Dr. Pankaj Mittal, Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities, has had a diverse career with meaningful stints in the National Board of Examination, the University Grants Commission, as VC of a rural university, and as a policymaker in education. Deepan Joshi caught up with Dr. Pankaj Mittal for this freewheeling and exclusive conversation for the cover interview of the University special issue of Education Post.
You have had a stellar career as a Fulbright Scholar with numerous achievements, including the President’s award for ‘Digital Initiatives in Higher education’ and perhaps many firsts as a female in academics. Could you to start with telling us about the challenges and the major highlights in your journey?
I come from a very simple background. My father was a school teacher and my mother was a homemaker. My father believed in simple living and high thinking. So that is what all of us in the family have been following throughout our life. I started my career as a Research Officer in the National Board of Examination. From there I shifted to the University Grants Commission as an Education Officer. In between I went as Vice-Chancellor of Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya, Khanpur Kalan in Haryana for about six years. I came back to UGC, and today I am in the Association of Universities (AIU) as the Secretary-General.
I have been working very hard with full dedication and perseverance but I did realise at many points that being a woman was a bigger challenge in many ways. And as a woman I had to work much harder than my male counterparts to achieve the same thing. Somehow there was a belief in society or maybe among the people who matter that she is a woman and she may not be able to deliver. But I tried to prove them wrong and I think I have been successful in doing so. The ratio of women in top positions is still very low whether in India or in Western countries. Women still have to work twice as hard globally to break the glass ceiling.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive roadblock for the accessibility of higher education. How have the Universities handled it and how has the challenge of making higher education accessible to low income families that have difficulty buying expensive laptops, smartphones, and having a stable internet connection been dealt with?
When the Covid pandemic struck and all the universities and colleges were closed initially, we thought that everything is lost and it will be a zero year and teaching won’t take place. But then slowly we realised that technology can be a saviour, and it was. The biggest problem was the capacity building of our teachers to teach online and the capacity building of our students to learn online. We were able to help as much as we could, and yes accessibility was a problem during the first harsh lockdown but academicians and students adapted well gradually. It is difficult in higher education to impart seamless online education to low-income families not just due to technology but also due to the space available at home for students as most of them do not have a quiet room for themselves.
As the office bearer responsible for the smooth functioning of all universities, how do you see the digital divide affecting higher education and what specific things should be done to make education more equitable and penetrating in a large country like India?
AIU is an association of more than 880 universities and works for promoting quality in higher education. When the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India due to COVID-19 in March, 2020, all the universities and colleges were closed and the students were sent back home. Initially, it was a rude shock to the students, but the system bounced back through online mode and most of the universities and colleges started offering their courses online. The teachers in no time equipped themselves with online education and took up the challenge of teaching-learning online. The AIU also held many workshops to train teachers for use of technology in teaching, in partnership with international agencies. However, the digital divide was visible as soon as the attempt to shift to online education was made. There were students and elite universities with adequate bandwidth, stable internet connection, devices, relevant software and trained manpower on one hand, and students who did not have access to even uninterrupted power supply, absence or unstable connectivity, no devices on the other. The digital divide affected the universities in the rural, backward, and hilly areas more than anyone else.
A lot of initiatives, both at the government and private level were taken to bridge the digital divide including enhanced investment on creating/augmenting digital infrastructure. Some of the organisations also started a scheme like ‘Donate a Device’ in which old mobiles and laptops were donated to help the needy students. However, many more initiatives are required to bridge this digital divide to provide affordable quality education to all. These include providing affordable access to digital resources, capacity building of teachers equipped with skills for teaching online, digital skill acquisition by the students, awareness campaigns to inform the general public, and especially awareness among the students about the importance of digital literacy, use of local language in teaching-learning and e-content development, creating learning pathways for learners with disabilities, and ensuring gender parity with regard to access to devices.
You have travelled the world and seen first-hand the functioning of universities in many countries. Given your experience what are the strengths and weaknesses of our higher education system and what are the areas that we should focus on in order to be a global leader in higher education?
Presently, India does not fair good in global ranking. In the latest QS Rankings, there were no Indian university in top 100, three in top 200, nine in top 500, and 23 in top 1,000. India has to have a more focused approach to figure in world rankings. The two primary areas due to which the Indian universities are not able to secure a place in global rankings are Research and Internationalisation. Although, the number of research papers published by India is good, the quality of research papers which is evident from Citation Index and H Index has to be improved considerably. There is a need to have more publications in Scopus Indexed Journals which count for the world ranking.
The presence of international faculty as well as international students on the campuses of the Indian universities has to be enhanced considerably to promote diversity on the campuses for which world-class infrastructure and facilities have to be created. The fact that about 8-10 lakh students go abroad to study in international universities from India whereas less than 50,000 students come to India from foreign countries speaks volumes about the disparity on this account. India has to work on many aspects to increase the inflow of foreign students on the campuses and have to take specific measures to engage international faculty. Fortunately, NEP 2020 promotes internationalization of higher education in a big way.
Your experience extends beyond academics to making policy changes that would benefit higher education. It would be great to know what long-term policies you think would be requisite for students getting the best-in-class higher education at affordable prices within India?
India is slowly emerging as a destination for affordable quality higher education. The National Education Policy (NEP) of India, released in 2020, is like a breath of fresh air. It endeavours to address the issue of providing quality education to students by improving access, flexibility, autonomy, the use of technology, innovation, and research. Its objective is to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills, attitude, and knowledge.
The policy emphasises on the creation of vibrant multidisciplinary environments for higher education institutions, with a focus on multiple entry and exit points and assessment methodologies that can effectively test students on critical thinking, communications, problem-solving, creativity, cultural literacy, open outlook and teamwork, as well as ethical reasoning, and social responsibility.
Innovative curriculum design, with a shift from informative curricula to transformative curricula, is recommended. In my opinion, the implementation of NEP 2020 in letter and spirit can be the major policy initiative to make India ‘Vishwaguru’ once again.
You have also worked on pay committee for teachers in Haryana and it would be good to know your thoughts on the pay scale of professors in higher education in order to attract and retain talent?
The pay scales of teachers in higher education are quite attractive with good career advancement facilities. However, if we wish to recruit and retain talent, we should be ready to pay for it at par with international standards. The quality international faculty recruitment in Indian campuses is possible only if our salaries match with the best in the world.
How would you rate Indian universities in terms of attracting and giving a great experience to foreign students? Do we have the faculty and the infrastructure that major foreign universities lay claim to?
Internationalization of higher education is very important in today’s globalized world as it promotes production of knowledge and its dissemination worldwide leading to enhanced international academic credibility. The internationalization can be in terms of cross-border students flow, faculty exchange, international collaboration in research, partnerships, semester exchange, joint/dual degrees et al. According to UNESCO sources (UIS 2018), more than 5 million students crossed national borders in 2017 to pursue higher education. Out of these, United States received more than 20% of the international students followed by UK with 11%, Australia with 9%, France with 7%, Germany with 6%, and Japan with 4%. The presence of international students in India is miniscule with only about 50,000 international students (1%) as compared to about 8-10 lakh who go abroad for studying in international universities.
If India wants to promote itself as a global destination for affordable quality higher education, it needs to create necessary infrastructure and mechanism at various levels to attract foreign students in India. These include creating a single authentic source of information of programmes offered in Indian universities, creating a database of inbound and outbound students, creating necessary infrastructure in terms of international hostels, creating an enabling environment in the university campuses, provision for part-time jobs in India after completion of academic programmes, internationalizing curriculum, easy credit transfer mechanisms, easing out visa rules, flexibility in admission cycles, multiple entry and exit routes.
If you talk about the academic disciplines, Yes Ph.D. is important for becoming a professor. But recently you must have seen that the University Grants Commission has come out with a circular called “Professor of Practice” and “Associate Professor of Practice” where the people from Industry can be appointed as Professors in Universities and even as Assistant Professor in University without having a Ph.D. degree. They will basically be for skill education. They will be teaching the skills to the students. So that is already allowed now. This is a recent development,
Last but not the least, colleges under DU and other top universities had a cut-off of 95-100% this year and it usually reflects the trend of previous years where you must score above 95% to get into an undergraduate government college of repute. This leaves students who might not be completely bookish but street smart and having say 85-90% as their merit in a subjective examination considering nationwide seats. What do you have to say about it with the recent development that a Common University Entrance Exam (CUET) would decide the fate of students instead of marks scored in 12th Standard?
I think you are being very modest when you say that the marks required are between 90-100%. At least seven to eight colleges in Delhi University had the cut-off pegged at 100% this year, which is absurd.
The Government of India has therefore taken this step to have the CUET initially for all Central Universities, which have already agreed to it. They have also invited deemed and private universities and if they want to be a part of it they are most welcome. Eventually, it will go to all the state universities. This will address many issues; one is this absurd obsession with the marks which is a stress for teachers as well as for students and parents. We do not have one board of secondary education in India, we have multiple. One is the Central Board of Secondary Education, the other one is National Institute of Open Schooling, and then there are many state boards and so the quality of education and the manner of assessment and evaluation done varies from Board to Board. And people are right to comment that students from some particular Board get admission because they have higher marks as the syllabus and the assessment system is lenient compared to some other Board.
All these issues will be addressed with the introduction of the CUET and students will not have to appear for multiple examinations. So with one examination all the students will be able to display what they really know and it will also able be a discouragement to all this mugging up and rote learning for admissions that had become the trend. I think it is a very welcome step and will lead to a diverse pool of students. This diversity is important in the campus.