks, to join the normal three-year course or the extended four years.

The progress is still slow, with the proportion of black children who join university or complete the course being well below that of white students. But there are successes, like Mokete Koago, who hopes to join for a Master’s degree in oceanography next year. “When my parents came down for my graduation, it was the first time in their lives that they saw the sea,” he says.

First published in The Statesman, 22 October 2014




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