I was on an official trip to the United States as part of the ‘International Visitor Leadership Programme’ (IVLP), last month. This gave me an opportunity to interact with the leading ‘Think tanks’ and ‘Universities and Academia’ in the US and this month I wish to use this space to share my experience with my fellow readers of Pallikkutam.

I was lucky enough to visit George Town University, George Washington University and George Mason University at Washington, Columbia University at New York, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, De Paul University at Chicago, University of Michigan at Michigan to name a few.

Most of them have the tradition of more than a century and known for their academic freedom, credibility and intellectual prowess. All of them are proud of their alumni who have served important positions in the world order. They are supported by endowments and philanthropic contributions in addition to the State funding (few of them) and industry support.

My experience in the US universities has been strikingly contrasting from my experience with the various universities across India. The first visiblephysical difference is the absence of a compound wall or a big arch that demarcates and separate these universities from the immediate neighborhood. They are beautiful architectures with mixed surroundings. I could see busy streets (they follow the traffic rules so that it is not so noisy as here) adjoining the university buildings lined up along with the restaurants, commercial offices and public parks. They are part of larger community of residents (not confined to the teaching and students fraternity but local residents also) without blocking their passages and movements. Universities are construed as the centres of academic excellence and free space for interactions and exchanges of knowledge and information with all the stake holders of the society both formal and informal ways.But here in India, we believe, the universities should be secluded. I don’t know whether this is to wade off the influences of the local community and the society on the students.It is openness and constant interactionsin US universities that make huge difference in knowledge creation and researchers excellence there.

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There  are strong motivating partners in industries and chambers of commerce and industries for most of the universities. They have formed healthy platforms for the industry and academia dialogues and enriching research collaborations. In Raleigh city, I had the opportunity to interact with Research Triangle International (RTI), an initiative to support and facilitate the academic brilliance of the universities around the town; North Carolina State University, Duke University and Chapel Hill University. The whole area has been developed to retain and harness the talent pool graduated out of these universities so that the different types of institutions (companies, think tanks, government bodies etc) set up their operations to absorb these talents. This increase the chances of the best talents remain to there and build their career thus boosting of the state economy. The presence of the universities around provides them with the ongoing linkages with the latest research and studies demanded by the emerging scenarios. One could observe how closely these different institutions work for the common good. In this context, it is not surprising that these universities are known for their excellence in academics and the United States is known for their scientific pursuits and their contribution to the betterment of the humanity.

I wonder what we could boast of about the university systems in Kerala. We are riddled with petty politics while academic brilliance is pushed to the back stage. Universities are plagued with the compartmentalization and lack of vision. Our universities have turned out to be hubs for awarding degree certificates. Most of the times, they waste their resources for the overly politicized senate meetings and their approvals. What we require is open and competitive atmosphere that would in turn attract the best talents at least from around the country to join university education.

Universities are burdened with conduct of the examination and affiliation business and they have little time for the intellectual pursuit that is the responsibility of them. Somehow, the entrenched believes like the universities to be funded by the state and no one else (we are suspicious about the private funds for their motives and agenda) is to be given way to accountable and honest interaction with everyone in the society.

Think about the initiatives like Start Up Village and Infopark in Kochi . We have not seen much from the universities (and colleges around Kochi) to interact on a regular basis and build knowledge society around Kochi. How many of these colleges have engagements with the companies in Infopark or Start Up village and vice versa. One has to ponder over why this is not happening or not been encouraged. We need to build institutions of excellence first. In this case, we should start with the academic institutions. Then we should do away with the old clichéd aversion to have industry –commerce- education linkages. The local governments should harness the expertise of these colleges to improve their governance, service delivery systems and brand building. The colleges should demolish the barriers of the entry to broadcast the knowledge created by them on day to day basis. They should promote the interactions with the local communities and leaders in commerce, industry, finance and technology. The faculty and student fraternity should be flag bearers of the urban development and rural innovation in the area so as to brand the entire eco system legitimized on the vibrant and intellectual summits contributed to everybody around the place. In my  view, Kerala (the whole state) could be tipped for global centres for academic excellence and innovation since we have already achieved the basic human development indices. If this is to happen, we should be open to ideas and ready to accept the freedom for academic brilliance.

Tail end: How come Google became so popular and impertinent in a few years time? The answer lies in the restricted knowledge sharing practices that universities followed or the constraints they have had in the past. They believed in information hiding and restricted access to information, but Google does information sharing and limitless access to information. Google is now an inevitable element in our everyday lives, and, I am sure, universities are not!

* The Author is the Chairman of CPPR. His views are personal and does not represent the views of the organisation

Dr D Dhanuraj
Dr D Dhanuraj
Dr D Dhanuraj is the Chairman and Managing Trustee of CPPR. He holds a PhD in Science & Humanities from Anna University. He works in the areas of urbanisation, education, health, livelihood and law. He can be contacted by email at dhanu@cppr.in or on Twitter @dhanuraj

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